Fiction, after all, is where children see themselves reflected. It is also where they explore possibilities. When I longed to be a ballet dancer, if was because I had read Ballet Shoes. If I thought about becoming a vet it was because I was neck deep in James Herriot. When I decided to study history, my interest had first been fired by Jean Plaidy's Young Elizabeth and Barbara Willard's Mantlemass books.
Where are the stories that excite children about science?
As I said in this post, scientists, when they do appear in children's books at all, are often of a type – bad, mad and dangerous to know. If you are trying to interest a young person in science, or maybe find fiction books that a science-mad kid might adore, you're likely to have a tough time. Children's books in which science plays any role in the plot, or is portrayed realistically, are few and far between.
(This is true of adult fiction, too. In fact this site, Lablit, is an attempt to address the problem.)
Even where science seems to be to the forefront, it often isn't. In the classic A Wrinkle In Time, heroine Meg's parents are scientists. But it is the power of love that enables Meg to save her brother, not scientific discovery. It's really a spiritual message that L'Engle is interested in, more than the scientific principles of time travel. In another classic, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, the scientists have created the immensely intelligent rats, but are too stupid to understand their own creation, while the rats' task is to escape and try and create a better way of life.
In fact the theme of both books - scientists messing up, and more humane types dealing with the consequences - is probably a perennial in children's books.
Even the recent emergence of geek cool, epitomised by those nerdy, scientific genii of the Big Bang Theory, while making it easier for any kid that likes to hang out in a physic lab, or spend his or her time coding, hasn't done much to alter the content of children's fiction. At least, not on the shelves of the bookshops I know.
In Wolfie, the heroine, Lucie, is given a pet dog – which just happens to be a talking wolf. At the climax of the story it becomes very important indeed whether Wolfie is a dog or a wolf, and luckily it so happens that Lucie's neighbour is a distinguished Professor of Zoology and expert on Canid and Lupine Studies. (I say luckily - in fact, this is something that Lucie has to uncover with some difficulty.) The Professor's judgement is rigorously scientific – but there's a twist...
These are the only two of my books with a scientific element, and the interesting thing is that they both feature a strong magical element. Jessica Haggerthwaite is not actually a fantasy, but her mother, Mrs Haggerthwaite, is of the firm opinion that she is a professional witch and acts accordingly. Wolfie – complete with wolves that talk and fly – is definitely fantasy. And yet, science and fantasy are opposites - aren't they?
Or perhaps not. If science rarely crops up among "real life" children's books, then maybe there is a reason. For science is an activity sealed off from the everyday lives of children - and indeed, of most non-scientists. Amateur scientists rarely ascend the rooftops these days to observe the stars through their telescopes, or gather fossils for museums to display. Science goes on in dedicated laboratories barred to children, and wrapped around with Health and Safety regulations. Its practitioners are almost always paid, professional experts.
So perhaps the practice of science, the devising of theorems, the following of formula, the investigations of nature and the attempts to understand and control it, are better represented in fantasy, than everyday life? Professor Snape with his Potions laboratory, and Professor Sprout with her careful Herbology experiments at Hogwarts may be the best representations of a scientific laboratory (minus the Health and Safety regulations) available to children. Diana Wynne Jones's Ogre Downstairs, with the chemistry set that goes drastically wrong, or her Charmed Life with the dangerous, illicit dragonsblood, conveys the perilous nature of certain substances better than any real life scenario. (Charmed Life also features linked worlds – an idea taken from modern physics.) And then there is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights with its mysterious Dust...
A recent report into What Kids Are Reading suggests that children's choices of books tends to be evenly divided between funny real-life stories, and fantasy. Is it actually in the fantasy section of their bookshelves that children get the greatest chance to think about what is such an important part of real life - science?
Emma's series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever is published by Scholastic.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman
Wolfie is published by Strident. It is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite