18 Sep 2015

Dispatches from the Peanut Gallery

By Claire Eamer

I wrote the original version of this post a year or so ago for the Canadian Science Writers' Association's blog, currently offline. I thought it might interest readers of this blog as well. - CE

Respectable science writer and audience. Rick Massie photo

Do you remember the first science book you read? It probably wasn’t a heavy tome about a vital scientific issue of the day, or even a romp through the dusty corners and characters of archaeology. I’ll bet it was a book about dinosaurs, or insects, or stinky anatomical functions.

And I bet you didn’t think of it as a science book. You just thought, “Dinosaurs!” Or, “Bugs!” Or, happily, “Ew, gross!” (When you’re a kid, the exclamation points are part of the experience.)

Kids aren’t drawn to abstract terms like biodiversity or evolution or even chemistry or physics. Their taste is specific and concrete. It’s the joy of reading about giant monsters that actually lived – and knowing more about them than their parents do. Or the squirmy delight of tiny, six-legged alien life forms that live among us. And stinky, messy, disgusting anatomical functions – well, what kid doesn’t love those?

Some of us respectable grown-up science writers spend a lot of time thinking about the same things. We write about science for kids – from toddlers to teenagers.

And we don’t get no respect.

No Respect?

Okay, I’ll grant you that might be a bit of an overstatement. However, it’s true that science writing for kids can be a hard sell, whether it’s to teachers and librarians, parents, or to other science writers. School reading lists tend to be dominated by fiction – as do book reviews, literary awards, granting-agency qualifications, and kidlit festivals. Science-writing conferences and the like are dominated by books, magazines, and blogs for adults.

The easiest audience is the kids themselves. They are generally fascinated by how things work, what they’re made of, and why they’re the way they are – all the questions that scientists ask every day. At the age I usually write for (8 to 12 years), they aren’t slotting knowledge into categories and dismissing the categories they don’t think they should be interested in. They just want to KNOW STUFF – everything from poop (very popular in the middle grade set) to astronauts (almost as popular).

And it’s important to offer them stuff to learn about and to know. If you want knowledgeable adults, willing to learn new things and consider new ideas, you’ve got to start ‘em young. Which is why what kids’ science writers do is important.


Enough with the whining!

Yeah yeah – I hear you. If we’re so hard-done-by, why do we do it? Well, actually we like it – a lot. And that keeps us coming back.

Kids’ science writers get to embrace their inner child. Mine is about 10 years old, a bit grubby, likes old jeans, grasshoppers, dragonflies, tidepool critters, and wading in sloughs right to the tops of her rubber boots. The reasonably respectable grey-haired lady is just a clever disguise.

When I write my kids’ books, I’m usually writing for that inner child who still has all the enthusiasm I brought to reading and knowledge decades ago. Writing for that kid has some constraints, but they’re constraints that it doesn’t hurt to think about when you’re writing for grown-ups too.

For example, always remember who you’re talking to. Simple, colourful language is good – for kids and adults. Leave the scientific language to the scientists whenever possible. What adds precision to a scientific paper often obscures the information for the non-scientist or, especially, the kid.

Keep things concrete. I’ll bet every kids’ science writer has had the experience of wandering distractedly around the house, tape measure in hand, looking for a common object that is exactly the same length as a Galapagos tortoise, a hummingbird, or Galileo’s first telescope.

And what about big things? Even adults don’t always grasp how big is Big. For example, Bullockornis planei, the giant flightless goose of ancient Australia, was about 2.5 metres tall. Are you more impressed if I tell you it was tall enough to stand beside a single-storey house and pluck shingles off the roof?

(That, of course, leaves aside the issue of whether you have ever heard of Bullockornis planei. I hadn’t, until I started researching Spiked Scorpions & Walking Whales and discovered the Demon Duck of Doom. Look it up. Trust me!)

Oh, yeah. Another good rule for kids’ science writing is keep it short. And this post is already too long. So I’ll stop.

1 comment:

Paula said...

Having met several combative ducks and geese when I lived on a farm, I have no interest in time-travelling to tangle with a Demon Duck of Doom! :)