Science - Volumes with mass appeal

15th February 2013 at 00:00
Children's fiction can bring scientific concepts to life

Never underestimate the effect of a good book on a child. Whether read for pleasure or for learning, a good book can leave an impression lasting well into adulthood.

My own reading journey began with Janet and John books. I vividly recall the pride I felt as I progressed to book six ahead of everyone else in my class. But they didn't really contribute to my love of science. The Famous Five stories - although a little muddled in my memory - still conjure images of summer picnics, secret tunnels and adventures with a gang of friends (and dog) that I longed to join. Again, not much in the way of science in these stories.

I cannot remember reading a novel as a child where science or a scientist was central to the story. Where scientists cropped up, they were often the eccentric stereotype: the white middle-class, balding, spectacle-wearing mad professor. So my question is: why aren't we using the power of a strong narrative that captures the imagination of children to help explain and teach basic scientific concepts? Fantasy and horror novels are very popular, and children who read such stories can often impress you with their knowledge and understanding of the characters and stories. Perhaps there is a feeling among authors and publishers that children's novels that delivered "real" science learning would be boring or too difficult.

But the market is not devoid of such books. Take, for example, the Uncle Albert trilogy. In this short series of children's books aimed at nine- to 11-year-olds, some very difficult scientific concepts are tackled, from the idea of time and space to black holes and quantum physics. Uncle Albert (Einstein) helps his niece Gedanken (from the German Gedankenexperiment or "thought experiment") to understand physics by going on a journey with her into his thoughts. Together they seek answers to some difficult yet fundamental questions, such as why you can't break the ultimate speed barrier, how to become older than your mother, how to put on weight without getting fat, and how to live forever without even knowing it. The author is a professor of physics, Russell Stannard.

A quick trawl of the available science books for children reveals plenty of high-quality, glossy, factual books. As a reference tool they are useful but what really captures a child's imagination is a good story. The history of science provides numerous stories that children would find fascinating, such as the discoveries of Mary Anning, as told in the children's book Stone Girl Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley. Anning was a fossil hunter who discovered the first plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs at Lyme Regis. Another series of adventure stories, by Lucy Hawking, brings in some of the latest physics research from the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Writing about complex scientific ideas and concepts for primary children isn't easy, but a key element of engaging children and stimulating their desire to grapple with and understand difficult ideas is providing them with a cracking good story and strong characters with whom they can identify. Science books for children do not have to be just colourful fact-based explanations of ideas with snazzy pictures. There is a market out there, and there is no shortage of interesting science that could be central to an adventure story.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work

What else?

A mysterious voice is coming from a science lab: pupils write an adventure story with the help of this video from Teachers TV.

bit.lyScienceLabMystery

Check out carly24's guide to teaching science through stories, with suggested books to use in class. bit.lyScienceTales.

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