Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Is There More Science in Fantasy than Real Life? Thinking About Science in Children's Books - by Emma Barnes

This week is British Science Week, when events up and down the country will be celebrating maths, science, technology and engineering. Many of these events will be directed at children and happening in schools. It's one of only many initiatives aimed at interesting children and teenagers in science. But while there may be plenty of workshops and demonstrations, what about the role of children's fiction?

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.

I have no science background, but twice I have used science in my books, and in a positive way.  Even more unusually, I've done so within the form of funny, middle grade fiction.  In Jessica Haggerthwaite, Witch Dispatcher Jessica (who wants to be a Famous Scientist one day) designs her own experiment to test and evaluate the results of her mother's magical potions on the tomato plants. The result is surprising for everyone – but as a good scientist Jessica soon works out all the implications. It is actually the only piece of children's fiction I know in which a child conducts a serious scientific experiment.

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 Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite


Nick Green said...

I think it was Einstein who said that one of the greatest qualities a scientist could have was imagination. You need to do more than measure and test. You also need vision to interpret and theorise.

The deeper you delve into the natural world, the more you realise that it's orders of magnitude more extraordinary, more incredible, more fantastical and strange than any work of fiction or myth or religion. Science is accused of stifling imagination, unweaving the rainbow, murdering to dissect, and nothing could be farther from the truth. If anyone ever wants their mind to be entirely blown, just read up all that has been discovered about the workings of a single cell in a living body. You really couldn't make it up.

Joan Lennon said...

I absolutely agree! Springboard, underpinning, hoard of ideas for stories - the more you find out about science the more amazing it gets!

C.J.Busby said...

Great post - and yes, I think you're right that science strangely ends up more in fantasy books than 'real life' ones. I think it's because writers are on their toes to make their magic hang together logically - they need to work out explanations for why things happen the way they do, so their protagonists are often set that task of figuring it out. And that sort of 'early science' of explaining the world is much easier to get across than real life modern science.

RosyB said...

Something I liked as a kid was different perspectives and interpretations of the same thing. Like Catweazle I remember Catweazle who has timetraveled from the past - assuming that electricity was "magic" and pulling on a nail looking hopefully at a lightbulb in the barn and intoning "Shine tiny light!" (I hope I've remembered that right!). I loved as a child feeling I knew that bit more than he did about what electricity was - but still relating to him because he was discovering the world anew and making me see my world anew. I think the Ogre Downstairs is great - not necessarily scientific but the way the kids DO the experiments. Properly with heating things up and cooling things down and all the proper apparatus.

Stroppy Author said...

George's Marvellous Medicine - surely that's how a lot of children discover science, by 'making potions'? Mine certainly did.

Nick is right that science is marvellous enough not to need fictionalising. Children *are* introduced to science as wonderful and exciting. I've written dozens of books for children with science in. It doesn't need to be in stories.

That said, I've also included science in stories but on the whole editors are resistant to it (perhaps because they are all arts graduates who don't understand it and are scared of it, and assume kids won't like it because they don't).

It's a fair point that much (not all) modern work in science is actually people in white coats using machines. But much work in everything is people sitting at desks using computers. The point is not really to show scientists at work but to get across the wonder of the things the scientists are discvering or working on, surely? It's true that children are mostly excluded from laboratories, but they are mostly excluded from all other workplaces, too. Children's fiction doesn't show us adult workplaces because it's about children's worlds. I think it's more about the writers/editors not knowing enough to be able to include it. All part of the public's general ignorance about science. It's still something of a badge of honour not to understand maths or science, rather than a source of shame (as it would be to be illiterate). Until that changes, editors can get away with shunning science.

But thank you - I'll load even more science into my current story and have that argument with editors!

Nick Green said...

Stroppy Anne, you are so right to point out the ridiculous pride some 'artsy' people take in being scientifically ignorant.

What drives me up the wall is when people climb out of their satellite-navigated cars, wake up their touch-screen smartphones, call up their cloud-based personal diaries and book an appointment with their doctor for an ultrasound scan before sitting down to a ready meal of vegetarian meat substitute, all while thinking, 'Science? Not for me.'

Emma Barnes said...

Catweazle and George's Marvellous Medicine - two other great examples. I guess what these "magical" type stories have in common with a scientific perspective is a spirit of inquiry about the world and a joy in experiment, and making things.

"It's still something of a badge of honour not to understand maths or science, rather than a source of shame (as it would be to be illiterate)." That's very true, Stroppy. I didn't really touch on that but you are right of course that there is a big Arts/Science divide - also, of course, that there is lots of excellent non-fiction, such as your own books (I'd thought of talking about non-fiction but I'd already written an essay...)

Alysa Stewart said...

You pose an interesting question! It makes me want to read more and make a list of books with science in them!