Pathways to Science Writing for Kids

The following is part two in a series of blogs from Capital City Press Featured Writer Joan Marie Galat. You can read part one called Satisfy Your Curiosity with Children's Non-Fiction.

As well as writing books for children and adults, I’m a freelance writer and editor. Every day is different. One day may see me polishing museum panel text or editing a report. The next might involve teaching communication skills in a corporate setting. The variety gives me to the opportunity to explore different writing styles.

Freelancing also allows time to satisfy my own curiosity. One such job involved writing a magazine article for the Canadian Children’s Book News, opens a new window. My task was to lead an email discussion with several of Canada’s science writers for children. Writing the article would be a chance to compare notes with colleagues.

Secretly, I wanted to find out whether “my normal” was mine alone. I suspected we were all once the children who always asked “why?” As adults, however, we found a niche—complete with excuses to ask nosy questions, contact world-renown experts, and play with words. The following is an excerpt from the article, posted here with permission from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. You’ll see I found some commonalities to “my normal.”

Writing Science for Young Readers

(Meet the authors in part one)

What events from your childhood indicated you might become a science writer?

Cora Lee: Whenever I couldn’t understand something, it always helped to rewrite it in a way that made sense to me.

Claire Eamer:
I was fascinated by a lot of topics, many scientific, and read my way through the non-fiction shelves of the Saskatoon Public Library's children's department, topic by topic. I took English in university—more to keep reading than to pursue any particular career. Now, writing about what I want to read makes sense.

Etta Kaner: I don't think any childhood events indicated I might become a science writer although I did spend a lot of time crafting descriptive writing—looking for the perfect word to describe a scene or person. I've always loved nature and been curious. In grade three, I remember being nicknamed "the question box" because I was always asking questions.

Jacob Berkowitz: I’ve always loved both science and telling stories. In both high school and university I took a dogs breakfast of both science and arts courses.

Joan Marie Galat: The nonfiction books I owned as a child helped trigger my scientific interests, which led me to volunteer at the John Janzen Nature Centre. At age 12, I entered a writing contest and received an honourable mention. A newspaper invited me to submit and I became a columnist at age 12, writing a weekly question and answer bird column.

What is the hardest part about writing science for kids?

Cora Lee: I wish I could put in more detail. It’s hard to let go of the precise wording scientists use. They use long sentences for good reason! What makes it to the final copy just scratches the surface of the real science.

Claire Eamer: The hardest part is having to leave stuff out of the final book. I hate picking and choosing which bits to include because I find it all fascinating and am sure kids will too. Unfortunately, my publisher (probably quite rightly) seems to think a 400-page science book for kids a touch impractical!

Etta Kaner: The hardest thing is to be accurate in explanations and yet make them simple enough for a kid to understand. I often ask the expert I originally interviewed to vet my explanation to ensure I haven't misrepresented something.

Jacob Berkowitz: You have to actually understand the science! Writing for kids is often harder than writing for adults because kids have a lower “big word, big idea—BS threshold.” All the key elements of good science writing—metaphor, analogy and concrete examples—are doubly important in writing for kids.

Joan Marie Galat: When you’re fascinated by a topic, it is difficult to stop writing. Word counts are limited in books for children. I’ve had to leave out great bits of trivia, such as “Pluto’s atmosphere gets so cold it freezes and falls to the ground.”

Is there anything you would like to add?

Cora Lee: Science literacy is becoming more of an issue with so much ‘new’ science unfolding on top of all the ‘old’ science we haven’t finished learning yet. Science books that really work can only help.

Claire Eamer: I feel strongly about making science accessible to both kids and adults and write for both. We have too many adults frightened of science or convinced that they can't understand it—or, worse, that they don't need to understand it. I want to help people see science is just a way of looking at the world and trying to understand it.

Etta Kaner: I think it's a shame parents don't take a greater interest in science and as an extension, science books. Parents don't need to be scientists or have a high level of education. They just need to foster curiosity in their children—go on walks and appreciate the caterpillar on the walkway, the snail on the leaf, the clouds in the sky. If nature is not their thing, they can watch at a construction site or tour a water filtration plant.

Jacob Berkowitz: When asked what age group my books are for I reply that they’re for ages five to 95. This isn’t marketing shtick. I think any good science book is informative for kids and adults alike. It just happens that the content is conveyed in a way that’s accessible to kids and grandparents alike.

Joan Marie Galat: I’m a writer because I have always loved to read all kinds of books. I’m a science writer because, as a child, the titles I enjoyed included science-themed nonfiction. These were the books I returned to, again and again. Book ownership allows children to return to favourites as they change and grow. I once visited a school that kept bookshelves in the front entrance. Families donated their used books and students could help themselves. What a great way to demonstrate the importance of reading and make book ownership possible for more children.

How do you use your books to engage children when you visit a classroom?

Find out how this group of authors brings science into schools in Part 3: Author Visits - Sharing Science Books in Schools.

EPL Featured Writer, Joan Marie Galat is the author of more than 20 books. Her titles include Solve This! Wild and Wacky Challenges for the Genius Engineer in You (National Geographic Kids), the Dot to Dot in the Sky series (Whitecap Books), and Dark Matters—Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution (Red Deer Press). She writes from Parkland County, near Edmonton.