Nuclear fusion! Computer chips! Biodiversity! How do you get started when it comes to exploring the intricacies of such topics? Let me offer you a shortcut: head straight to the children’s non-fiction section of a library or bookstore. Fact-based books for children make the most complicated subjects approachable to readers of all ages.
Since we celebrated I READ Canadian Day for the first time February 19, 2020, it seems like an ideal time to spotlight a group of Canadian authors who have collectively covered a wide range of nonfiction topics for young readers. We entered into an email discussion about science writing, and you can follow our conversation here. It’s excerpted from an article I wrote for the Canadian Children’s Book News magazine and appears here with permission from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.
Meet the Authors
Cora Lee (British Columbia) offers books that explore math and physics. Claire Eamer (British Columbia) presents young readers with archeology, biodiversity, biology, climate change, food science, and environmental sciences. Etta Kaner (Ontario) writes on animal behaviour, animal/plant adaptations, and architecture. Jacob Berkowitz (Ontario) covers topics from artificial intelligence, astrobiology, and evolution, to computational oncology and HIV-AIDS. My own books include titles on astronomy, ecology, and the natural world—from volcanoes and wildlife to trees, energy, and light pollution.
Writing Science for Young Readers
How do you come up with fresh ways to explore a topic?
Cora Lee: My books are on math and physics, topics desperate for a makeover. I relied on odd, offbeat connections like dogs doing calculus or singing black holes, plus a comically bewildered narrator who is frank enough about his own science shortcomings to ease the information transfer.
Claire Eamer: If I can find a book to answer my questions, I'll read it. If there isn't a kid-friendly book that answers my questions, I start thinking about book proposals. Mainly I explore topics that haven't been tackled for kids. And I love it when I'm first on the block with new scientific information!
Etta Kaner: I try to write with a voice of excitement about the topic as well as use questions and humour. In two series for younger children, I used some patterned language which they can easily read and common situations to which they can relate. For example, in writing about animal adaptations, I compare animals to humans—people use sunscreen and hippos manufacture their own.
Jacob Berkowitz: I’m drawn to topics at the edge of scientific knowledge. Jurassic Poop was the first book on fossil poop. In terms of creating writing that’s fresh and engaging, I use a mix of narrative storytelling techniques and humour—something not always associated with science.
Joan Marie Galat: I like to combine science and storytelling. For example, my titles in the Dot to Dot in the Sky seriesopens a new window include legends that explain “why” natural events occur, then reveal the science behind the phenomena. While astronomy is fascinating on its own, looking up and knowing the stories behind the characters in the night sky make sky gazing even more fun.
Some writers feel it’s hard to stop researching and start writing. How do you handle the research process?
Cora Lee: Research is a discovery and re-discovery process for me. I studied science, but new discoveries are made all the time. I start research on the Internet. It’s more efficient than sifting through print sources. When possible, I double-check against academic sources. Unlike Etta and Claire, I prefer email over phone conversations. Maybe it’s because I work in the pharmaceutical industry where documentation is crucial.
Claire Eamer: I'm really in this for the research. Writing is more of a chore although once I get into the flow of telling a story, I move along fairly smartly. I use books but also spend a lot of time browsing academic journals. I'm not a scientist and usually find some information beyond me, but get enough for my purposes. I also use the Internet a lot.
Sometimes I contact specialists doing cutting-edge work in a field. That has led to some excellent links but like Cora, I prefer email for accuracy. I trust my notes from a phone conversation less than I trust the scientists' words in an email.
Etta Kaner: I love research and use books and the Internet when outlining. For detailed explanations, I try to interview experts. I don't have a science background so my questions break everything down so I can really understand.
We communicate by email and telephone but I find phoning much more revealing. Once a train engineer told me about moose running onto the train tracks because they thought the train whistle was a love call. They had to change the whistles’ pitch!
Jacob Berkowitz: I love research and preparatory writing. This is when “Eureka!” moments often happen, as I find connections and patterns. I interview scientists, which always leads to great stories. The Internet has transformed research. I live in a small town but can instantaneously access scientific journal from around the world. My local library is a fantastic resource, especially for interlibrary loans of specialized books.
Joan Marie Galat: My research involves online searches, interlibrary loans, and occasional contact with topic specialists. While I love discovering exciting facts through research, I’m always anxious to start writing. Research doesn’t provide the same sense of accomplishment. However, the more I read, the more ideas come to me and the process is hard to stop. When I start rewriting the same sentences over and over, I know it’s time to stop. The next step is for an expert to review my content.
What is the hardest part about writing science for kids?
Find out in Part 2: Becoming a Science Writer .
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.