Writing Science Books for Children

by Dr. Francis R. Balkwill

It all began with a bedtime story, or rather, the lack of one. Scientist-by-day, mother-by-night, I searched in vain for a picture book to help me explain my day time world. "Cells are blobs of grey jelly with a hard bit called a nucleus in the middle" was the only introduction to cell biology I could find. But how to write a better one? The decision to try to write for children came from meeting a graphic designer with years of television experience but no scientific background. This artist, Mic Rolph, was fascinated by science and also wanted to start working on books for children.

Eight years and ten published books later, what have we learnt?

First, find a topic of universal interest to children that can be reduced to a minimum of words and a maximum of pictures. It is challenging, but ultimately fun, to distill the key concepts of immunology, genetics or deep sea biology into a language that children can understand. The difficulty is deciding what not to include, and in maintaining accuracy without complicating the story. Young readers gain confidence by grasping one or two simple concepts that they can return to with maturity. Science fact is stranger and often more exciting than science fiction. As with simple fiction picture books, children respond to a narrative style, but it is important to convey information sparingly. We have found, for instance, that a comic strip format is a good way of communicating more complex ideas.

Writing for children is an excellent discipline. Banished is the dreary ‘It has been shown that...’. However, a child who can say ‘computer’ can enjoy saying ‘neutrophil ‘or ‘antibody’. Scientific terms, used sparingly, are popular particularly if accompanied by phonetic spelling. Dee-oxy-rye-bow-new-clay-ick acid (or Dee-ach-zee-rye-bow-noo-clay-ick acid in "American") was a great hit. Then there is the fun of using less scientific words like Zap! ooof!! and aarrrgh!!!, which translate easily into many different languages.

And translations are possible. Science books have international appeal. Culture clashes abound in fiction. But DNA, satellites, immunology, light, and planet Earth itself are truly universal. Our books have been read by children in countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy, Portugal and the USA.

The print runs are usually larger than for an academic book and 10,000 or more copies can be sold. With foreign editions, some books may sell over 100,000 copies, especially if they are part of a series. This is an important point. Many publishers and book shops prefer to buy four or more books with a common theme, design or USP (unique selling point). An idea that has potential for a series is more likely to be received favourably than that for a single book. Such large numbers of books sold might suggest that writing science books for children is a path to untold riches. Sadly not. Both modest price and modest royalties make this unlikely either for writer or illustrator. The rewards are less tangible but no less worthwhile.

Children's book editors generally contribute more to their texts than most editors of adult non-fiction or academic manuscripts. However illustrious the authors, a good children's book editor will have no compunction in telling them that the text is beyond the reach of most children, and sending them home to re-write! But even with a well-written, well-edited and accessible text, the key to a successful science book for children lies in the marriage of text to illustration. Illustrations will lead a child into the book in the first instance. It is essential that the author and illustrator work in partnership; both text and illustration have a vital part to play and must complement each other throughout. The illustrations must also reflect an international readership.

Last, but by no means least, we believe that the book should include an element of fun and humour. Science books can be daunting and a reverential approach can alienate children. However - a warning - anthropomorphism is not recommended. ‘Louisa the Lymphocyte’ or ‘Fred the Fibroblast’ are impossible to sustain.

After six books, it was time to encourage other scientists to write for children. In association with Portland Press Ltd., publishers to the Biochemical Society of Great Britain, the Makingsenseofscience series was founded. We have persuaded top UK scientists and science communicators to distill their knowledge and enthusiasm into 3500 words. Eight scripts and four published books later, we can certainly say that each of those scientists has a wonderful story to tell! There are many, many more stories out there, but the stark economics of publishing will limit the number of books we can commission. Maybe there are publishers (and scientists) in other countries who would join us in telling the stories of science to children?

Fran Balkwill is a principal scientist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. Together with designer/illustrator Mic Rolph she has written six science books for children, and is editing a further eight books, four of which have recently been published. Two Balkwill/Rolph books, Cells are Us and Cell Wars, won the 1991 Rhone Poulenc Prize for children's science books. She is now Series Editor for Makingsenseofscience Children's Books, written by leading scientists and technologists and published by Portland Press Ltd, London UK. Books by Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph are distributed in the USA by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory press and also published by CarolRhoda (Minneapolis) and Sterling Press (New York).