Thursday, 23 February 2012
Boffins In Books: Why No Science In Children’s Fiction? by Emma Barnes
Science is not “sexy”. At least that it is the strong message you get on scanning the children’s fiction shelves. Fairies abound, as do spies, wizards, pirates and ballerinas, but scientists? Either absent – or the villains of the piece!
Ever since Enid Blyton bestowed “Uncle Quentin” upon her Famous Five, children’s authors (seldom scientific themselves) have taken for granted the archetype of the bad-tempered, impractical boffin, locked away in his study or laboratory (it’s nearly always a him, of course). This stereotype probably arrived in children’s fiction straight from Dr Frankenstein, and even such marvellous books as The Strange Affair of the Dog In the Night Time have tended to reinforce the notion that brilliance in abstract thought must mean personal strangeness and zero social skills.
Of course, there are excellent non-fiction books about science for young people. But with a very few exceptions – Russell Stannard’s Uncle Albert or Malcolm Rose’s scientific thrillers – science as a theme is either absent or else – in teenage books – portrayed as evil, with techniques like cloning bringing about terrible dystopian futures.
When I wrote Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher it did not occur to me that an eleven year old girl who wanted to be a scientist, was unusual in fiction. I like humour, and I like exploring ideas, and when I devised the story I loved the possibilities of a scientific daughter (rational, enquiring, persistent) ranged up against a mother (vague and mystical) who is convinced she has magic powers. Jessica's heroine is Marie Curie - but her mother thinks a test tube is only useful for storing love potions.
Jessica’s scientific interests have their quirky side. Would an eleven year old really be reading a book called Astrophysics Made Simple? But they are not just for effect either. To achieve her ends Jessica conducts a scientific experiment – a serious experiment, with a hypothesis and a properly demonstrated conclusion. The whole plot depends upon it. Only after the book was published did several readers – teachers in particular – point out how unusual this was.
When I visit schools, I rarely get asked to focus on this element of the book, however. Perhaps this is because teachers, like writers, too often place “science” and “fiction” in different compartments. And for too many children, the “science” compartment can become the “bad” compartment. When I’ve asked children or adults to describe scientists as characters, “dangerous”, “mad” and “nerdy” are some of the words they have come up with.
It’s a shame. Science is exciting. And fiction is an important way for children to explore the world – the whole world - that lies beyond their own immediate surroundings and understanding. So why exclude such a vital perspective on it?
Which books would you recommend that include scientific themes or characters?
Emma's latest book is How (Not) to Make Bad Children Good and she also has a web-site.