In anticipation for NF Fest coming up in February, author Lisa Amstutz gives us a peek into the thought processes involved in digging out the heart of science. Thank you, Lisa!
Finding the Heart of Science
I’ve enjoyed reading the posts here on mining for heart – so many helpful ideas! As a (mostly) science writer, I have the same goal: to find the heart of a story.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “What? Heart in science? I thought science was just about facts!” Science IS about facts—but it’s more than that: it’s the story of how the world works. The job of a science writer is to find how that story can connect to readers; to make them feel part of it, and to make them care. But how?
As I pondered this question, I also surveyed some science-writing friends how they find the heart in their stories. Our answers fell into four main categories.
1. Relate the topic to your reader
Consider how your subject relates to your readers’ everyday life. How can it help them understand the world around them – and themselves – better? For example, how are animal claws similar to their fingernails? How do their actions affect the environment? How is technology changing their future?
Author Wendy Lanier says, “I always try to think about what the kids will find interesting. I wonder what will pique their interest and try to include that. At its core, I guess I’m also trying to include the why factor—the ‘why would you want to know this’ part. I always have my students in the back of my mind, and I’m looking for the things that will make them say, ‘Cool!’”
Melissa Stewart helps young readers relate to the animal “underdogs” that are subjects of her book Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers and points out how their weaknesses are also strengths. She writes on her blog: “…Pipsqueaks is a book about animal adaptations and about celebrating the traits that make us different and unique. It’s my way of offering hope to children who are being bullied right now.” This emotional connection makes it more than just a book about interesting animals—it adds heart.
2. Share a sense of wonder
Kids are naturally interested in the world around them. And for good reason—it is amazing! Stoking that sense of wonder helps kids connect to nature and ultimately to care for it. The child who falls in love with birds or bugs today will be much more likely to protect the environment in the future.
This is the heart of my book Finding a Dove for Gramps (Albert Whitman & Co., 2018), which centers on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. In the story, the main character finds joy in spotting and identifying the birds and recognizes the importance of the bird count in helping to protect them. Family relationships add another layer of emotional connection.
This sense of wonder and concern for nature is also what I hope kids will take away from my latest book, Amazing Amphibians (Chicago Review Press, 2020). The book introduces kids to these amazing creatures, but also makes them aware of the dangers they face.
3. The people behind the science
Another way to find heart in science topics is to introduce the people behind the science. This personalizes the topic for the reader and makes it less abstract. It also makes it easier to care.
Author Peggy Thomas says she used this technique in some of her books. She writes, “In my Science of Saving Animals series, I focused on the people. Each chapter introduced a different scientist working in forensics, genetics, etc. and how they work to protect different species. They were all working toward the same goal.” Through these scientists, the reader learns why these animals—even the unlikeable ones—are important to the ecosystem and, ultimately, to us.
4. The critical decision
A fourth way to engage readers is to present an important choice—what we might call a critical decision. Identifying a critical problem makes readers think. It engages their interest and helps them feel invested in the outcome, whether they agree or disagree with the solution.
Author Stephanie Bearce writes, “I always try to find the critical problem. Why are scientists working to figure this out? On my wolf manuscript I learned that the critically low gene pool of the Gray Wolves drives all the decision making. Their desire is to save the subspecies. If it were just to keep a wolf population in general alive, it would be a totally different set of decisions. I’m working on a space book, and the critical questions are also what drives the story. We are going to explore space, but will it be manned or unmanned? Those are two very different problems.”
This is certainly not an exhaustive list. How do you find the heart in your science stories? Please share in the comments – I’d love to continue the discussion!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of 100+ children’s books. She specializes in topics related to science and agriculture. For more information about Lisa’s books, critique services, and mentorships, see http://www.LisaAmstutz.com.