Writing about science for kids
Published: April 17, 2002
|Capture young readers' attention with a sense of wonder and fascinating facts|
Whether he was writing about the mysteries of the cosmos or the enigmas of the human brain, Carl Sagan made science a wonder and wonderfully easy to understand. He knew that when it comes to the nonscientists among us, we are, in a sense, all children. If you are writing about science for children, you can find no better inspiration than this famous astronomer. He understood that the best scientists never lose their childlike sense of wonder.
The mysteries of scientific exploration and its special jargon are often baffling to laymen. We must have things explained to us, with clarity and without condescension, almost as if we are children or aliens from another galaxy, setting foot on Earth for the first time.
Certainly, we live in a scientific age, and ideas and principles that once were the sole province of the educated strata of society clergymen, physicians, scientists and educators have now trickled down to the masses. Today, many children are very sophisticated about science. Last winter, I presented my 5-year-old cousin Sloane with a windup toy dinosaur. "Oh," she said, examining it briefly before setting it aside, "stegosaurus." And she was right.
The average schoolchild today knows things about science that even Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton or Louis Pasteur didn't know. A typical kid of the 21st century knows more about the germ theory of disease and preventing infection than did a Civil War surgeon amputating legs during the battle of Gettysburg. Many a time I have wondered what a difference the simple admonition "Wash your hands!" or a small vial of sulfa powder could have made to ease suffering and prevent needless deaths throughout history.
What would it be like to go back in time with a bottle of antibiotic pills, and perhaps save the life of President Garfield, dying a very slow and painful death after being felled by an assassin's bullet? Or to travel back to the 1860s with modern medicine that might have saved President Lincoln's 12-year-old son Willie, who died in the White House of what was thought to have been typhoid. Today, there are no living Abraham Lincoln descendants, though one of his sons, Robert, lived until l926. Science might have changed all that.
This sort of imaginative conjecture comes as naturally to me as breathing, and it comes into play whenever I write about science for kids. If science at times seems as remote to children's present-day lives as Alpha Cen-tauri, then take them on a flight of fancy. Bring their everyday existence into the world of science. Encourage them to imagine "What if?" Give them something familiar they can relate to, and use this as a pathway to the unknown. Write about something they know, and then relate it to an idea in science with which they may be less familiar. Ask them to imagine a world before a particular scientific discovery that we take for granted such as the airplane or computer chip was made.
Why is the study of dinosaurs so appealing to children? Because, unlike atoms, you can see them with the naked eye. They are monsters that don't move, that, ferociously posed, "threaten" to eat children but never actually do. Like roller coasters, they are a "safe danger." They give children a sense of mastery over their world. In a sense, children are able to dominate the dinosaurs by walking by their massive skeletons, reading and learning about them, but never being eaten by them. "Dinosaurs" are really an everyday experience for children kids are small creatures who live in a world of scary giants (adults). By learning to overcome their fear of dinosaurs, children gain a sense of their place and power in the world.
For example, as a child, I was so terrified of dinosaurs, my parents had to lead me through the dinosaur skeleton display rooms at New York City's American Museum of Natural History with my eyes shut. It wasn't until I was 8 and visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., that I opened my eyes long enough to look at a giant stuffed elephant in the lobby. From then on, I've been able to look at dinosaurs. I even write about them now perhaps evidence of an ongoing effort to master my fears. For, truth be told, I am still afraid of walking through dinosaur exhibits by myself in the dark, as if the scary beasts could suddenly awaken from suspended animation at any time and attack me.
|This fear of mine became the basis of one of my short stories, "Serenade," which has been published in numerous children's magazines. It is about a boy, the son of a museum employee, who wanders the halls of the creepy natural history museum alone at night and finds fossil dinosaur eggs that crack, hatching out baby, horn-tooting dinosaurs. He goes for help but when he returns with his dad, the baby dinos are gone. Or, are they?|
This story may be fantasy, but it contains plenty of fact. The information about dinosaurs in the story is accurate, and was checked by renowned paleontologist Robert T. Bakker, whose book The Dinosaur Heresies and theories about warm-blooded, horn-tooting dinosaurs caught my interest.
I have written about dinosaurs for children's publications such as Ranger Rick, Cricket and Australia's The School Magazine. Some of these stories were nonfiction, and some a combination of fact and fantasy. But all of them have been as scientifically accurate as I can make them. I often have a scientist review the manuscript for accuracy before it is submitted or published.
Which brings me to one of the most important points you need to remember when writing about science for children. Always be sure your scientific foundation is accurate. If you do your job right, even if you are writing fiction, children will be able to tell which parts of the story are based on fact and which are imagined.
Also keep in mind that children like stories. Tell them stories from your own life or quote from stories others have written, as a way of capturing their attention and easing them into and personalizing the scientific material.
You can use interesting original quotations from scientists, as when the taciturn aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright was asked to give a speech and his entire oration was: "I know of only one bird, the parrot, that talks, and he can't fly very high."
Sometimes I tell the stories of scientists, providing anecdotes and ironies. I tell of their struggles, and give surprising glimpses of their lives, as when I wrote about the time the Wright brothers invited the press to watch a demonstration of their experimental plane (they knew it would work) and intentionally crashed it to put their competitors off the scent. I also wrote about how Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon a square of fabric from the Wrights' original airplane.
