by Guest Blogger Steve Jenkins who is presenting a session at our upcoming 2016 Summer Institute entitled, “Writing About Science for Children: How Content Dictates Structure”
Writing, of course, is not simple. Writing about science is not simple, and writing about science for children is perhaps even less simple. So my title is just a questionable journalistic device to attract readers. But I have managed to come up with a few guidelines that I try to apply to my own non-fiction writing.
Since my own professional background is originally in graphic design and illustration, it feels a bit presumptuous to write about writing for an audience of literacy experts. When I began making books for children, I was inspired in part by my lifelong love of science — especially the science of the natural world. But I mainly wanted to explore the visual possibilities of the picture book. I’m still not completely comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer, though I’m getting there.
This story begins almost 30 years ago. I was reading piles of books to my baby daughter — my wife and I took turns reading to her every night, starting when she was too young to even sit up. Reading and looking at all those children’s books got me thinking that making a book might be fun. I say “making” rather than “writing,” because my first books were really about the illustrations. From the beginning, I was drawn to nonfiction about the natural world, and I quickly realized that words would be necessary if I wanted a book to convey much actual information. Or get published. I did make one wordless picture book, but most of the subjects I wanted to explore required some annotation.
Today, having published more than 30 titles, I find that writing has become my central preoccupation when I’m working on a book. I love the visual part of the process, and I’m always confident that — one way or another — a book’s visual challenges can be solved. Creating the illustrations is my reward for figuring out the structure and voice the subject demands. But the writing doesn’t get any easier. Just the opposite, in fact. In my early books I was blissfully naive about the writing process. I just wrote down what I thought would explain the image on the page. I didn’t rewrite as much. I didn’t spend all day on a sentence.
As I gradually recognized that getting the words right was as important (more?) as perfecting the images, writing became more and more of a focus. I remember being surprised and a little bemused that teachers and librarians I encountered at schools and conferences were reading my books and analyzing the way they were written, often recognizing patterns that had never occurred to me.
This may be more background than is really necessary, but I want to create some context for sharing a few of the informal writing “rules” I’ve developed for myself. These are rules that apply to my own writing — I’m not suggesting that anyone else should follow them (OK, maybe one or two of them):
Don’t underestimate the ability of young children to understand complex relationships and abstract concepts if they are properly explained.
New facts and information should be presented in a context that makes sense to children. Use metaphors or comparisons with familiar things. Even most adults can’t readily grasp large sizes, quantities, or spans of time.
Don’t mix different units of measurement or meaning in the same comparison. This is an unfortunately common practice in writing for adults: “There are only about 5,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and the population of Amur leopards has decreased by 80%.”
Clarify terms that seem simple but have multiple interpretations. This is a common problem with scale-related information: “Animal A is twice as big as Animal B”. What does ‘big’ mean? If it’s based on linear dimension, and if the animals are similarly proportioned, then animal A weighs eight times as much as animal B.
Introduce a few terms and vocabulary words that are probably unfamiliar, but not too many for the reading level of the audience. If possible, use new terms without formal definition in a context that makes their meaning clear. It’s more fun for kids to figure out for themselves what a word means.
Don’t anthropomorphize. Remember that these rules are for me. There are lots of good science books that use the first-person voice of animals, natural forces, even the universe. But these books make it clear from the beginning that there is poetic license involved, and that the reader is being invited to use their imagination to see the world from the perspective of some other entity. I’m more concerned about casual references to how animals “feel,” or what they “want,” in what is presented as an objective examination of their behavior.
If possible, anticipate the questions suggested by the facts being presented and answer them. This can be a never-ending sequence, one answer suggesting another question, so at some point one has to move on, but if we point out that an animal living in the jungle is brightly colored, it’s great to be able to say how color helps the animal (as it must, in some way, or it would have been selected out). Does its color warn off predators, attract a mate, or — counter-intuitively — help it hide? A colorful animal that lives among colorful flowers may be hard to spot.
Try to avoid the standard narrative. For many subjects, a typical story line seems to have developed. Often the same creatures or phenomena are used to illustrate a particular concept. Symbiosis: the clown fish and anemone. Metamorphosis: butterfly, frog. Endangered animals: rhinoceros, panda.
Don’t oversell science as entertaining, or make it goofy or wacky. Science is not primarily about making things smell bad or explode. There is thinking involved, and work. The fun and satisfaction come from understanding new things and seeing new connections.
Don’t confuse the presentation of facts with the explanation of concepts.
Finally, don’t follow lists of rules.
Summer Literacy Institute:
Tuesday, July 12, 2016 through Friday, July 15, 2016
8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Making the Writer’s Craft Visible: Teaching Purposeful Decision- Making in a Writers’ Workshop (Grades K–8)
Teach your students how to learn to write from Carl Anderson, Steve Jenkins, Nikki Grimes, and Jack Gantos!
Location: Lesley University – University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140