Writing science magazines and books for children:
gross and wacky, enthusiasm for science
By Norman Bauman
New York — You can write down to children, but you can’t dumb down. You have to understand science better, and write better, for children than for adults.
“You think you understand something until you have to explain it to a kid,” said Britt Norlander, associate editor of Scholastic’s SuperScience (grades 3-6) and Science World (grades 6-10). “Then you find out that you don’t understand it at all.”
Norlander spoke on a panel about writing science magazines and books for children, organized with Science Writers of New York, March 30, at the EFA office.
A first grade book may have 150 words, selected from exhaustive research, said Linda Tagliaferro, who wrote 33 children’s books. “What do I want them to know about ants that will make it really interesting?”
There’s a “huge” market for science books Pre-K to 2nd grade, said Kate Waters, executive editor, Scholastic Nonfiction. For older kids, “We’re still searching” for someone who can write a story, like the Magic School Bus, about friends who do science.
“Our subscribers are teachers,” who distribute the magazines in their classrooms, explained Norlander, a PhD in geology. So they have to meet the high standards of science teachers.
Teachers ask, “How can I explain this hurricane to my students?” said Chris Jozefowicz, Norlander’s competitor at the Weekly Reader’s Science Spin Senior (grades 4-6) and Current Science (grades 6-10). Jozefowicz left a biology PhD program.
To a teacher, when kids are interested in Hurricane Katrina, that’s a teachable moment — an opportunity to explain the geology of flood plains. That’s conveniently part of the National Science Education Standards (NSES), Earth and Space Science, Content Standard D, energy and cycles. Conveniently, kids love violent weather. But it’s not easy to teach. First, the teacher has to figure out the science; then, select the important ideas; finally, explain it to kids. The magazines help by getting hurricane scientists to explain it in kid’s language.
Scientists return calls from Weekly Reader. Researchers are “eager to help me when I tell them that I’m coming from a children’s magazine and trying to help kids understand this stuff,” said Jozefowicz. “It can open a lot of doors and help people be very patient.” He says, “You know, I’m writing for an audience of 10- and 12-year-olds, can you help me understand this in a way that they’ll get?”
But sometimes they use quotes from (attributed) secondary sources like the Washington Post.
Every 2 weeks, Jozefowicz writes 2 features of 800 words, and assigns 2 features to freelancers.
Writing standards are high. The magazines have a strong news focus, and strong science focus, with topics that might be covered in Science Times and Science magazine.
They must be clearly written. It takes the writer’s whole bag of tricks — character, story, narrative, simplicity, examples, relating to the child’s everyday life, explanations, explanations again, and illustrations.
The “top thing” Norlander wants is a writer who understands science. “I will absolutely” try good science writers who don’t have kids’ clips.
Writing for kids about science requires a child’s love of science, or a scientist’s love of science — not much different.
“Children and I both think giant squids are really great,” said Jozefowicz.
Fun and standards
In the NSES
Norlander tries to cover the NSES “in the context of a fun story.” For example, a story on panda reproduction described how zookeepers found a mate for giant panda Hua Mei. The dramatic narrative was about 2 pandas meeting, and whether the “blind date” would succeed, because male pandas are very picky about females. The story defined terms like “extinction” (the panda is “bearly” hanging on). A heavily illustrated “Nuts & Bolts” sidebar defined “mitosis,” and explained how 42 chromosomes combine in the egg, duplicate, separate as the cell divides, and how the blastocyst attaches to the uterine wall. This meets NSES Life Science Content Standard C, The Molecular Basis of Heredity: “Transmission of genetic information to offspring occurs through egg and sperm cells that contain only one representative from each chromosome pair.”
A story on Parkinson’s disease used Muhammad Ali for a celebrity angle. A neurologist explained how levodopa is converted into dopamine. The sidebar illustrated dopamine molecules crossing the synapse, the message traveling along the axon, through the substantia nigra and basal ganglia, down the spinal cord to muscles. This also meets Standard C: living systems have levels of organization for structure and function, of cells, organs, tissues, organ systems, and whole organs.
“But we’re not a textbook,” said Norlinger, “so while we’re doing that we also want it to be newsy.”
Gross, wacky, crazy
A good query is short, said Norlander. It helps to include a link to an idea for an illustration.
“We’re looking for stories that are going to engage our audience,” said Norlander. They like “gross, wacky and crazy.” Like a bog man, or a cow with an extra set of legs.
For older students, “I’m looking for a newsy thing,” maybe from a journal, said Norlander.
Younger students, grade 3-6, “love animals,” said Norlander. “We often do things about a characteristic about animals. Where do they live?” Maybe something new about “an animal that lives in a special place,” like Madagascar, or ice caves.
Current Science also wants interesting stories, with standards an afterthought, said Jozefowicz. “The gee-whiz stuff, the crazy-aspect-of-the-world sort of pitches, work better for the older kids.” They understand more of the background, and want adult-type stories that “dig a little bit more into the basic, fundamental aspects of science.”
But, said Jozefowicz, “For younger grades, we definitely want to hook in with a basic standards-oriented educational component.” They frequently plan an issue of Science Spin Senior around standards, on a theme like habitat. “It’s a bit more didactic.” They’ll search news reports and journals for material. Check the publication calendar online.
