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.


JO said...

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any. Which is bonkers, given how vital science is. Surely a huge gap in the market.

Emma Barnes said...

Odd, isn't it, Jo? I became interested in history as a child by reading children's historical fiction - you would think there would exist a similar science-based genre for children who are interested in that approach.

Stroppy Author said...

Emma, I'd never thought of that. *But* - in March I've got six vampire stories coming out, and the vampirism is scientific, not paranormal. In one of the books, the teen hero is a scientist, in a gap year before going to Oxford to read biology, and he works in a research centre on prions, with Louis Pasteur and Dmitri Ivanovsky.

I had no idea it was an unusual thing to do...

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Unknown said...

Excuse the plug, but my book 'Spike and Ali Enson in Space' - to be published later this year - has lots of factual, researched science - how else can you travel through a worm hole to a tidally-locked planet called Aledela?
I wanted to write sci-fi children's books with black heroes and I too had no idea how rare they were across the board. Really interesting blog, Emma.

Emma Barnes said...

Stroppy - I'm fascinated to hear about your book! I wouldn't have expected to find "serious" science in a vampire story - but then I am sure a lot of people expect "Jessica Haggerthwaite" to be a fantasy story whereas in fact there is no "magic" of a supernatural kind in it.

Malrostan - great to hear about your book too. I didn't really discuss science fiction in the blog, because I was thinking about "realistic" rather than "speculative" fiction, but of course it's a very important area, and the most fertile one for kids interested in science themes.

Juliet said...

I've just bought Jessica Haggerthwaite for my 9 year old daughter. She loved your other book, Emma, whizzing through it in 2 days!

Emma Barnes said...

Juliet - that's lovely to hear! I hope she enjoys Jessica Haggerthwaite.