Elements of Excellent Science Books

The Case of Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press

I want to talk a little about what makes an excellent science book for children. I could probably say even more on the subject, but I’d like to at least put some ideas out there.

A key point of reference is Melissa Stewart’s December 2015 blog post about Diversity in Thinking. In it, Melissa looks at data from some key awards and delves into what kinds of nonfiction books are more likely to win awards. In short, books that focus on life stories (biography, autobiography, and memoir) and history win far more awards than do books that focus on science.

Why Focus on Science Books?

I would like to propose that one reason is that excellence in a science book might look a bit different than excellence in other types of books. Today I thought I’d share a list of key elements* I look for when I’m acquiring and editing books on science topics.

Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved An Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved An Ecosystem by Patricia Newman

Structure

Again, I’m compelled to mention Melissa Stewart–she has written a lot on her blog (and elsewhere) about the variety of nonfiction text types. I enjoy working on books with different kinds of structures, and I always want to see a structure that works well with the topic of the book. A look at how a scientist made a new discovery, such as in the book Sea Otter Heroes, may be best served by a chronological narrative so that readers can follow along as the story unfolds. Meanwhile, a science book that explores what types of teeth mammals have, such as in the book Tooth by Tooth, could be most engaging when presented with a Q&A format.

Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers by Sara Levine, illustrated by Spookytooth
Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers by Sara Levine, illustrated by Spookytooth

CLARITY

Scientific ideas can be complex. Young readers (and even adult readers) need to clearly understand the scientific concepts related to the topic at hand. When a concept–whether introducing what atoms are or explaining how an ecosystem works–is explained well, a reader may hardly notice it. The reader simply takes in the information and continues. But this is anything but simple; it takes tremendous skill to present a complex topic clearly! Science writing may be a bit pared down when compared to the writing in novels, which may involve more description. But I would argue that this style perfectly serves the subject matter and is in no way inherently “lesser” writing.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery, a science book for grades 4-6
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle

SIGNIFICANCE

As I read nonfiction submissions, I often ask myself “why does this matter?” Readers (or writers) well versed in science may know why a topic is significant or how it relates to other concepts or discoveries to help us build a body of knowledge about how the world works, but I also want to be sure readers who aren’t well versed in science know why a topic matters. I remember talking with Sandra Markle while she was working on the science book The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats about why the deaths of bats from white-nose syndrome is significant and what it would mean for our world if there were fewer bats.

The Search for Olinguito: Discovering A New Species, a science book for grades 3-6
The Search for Olinguito: Discovering A New Species by Sandra Markle

SCIENTIFIC THINKING

What should a reader get out of a book on a scientific topic? Of course I want the reader to come away with an understanding of the topic. But I also hope the reader will absorb a sense of how science works or how scientists think. In the book The Search for Olinguito, readers learn facts about what an olinguito is and where it lives, but they can also get a sense of the importance of publishing one’s findings. (There’s a fascinating moment when the scientist working on establishing that the olinguito is a distinct species submits a paper for publication . . . and it’s rejected.)

When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses, a science book for grades 4-8
When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses by Rebecca L. Johnson

SOURCES

All information is not equal. Are the author’s sources newspaper and magazine articles or do they also include scientific papers and interviews with relevant scientists? In working on Rebecca L. Johnson’s When Lunch Fights Back, I was delighted that Rebecca was able to connect with scientists studying each animal profiled in the book and give readers a sense of what scientists are currently trying to learn about the animals–as well as what they already know.

I’d welcome comments, feedback, and questions. How do you approach science books? What do you look for? What do you think makes a book excellent?

*I would call this list the 5 S’s were it not for the fact that one of them starts with C. Whoops!

16 thoughts on “Elements of Excellent Science Books

  1. Melissa Stewart

    What a terrific post. I especially love this “When a concept . . . is explained well, a reader may hardly notice it. The reader simply takes in the information and continues. But this is anything but simple”

    Developing the scaffolding to build an understanding of a complex scientific concept can be tricky when readers have limited background knowledge and vocabulary skills, but it's a challenge I relish.

  2. Carol Hinz

    Thanks so much for your response, Melissa! This topic has been on my mind for quite some time, but it was only recently that I started thinking about how the writing itself might be different (and should be different) from novels and even other types of nonfiction.

    It's amazing how you and other skilled nonfiction authors can make a topic a child may know nothing about so clear and accessible!

  3. laurasalas

    Excellent post, Carol! Even though your topic itself isn't scientific, I love how you've structured your piece and explained the criteria using many of the same techniques/qualities you're looking for:>) And Melissa's insights into nonfiction and science, in particular, are always helpful and spot on.

  4. Miranda Paul

    Excellent article, Carol! I will share a link to it at a presentation this summer. You always provide such thoughtful and useful information for nonfiction writers. Thank you.

  5. Carol Hinz

    Aw, thank you, Laura! Striving for clarity in my own writing gives me all the more respect for authors who take on that challenge in book after book. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Jess Keating

    Chiming in to say YES! This is such an excellent post, and I'm so happy to see thinking like this in terms of how we approach reading and evaluating these important books!

  7. Carrie Pearson

    I'm sharing your informative post with SCBWI MI members writing in this genre as well. (And how cool is it that the comment-ers are part of the “who's who” in science books for children? ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Shutta

    Carol, enjoyed this clearly explained guide to writing non-fiction for kids. Also, I just read The Search for Olinguito and loved how the scientist ended up visiting so many museums around the world. It really made me wonder about how many other interesting things we have already collected and that are just gathering dust in archives around the world. Thanks!

  9. Linda Zajac

    Thanks for sharing! I read this post twice and the second time, it sparked an idea on how to restructure a manuscript an entirely different way.

  10. Carol Hinz

    Thank you, Shutta! Yes, it was fascinating to learn that so much of the evidence for the discovery had been languishing in museum archives all along.

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