Five Books

Marvin standing

I was interviewed for the Browser’s “Five Books” feature last week, talking about children’s science literature.

I did my PhD on kids’ science books. People sometimes think it was a strange, even trivial, thing to study – that children’s literature is just a bit of fun compared to the serious business of science, or that non-fiction somehow lacks artistitic credibility – but it’s an incredibly rich subject. Literary, and yet also often explicitly rooted in a sense of the material, hands-on and yet abstract, deeply metaphorical in places and often overtly realist, wonderous and mundane, textual and illustrated, diadactic and keen to inspire and open questions. In fact, did you know first ever children’s book was a science book? (well, ish, I like to tell people this anyway).

You can’t really pick five children’s science books that everyone is going to enjoy, and I’m certainly not about to provide a ‘canon’ everyone should read. Instead, I went for five books I thought reflected some of the diversity and sub-genres of the form as well as its history. Here they are:

1) How Your Body Works. I picked this as a nice exampe within the sub-genre of kid’s books about the human body (which at times can be more self-help than science). It  also reflects the number of children’s science books which use cartoon-ish illustrations that offer a somewhat metaphorical form of visual explanation. White blood cells as white knights guarding the ‘battlements’ of a scab, lungs as bellows. One of the illustrations adults seem to remember vividly from reading the book as children is the sex education via robots bit. Clearly the illustrator has really thought about the reproductive system – if you know what you are looking for you can see how it is meant to link to parts of the reproductive system – but it is also taken out of explicit reference to human sex with very box-like robots (second picture down in this blogpost).

2) Eyewitness: Dinosaur. I wanted to include an Eyewitness as they are such an iconic brand in the field. I could have chosen any but thought dinosaurs should probably be included in my list in some way too, so went for this. In many ways, it’s a quite interesting example because they have to rely on several artists’ impressions of dinosaurs, compared to most other books which are very photo-based, reflecting a museum-like approach to science as something immediate, about things you can see and possibly touch. In many ways it is very photo-realist in its approach (like Walking with Dinosaurs, maybe) but still reflects how much content in any science book is based on ideas, whatever the rhetorical references to a sense of the hands-on.

3) The Boy’s Playbook of Science. Here we have a clear sense of the hands-on, as this is an activity book, which instructions of things to make and do. This is also an example of a Victorian book (old blogpost from last winter on it and some others) but there are still a load of science books published sold on the premise of having a go with science. A suggestion that you should put the book down and do something more empirical instead, perhaps. There’s a great essay on John Henry Pepper by Jim Secord if you are interested (and I think everyone should be, a fascinating chap).

4) Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest. This was a bit of a personal choice in some ways. I never read this as a kid, but writing an essay on it in the middle of my BSc was what sparked the interest that my PhD. I also picked it as an example of fictionalisation to explain science. The Magic School Bus books being a key brand I was tempted to include in my list, which do similar things. I also really wanted to choose it as a book which, despite it’s narrative structure, ends with questions. This might go against the idea of children’s science books (or narratives in science literature) necessarily presenting science as finished fact, but the idea that there might be further questions is key to many views of how science works, but is, I think, especially important in children’s literature because it provides a sense of the possible future of science which young people might contribute to if they choose to grow up to be scientists.

5) How to Turn Your Parents Green. I chose this because to reflect the wave of books on enviromental issues aimed at children that have come out in the last five to ten years. As I’ve written before, there was a wave of similarly explicitly green media for young people in the late 1980s and early 1990s too, and a long history of nature books for kids. What makes this book slightly different from others is that it takes a sort of ‘kids know best’ attitude, compared to the ‘sit down and listen now, dear child’ tone. A load of analysts have talked about this in the context of fiction and enteratinment media (brilliant essay on this using Timmy Mallet as case study in this book) but it’s less common when it comes to books about something as serious as science, which tend to be a bit more reverant to adult authority. So this stands as an example of some of the generational politics implicit in any children’s media as well as, being a ‘green’ book, the way science is political even (or especially) when discussed with young people.

Other books I wish I’d had space for include any and every piece of science fiction, one of the many popup scuience books, any of the Horrible Science books I did my PhD on, an Isotype book, a manga science book, a revision guide (dull, boring and possibly a bit evil, maybe, but they are also a significant bit of the market), books for under 7s, books for over 13s and the more nature-spotting literature end of things.

What else have I missed?

10 thoughts on “Five Books

  1. booktopiareviews

    I can’t think of the exact title, but it’s “Encyclopedia of Poop” or something similar. The nitrogen cycle, decomp, digestion, and cool stuff like dung beetles are all included. :-) Kid’s lit IS a complex topic, and kid’s non-fiction is even worse. Striking the balance between entertainment, accuracy, tone, vocabulary, etc. is amazingly complex. Cool PhD. :-)

  2. Steve McGann

    When he was younger (now 14), my son enjoyed the series of Simon Basher books, like this one:-

    Easy to dip into, fun but informative. He had them by his bed for ages :-) Interesting, perhaps, that his later reading was a more detailed version of the same kind of structure he was introduced to by Basher, such as this :-–Z-Elements/dp/0198503407/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321294415&sr=1-2

    Maybe the structure we first encounter in our childhood scientific books gives us a paradigm for our later understandings of science?

  3. Hilary Sutcliffe (@hilarysutcliffe)

    What a great idea, thanks will check them out for my boy. Actually with all the hype about the educating of the young in science and critical thinking being central to the future of us all this is a hugely important subject. Perhaps your next five could also highlight some of the books that inspire the critical thinking and ‘scientific method’ type approach that we want to instil. Anything that manages to link that with spying, subverting the school process and violence would be great thanks!

    1. alice Post author

      These aren’t a ‘to read’ list – they are a list of books to show the diversity and history of the field. I dont feel qualified to give recommendations to children I’ve never met.

      So, equally, I won’t be doing a list to inspire this ‘critical thinking’ you talk about. I gave up that sort of book recommendations when I stopped working in Waterstone’s (plus, not sure I agree there are books that do that).

  4. Claire Ainsworth

    It’s not strictly a science book, but “George’s Marvellous Medicine” by Roald Dahl got me hooked on experiments and chemistry from an early age. I don’t think my Mum was too impressed :)

    I’ve often wondered what role children’s fiction (including stories that aren’t explicitly science-fiction) plays in getting kids interested in science.

  5. trickfletcher

    I ended up a PhD prof in chemistry and that journey really started with “A Wrinkle in Time.” Is it a “science” book? Probably not by most definitions. But for me, it was the first, and for many years, the best book that opened up my imagination and curiosity and sent the clear message that was ok to wonder. Not only that it was ok, that it created bravery , courage and excitement. At that time, the message to young supersmart and a little geeky Meg – that she would very likely be able to do whatever she wanted to do in her future, gave me hope. I’m a guy, btw. The movie was bad but the book, genius and very scientific in it’s presentation.


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