Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Striving for a "wow" factor: Writing science books for kids

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Kid Lit Can with Susan Hughes

Welcome to my October blog about kids books in Canada! Hope you had a great summer.

This month I’ve been thinking about nonfiction books for kids, especially science books. After I wrote Case Closed: Nine Mysteries Unlocked by Modern Science (KidsCan, 2010), I was searching for ways to connect with other authors interested in science writing for kids. I stumbled upon a terrific online group, Canadian Science Writing for Kids. Bingo! Some of the most impressive — and most prolific — writers of science books for kids in Canada these days belong to this group and, as well, share their collective wisdom in a blog called Sci/Why?. Check it out if you frequently find yourself wanting to know answers to the question “why?”

And if you want to know why — and how — some tremendously cool people are writing science books for kids, you’re welcome to eavesdrop on my chat with these four award-winning authors:

CLAIRE EAMER writes science books for children, as well as silly fantasy, scary picture books and really thick scientific reports. She lives in Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Check out her website at www.claireeamer.com.

SHAR LEVINE and LESLIE JOHNSTONE are internationally award-winning and best-selling authors of over 70 children's science books and science toys/kits. They are bff who live within walking distance of each other in Vancouver.  Find out more about this dynamic duo at www.sciencelady.com

DANIEL LOXTON is an award-winning writer and illustrator who specializes in science and critical thinking publications, especially for young readers, such as the Tales of Prehistoric Life trilogy and Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be. He is also Editor of Junior Skeptic, the kids' critical thinking section bound within Skeptic magazine (US). And, yup, you can follow him on twitter: @Daniel_Loxton.

SUSAN: There are so many topics to write about! Why do you choose to write mainly science-based books?

CLAIRE: I’m fascinated by science. I like to know how things work and how they fit together, from marine organisms to machines. Writing about science lets me ask questions, learn lots of things, and then tell other people the cool stuff I’ve learned.

SHAR and LESLIE: You should write what you know, and we know science. This is our 22nd year writing together and we never tire of exploring new ways to communicate science to a wide audience. Over the years we’ve created a unique way of writing children's science books, from the art to the experiments. We make sure that the books look interesting while conveying the information at an appropriate reading level.

DANIEL: I had a lifelong passion for the stories people tell each other about nature and science and allegedly scientific mysteries. I loved genre stories, especially science fiction. I loved science fact. And, most of all, I loved the murky realm where science fiction and science fact collided: fringe science and claims of the paranormal. I can't tell you how many lunch hours I spent devouring paranormal books in the little library at Metchosin Elementary here in BC. Fact? Fable? I badly wanted to know. And I wanted to share what I read with the other kids on the playground. Today, as a "professional skeptic," I still want to know — and then I want to tell the stories of the things I find out.


SUSAN: How do you know when you’ve got “the idea” for your next kids’ book?

CLAIRE: I always have plenty of questions about the world, so I have plenty of ideas for books. It’s a matter of finding a publisher who thinks the question is as interesting as I think it is. And sometimes publishers come to me with ideas that turn out to be fascinating. Once a publisher and I are both fascinated, we have the seed of the next book.

SHAR and LESLIE: We never have just one idea, we have so many that it would take years to write them all. Sometimes we love a topic, and the publisher isn’t crazy about it. One concept we had took forever to sell and we are happy to say the book is in edit and will be released next year. The book, What Sound Does a Seahorse Make? combines an eBook with a traditional print book. The book has a QR code that links to a video and audio file so the reader has an interactive experience with the text.

DANIEL: My experience writing books has been like catching a tiger by the tail — just a matter of holding on, with few choices to be made. My book topics have been constrained by many things, such as scheduling opportunities, publisher interest, and financial factors. Where I do enjoy the freedom to choose my topics for kids is for my magazine work on Junior Skeptic. I keep detailed files on hundreds of mysteries, fringe claims, and paranormal topics I hope to one day explore in an issue of Junior Skeptic. As my library and resources on those topics expand, and as I complete stories which interlock with those topics (for practically everything is connected) I eventually get to a point where I feel like I can achieve a robust understanding of a given topic within a single deadline cycle. Then I make the leap. 


SUSAN: What is your writing process?

CLAIRE: I don’t have much of a process. I do a bunch of research, until I know pretty much what I’m talking about. By then, I have a rough outline in my head. So I write it. Is that a process?

SHAR and LESLIE: We pour ourselves a couple of big cups of coffee and toss around ideas. From that we develop a comprehensive outline. If the outline is strong, then the book is pretty much written. We then divvy out the chapters and go to work. We generally write independently and get together on weekends to edit and massage the manuscript. We also use Google docs or Dropbox to send information back and forth. When the edit arrives from the publisher we sit down together and write the changes.

