When I was in grade 5, I wrote a poem as part of a class assignment. Little did I know, my homeroom teacher entered it into a contest. And I won. The poem was called “My Big Toe”.
My big toe sure doesn’t look like snow.
Why it’s there, I really don’t know.
It went on for a painful two pages, and it nicely shows why I didn’t become a poet. Still, the prize I won for was for a gift certificate from a local bookstore. Mom and I bounced off to the mall to peruse the shelves and pick out my prize.
“Anne of Green Gables”, my mother pulled out a book with a big grin her face.
“Nah,” I said, flipping through a book about toads.
“Mary Poppins,” mom said, holding out a nice hardcover edition.
“Already read it at the library,” I said, glazing over an indecipherable book on astronomy.
“Little Women? Black Beauty? You really need to read the classics,” she said.
“I dunno, I want something different...” The book of chemistry experiments looked too complicated, and I put it back on the shelf.
“The Tinman of Oz,” she said. I hesitated, and glanced at the cover.
“I already have that one...ooh! Wait.” I saw my prize. Hardcover, black background with a coloured overlay of plants, animals, a creepy looking insect, and rockets. I flipped through it. It was perfect.
“Oh no, that looks dull,” mom said. “You really should get Anne of Green Gables. It’s a wonderful book.”
“I want this one.” It was a book, now long out of print, called Tell Me Why. It was a question and answer book about science and had stuff about lightening, insects, cats and famous inventors. It was about everything, and I liked that. That’s the book we went home with.
Flash forward about 17 years. At the age of 27 I landed a column on the kid’s page at the Toronto Star. It was called Ask Pippa – a question and answer column about science. It was about all sorts of stuff, and the column ran for 20 years.
I wouldn’t say Tell Me Why was the cause of me getting into the question answering biz. I look back at it now and find the answers in it a bit fluffy – not the way I’d answer them. In fact, even back then I would’ve liked a bit more depth. I try to get at what I call the “essence” of what the science is about in words kids can understand – not skirt around it. And it’s a tricky thing to do, while also keeping to a very short word length.
I figure if kids ask real questions, they deserve real answers.
In grade 6 I won another gift certificate. Much to mom’s dismay, the book I selected was Tell Me Why, Part 2.