Often, I combine the personal with the objective. For example, in writing about the Titanic, I quoted an old song my brother used to sing to me when I was a child: "Oh, it was sad! It was sad! It was sad when the great ship went down ... to the bottom of the sea ... Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives. Oh, it was sad when the great ship went down!" And I wrote about the old, yellowing newspaper stuck in the bathroom window of the railroad station in the small town where I grew up. Its 1912 headline reported the sinking of the Titanic and the tragic loss of life.
|From there, I discussed Robert Ballard's 1985 rediscovery and exploration of the Titanic via his Argo, a remote-controlled device that can be dragged along the ocean floor, using optical fiber technology to transmit "live" video images. I included some of Ballard's profound emotions on finding the Titanic at last and his solemn prayers for those souls lost on it, and what we know about why the ship sank.|
History is always changing, as is science, and one must keep up-to-date. When I was in the midst of writing about the Titanic, the ship was found, and I had to rewrite my article. Even the theory about what sank the ship had changed (pockmarked damage to the ship's hull plates, with rivets sheared off as the "berg" grazed by rather than one, long gash inflicted by the ice).
Most of my articles or books begin with a story, anecdote or "scene" out of life or history. In writing about crocodiles for my science book Monster Myths: The Truth About Water Monsters, I told the story of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Hook is "chased" by a murderous, man-eating croc-odile that goes after him much the way Moby Dick went after Captain Ahab with single-minded devotion. The croc had swallowed a clock, and whenever Hook heard the ominous sound of a ticking clock getting nearer and nearer, he knew the croc was after him again, and he would run for his life.
Why do I tell this story in my book? Because tales like this may already be familiar to children, so they give them a point of reference. The story illustrates myths, beliefs and characteristics concerning crocodiles that can lead into scientific discussion. I simply separate fact from fiction, explaining which supposedly crocodile characteristics are true (crocs' stealth in hunting prey) and which aren't (chronically singling out a favorite victim, like Captain Hook, for special disfavor).
In Monster Myths, I also write about the octopus craze that hit Paris in the wake of Victor Hugo's popular novel Toilers of the Sea, and how piranhas got an undeserved reputation for being finger-chomping monsters that can turn a man into a skeleton in five minutes. This myth came about largely because of a lurid book President Teddy Roosevelt wrote after a trip to the Amazon; in it, he mentioned "the most ferocious fish in the world the piranha or cannibal fish that eats men when it can get the chance." I tell these stories properly attributed to their authors, of course because they often provide juicy quotes that children love.
Combining scientific information and entertaining storytelling makes science writing fun and rewarding. In addition to my advice that you always check your facts and tell compelling stories, here are more tips for bringing youngsters into the world of science.
|When writing about unfamiliar things, such as scientific ideas that kids may not know, compare them to what they already know. Think of things that are common to most children's everyday experience, and use analogies. For an article on dinosaur extinction, I compared the fiery, explosive cosmic event of a giant asteroid's collision with the Earth (which some theorize led to the dinos' demise) with something most kids know far more about: a scene out of Star Wars.|
Compare large numbers to something more easily understood. For example, saying a blue whale weighs an average of 120 tons may not compute, but if you say it weighs about as much as 96 Honda Accords, or that the whale's heart alone can weigh as much as a Volkswagen "bug," it registers.
When choosing topics to write about, choose what interests you, because then you will write about it with passion.
Never shy away from a science topic because you think it is too complex or sophisticated to explain to children. There is always a way to make complicated topics easier to understand. Even string theory, human genome research or neuroscience can be at your readers' level.
The converse is also true. Never shy away from a topic because it seems too simple. Often, the simplest questions, like why is the sky blue, can make for the most interesting articles. I recently wrote an article for children about the science of belly buttons, which will be published by The School Magazine. This is a far more complex subject than meets the eye. It turned out that topics such as human gestation, stem cell research, religion, theoretical phy-sics and many other subjects came into play when I was writing about belly buttons.
Even science fiction or science fantasy should be scientifically accurate in its details. If you are not a scientist, or what you're writing about is outside your area of expertise, consult a scientist in that field and have your work checked for accuracy before you submit it to publishers. Consider quoting scientists in your book.
It almost goes without saying: Do thorough scientific research. The Internet can give you a good head start, provided you make sure the Web sites you use are written by recognized authorities in their field. Most universities have Web sites with faculty e-mail addresses. Many universities have lists of experts you can consult. Teachers and other scientific experts are usually happy to answer a quick, concise question or two by e-mail.
Your local zoo or aquarium's Web site also can put you in touch with helpful scientists. And don't forget about your friends who are scientists. How much research is enough? You should do just enough to make sure there are no errors in your work. You don't need to be an authority on an entire scientific field to write an article about one aspect of it.
Don't shy away from using scientific terms where necessary, but don't get too bogged down in defining terms. Try to make your meaning clear from the context. If, for example, you write—"When geologists examine rocks from 65 million years ago, they find ... "—you don't need to define "geologist," you've made this clear from the words surrounding it.
You don't need to be a scientist to write about science for kids or adults; you just need a sense of curiosity, an ability to explain things simply, entertainingly and clearly, and good research skills. Being a scientist can even be a handicap, as it may be hard for an expert to put herself in a "beginner's mind."
The key to teaching somebody a new skill or piece of information is to try to remember what it was like to know almost nothing about it—which is not easy to do once you're an expert. But just as important, never write down to children.
Choose a topic nobody else is writing about. Provide ideas for safe experiments that children can try at home, when appropriate. And test your article out on children of the appropriate age to make sure they can understand it.
Good luck, earthlings! #