DANIEL: The process is a bit different from project to project, but speaking to my strictly nonfiction work for Junior Skeptic, I begin with a lot of research — dedicated weeks or months of research, on top of my existing background knowledge. I underline extensively and transcribe the key passages that might be useful for my story. Junior Skeptic has a very rigid format, so once I've achieved a very thorough understanding of my topic, I rough out my story by spreads. Then I drop my key illustrations into my layout at large size — and then I begin to write the story to fit. When the story is finished, the completed layout goes to my editor, who sends me a round of edits. The story goes through several proofers, and finally to the editor in chief. Then, I plug in all the final edits, and off it goes to print.


SUSAN: What kind of research do you do, and what part of it do you most enjoy?

CLAIRE: I look for books, search the Internet for articles and good websites, search academic databases for journal articles, contact scientists to answer any questions I have, and generally dig up any information I can find. Really, I love all the research. The writing, less so.

SHAR and LESLIE: Shar enjoys calling experts and interviewing them. Leslie hates that, which is an understatement. She loves digging into journals and scientific papers and magazines to find the latest information. We both love doing the actual experiments and figuring out if the steps we have written give the activity the result we wanted. We strive for a “wow” factor in each activity. Shar's favourite is writing the Did You Know or Sidebars, which allows for a bit of wackiness and humour.

DANIEL: I'm a kind of a critic of far out claims — a "debunker" or fair investigator, depending how you look at it. So my goal is always deep understanding. I want to genuinely get to the bottom of these mysteries. I want to understand how they started and how they've evolved and changed, and I want to understand what the various sides think is going on and why they think that. So my research strongly emphasizes primary sources. If young readers invest the time to read one of my stories, they deserve the deepest, truest answers I can find to repay them for their effort.


There are many joys to research. A very intense one is feeling a connection form between two facts in your mind. History is kind of fractal, so the deeper you dig the more of those connections you find, and the faster you find them. And then there is the holy grail of research on any topic: learning something that no one else knows (or which, perhaps, the world has forgotten). To understand something that was not understood — that's a rare pleasure, but all the more potent for its rarity.


SUSAN: What is it you’re trying to achieve with your kids’ books? What’s your primary aim?

CLAIRE: I just want to give them cool information in a way that gets them as excited as I am by it. And I want to leave them hungry to learn more and knowing that they could be the next scientists to produce more cool information.

SHAR and LESLIE: We want readers to learn something and have fun at the same time. It’s trite to say that we want to turn children on to science, but it’s true. We really would like to take teachers and adults who are “reluctant scientists” and turn them into enthusiasts.

DANIEL: I write for a number of age groups, from adults to age four. The goals are in some ways different for each of those groups, yet also in some ways the same: I want to ignite a spark of curiosity, of wonder — and I want to remind people that wonder can lead us to understanding, which leads on to deeper wonders.

SUSAN: What were three of your favourite books when you were a child?

CLAIRE: Hard. I read everything in sight, including both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t remember specific non-fiction books — apart from one that I loved: How to Make a Miniature Zoo. For fiction, The Golden Pine Cone by Catherine Anthony Clark and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.

SHAR: I’m really old. Black Beauty, any Nancy Drew books and the classics like Alice in Wonderland.

LESLIE: There's a book by Dean Marshall called The Invisible Island that I just loved. I also consider Anne of Green Gables and the poetry of A. A. Milne favourites.

DANIEL: Ha! I loved every book there was, as a child — or at least, far too many to choose just three. But I'll mention three children's science books that really spoke to me: 
Golden Books’ Dinosaurs (1977), with its old fashioned tail-dragging animals painted by legendary fantasy artists Tim and Greg Hildebrandt; Happytime Books’ Dinosaurs (1979), illustrated lovingly by Bernard Herbert Robinson; and Charlie Brown's 'Cyclopedia, Vol. 2: Featuring All Kinds of Animals from Fish to Frogs (Funk & Wagnall's, 1980)
.

SUSAN: Can you provide a question you’d most like to answer — and please answer it?

CLAIRE: “What’s the best thing about being a writer?”

Learning new things, all the time.

SHAR and LESLIE: “What is the best part about writing science books for children?” We get to have so much fun researching and trying out the experiments that go into our books. And we really love it when children come up to us and tell us that they have tried one of the experiments at home.

DANIEL: “What is one of the most surprising rewards of writing for children?”

 It’s as rare as hen’s teeth to make a lot of money from children’s books, but there are other, deeper rewards. I was very much taken off guard when people started posting, tweeting and emailing me pictures of themselves and their kids posing with my books — sometimes from sessions reading the books at home, or sometimes from “in the wild” sightings of my books in museums and bookstores. The privilege of actually seeing people be excited about something you made is really something special.


Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

 

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