How to start writing about science for kids

By Rachel Ehrenberg

If there was one take-home message from the workshop on “How to start writing about science for kids,” it might be that kids are people too. Sure, they are typically smaller people, but they have rich inner lives and are more sophisticated than we think, said panelist Jude Isabella. So don’t talk down to them. That said, if kids are your audience, you will not get away with long-winded, meandering “adult” prose. Remember those lessons from Writing 101.

"How to start writing about science for kids" session

"How to start writing about science for kids" session, left to right: Andy Boyles, Emily Sohn, and Jude Isabella. Photo by Rachel Ehrenberg.

These lessons include the good old one-idea-per-sentence, or even per paragraph, said panelist Emily Sohn. If you can split a sentence in two, do it. Anchor the abstract with something familiar, noted session organizer Elizabeth Preston. Don’t use obscure references to 1970s pop culture. Do use the senses: What do things smell like? Sound like? Taste like? And the gross-out factor does not age-discriminate: people, especially kids, dig disgusting stuff (toenail fungus, poop and decomposing animals all came up in this session).

Similarly, editors of publications focused on kids are much like other editors. They do not appreciate pitches from people who haven’t read their publication. These editors also don’t like tired clichés (do NOT start a kids story with the word “imagine”). And no recess for you if you think adding exclamation points to a story written for adults turns it into a story for kids (No!).

If you decide to break into the kids market, your stories might end up being the clearest, most vivid writing you ever do. And there is a market. Most books recommended for classrooms aren’t even targeted for kids, said Panelist Andy Boyles, long-time science editor at Highlights. Of the 42 science books cited by Science Scope as good non-fiction for the classroom, kids were the intended audience for only seven of those books. Highlights is usually game for stories that connect kids to the nature in their backyards (turtles, crabs, you name it). Citizen science stories especially resonate, since kids (bless their little hearts) often want to know how they can engage with a science dilemma — not in a Pollyanna-way, but in a solutions-oriented way, notes Isabella. If you’re wondering where to start, ask librarians and teachers where the gaps are in up-to-date science books. For general networking, consider joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators or go to its conference. And remember to say please and thank you.