Online from NYPL
Both magazines have web sites with descriptions of their magazines, and supplementary content written by freelancers. Scholastic has some older articles at http://www.teacher.scholastic.com/researchtools.)
With a New York Public Library card, you can read all 4 magazines on the NYPL web site http://www.nypl.org. Click “Magazines, Journals & Databases Online”, “Databases available from home”, “EBSCOhost”. http://www.nypl.org/databases/index.cfm?act=3&id=131 Type your library card bar code. Click “Advanced Search” tab, change the search field from “Default Fields” to “SO Journal Name”, type the magazine title, click “Search”. (I like “Preferences”, “50 results,” “Detailed”, “Apply”.)
Enter a search term. In “Science World” try “Parkinson’s”, “Pandas”, “NASCAR”. In “Current Science” try “Katrina”, “earthquake”, “woodpecker.” (Click the “Choose Databases” tab, then “Title List” for a list of other publications.)
The “Databases available from home” page
(Elsewhere in New York State, use
Personal health is mostly in specialized editions. Scholastic Choices (Grade 7-12, on EBSCO) is about health, fitness, drugs, sex, family life, and careers. Weekly Reader publishes Current Health (on EBSCO), and Get Smart About Drugs. 28% of 9th grade girls are sexually active. The message is, be abstinent, but if you’re not, practice safe sex — which, in polls, is what most parents say they want taught. (Current Health has a Human Sexuality supplement, which is more nuanced than Choices.)
Consumers Union has criticized both publishers for commercial tie-ins, and Scholastic for ads in upper-grade magazines. Science World’s back cover is an ad for the U.S. Army. The magazines are reasonably objective. A Scholastic web article about President Bush’s energy program got a rebuttal from an environmental organization. A Weekly Reader interview with Condoleeza Rice asked moderately challenging questions. But neither publisher covered the intelligent design lawsuits.
Science books for kids
For books, “There’s a huge, huge appetite in the market right now for science for very young children,” said Waters. “Nursery school, kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade.” In grade 2-6, the same topics have been popular over 20 years: Animals. Vehicles. Space. Wild weather. Kids love certain formats: True and false. Q&A. Superlatives.
The main skill is telling a good story. Waters explained how Joanna Cole developed the device of a “Magic School Bus,” to wrap the science around an engaging story. “We’re still searching for writers who can write story, who can wrap content in story, who can gather kids together.”
“Friendship is key,” said Waters. A group of friends “who just happen to do science stuff. Who just happen to think that science is cool.”
“Science biography is very popular,” said Waters, especially in grade 2-4. For older kids, inventions are “very cool.”
What you really need, the panel agreed, is — hokey as it sounds — a passion for science.
For a book contract, “I want to hear and feel your passion,” said Waters, an ex-librarian who still talks like a child about her favorite books. “When you were a kid, did you become fascinated with spiders?”
“I just got a proposal from a woman to do a book about spy techniques,” said Waters. “She’s written about a lot of things.” Why spy? “Her dad was in the FBI.”
The joys of polar bears
Tagliaferro got a contract because she convinced the series editor that she loves polar bears.
In her polar bear book, Tagliaferro had to learn all about polar bears, and then select a few ideas that were important to science teachers, interesting to 7-to-10-year-olds, and easy to explain. How much do polar bears weigh? (Up to 450 kg.) What do they eat? (Seal blubber.) How do they stay warm? (See below.)
“What’s the most important thing here that you want to bring home to a child?” asked Tagliaferro.
“Overexplain things,” said Tagliaferro. Repeat the explanations. After you write something that looks as if anyone could understand it, you say, “in other words,” and explain it again.
For example, Tagliaferro wrote that a polar bear’s front paw is about 12 inches. In other words, “That’s bigger than your school notebook.”
“So you take this world of science that you know so well,” said Tagliaferro, “and you translate the world of science into the experience of a kid.”
The language must be perfect, “like poetry,” said Tagliaferro, because parents read it aloud to their children. You want the kid to say, “Read it again.”
“I’m looking for books that, when read aloud, sound wonderful,” said Waters.
“Listen to this,” said Waters, reading: “Some ants build nests with leaves and sticky stuff. Other ants build nests in soil or wood.”
Tagliaferro visited a school in Manhattan. The kids had drawn pictures from her polar bear book. “It was all over the bulletin boards.” They read every book in the school library on polar bears. “One girl was wearing a polar bear vest.”
“Polar bears have about 4 inches of blubber under their skin, which keeps them warm in the Arctic,” explained Tagliaferro. “The 3rd grade teacher had taken 2 rubber gloves, put Crisco inside one, and had the kids dip their hands in ice water to show how the blubber would insulate it.”
It’s difficult to break into children’s book writing, but Waters and Tagliaferro gave a tip: Meet editors at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Tagliaferro recommends “How to Write a Book Proposal” by Michael Larsen.
“The rule of thumb,” said Waters, is that if you have 10 children’s books in print, you can “likely” make enough to live on. “Maybe not to live in a loft in Soho.”