What the Rosy Hare Told Me about Writing for Kids

16 January 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: Elizabeth Preston

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elizabeth Preston, editor of the children’s science magazine Muse. Preston will be co-moderating a session on science writing for kids at ScienceOnline 2013. She writes about science for grown-ups on her blog, Inkfish.]

In 2011 I received a strange email about a bunny.

“We have a presenter here who is telling kids about the discovery of pink bunnies,” a woman working at a science museum wrote. “He said he read an article in your magazine sometime last year on the subject...can you send me a link? I need to have confirmation that pink bunnies exist.” She had been scouring our website for answers.

I was a little pink myself when I wrote back to her. Yes, this factoid had appeared in Muse, the children’s science magazine I edit. Our story had described the rosy hare, a fluffy Arctic species whose pinkish fur helps it camouflage with the sunset-tinted snow at dusk, its feeding time. No, it was not true. And everything would have been fine if not for the adults.

When I began working at Muse in 2007, I inherited the task of writing a regular feature called Bo’s Page. Bo is a cartoon cow and one of the magazine’s nine “New Muses.” She hosts a science news roundup in each issue—one spread containing six or so brief stories about new research. The catch is that, as Bo declares on the page, “One of these stories is false. Can you spot which one?”

Elizabeth Preston

Attentive readers may find hints. Hot-pink bunnies, for example, are a running gag in the magazine. But the answer isn’t a secret; it’s actually on the very same page, printed upside-down in the bottom margin.

The museum speaker must have picked up a magazine and glimpsed the item about the rosy hare without noticing what was around it. He wasn’t the first adult to be flummoxed by Bo’s Page. Once, a friend who was sitting on my couch and flipping through a Muse stopped, turned to me and said, “Oh my God! Did you know that mad cow disease combined with bird flu and created mad bird flu?” (I had been especially proud of that one.)

Over the years, a handful of parents have written to express polite concern about Bo’s Page. “I want my children to receive the most accurate information and use their free reading time to improve their knowledge,” one Ohio mom wrote. “What is the purpose of spending time reading a story that then turns out to be false?” She said, “I always take my highlighter and mark the ‘false story’ so my children don’t waste their time reading it.”

Because this mom seemed honestly curious, I wrote back to her. (I resisted the urge to ask if her kids were allowed to read fiction.) Although I wasn’t around for the start of Bo’s Page, I explained to her what I believe are its reasons for being.

One is to encourage readers to think critically about what they see in print. It’s an illustration that just because something is on a glossy page doesn’t mean it’s true. To solve the puzzle, kids need to bring their own thinking to the stories and decide whether they really make sense.

Another goal of Bo’s Page is to show readers how wild and changeable things are on the cutting edge. Some new research is significant (the Higgs boson); some is amazing (squid that shed their arms to escape predators, then regrow them later); some is silly (people walking on treadmills in medieval armor). Today’s discovery might be disproved next week. In another year, this month’s false fact might be true.

Furthermore, and most crucially: the kids love it. It’s a game. For every concerned letter from a parent, we’ve had two more from readers asking us to move the answer to a different page so it’s harder. And if I had a quarter for every kid who said Bo’s Page was her favorite part of the magazine, I’m pretty sure I could buy my own bunny and have it dyed.

The worried adults say kids won’t read carefully enough to know which stories are fact and which are fiction. But how many of their 13-year-olds have read all 4,224 pages of the Harry Potter series? How many have read those pages more than once and can name every house-elf at Hogwarts? How many of us grown-ups skim more often than we read?

The exciting side of writing for kids — after you labor over introducing vocabulary words and replacing old-fashioned idioms and being cool without seeming like you’re trying too hard — is that if your readers like what you’ve done, they’ll give it an almost scary amount of attention. Since well before my time, the Muse kids have been obsessive. They read the masthead, the photo credits and the advertisement on the back cover. If there’s a typo somewhere, they will notice it. And then they will write letters about it. (There are few things more demoralizing as an editor, I can report, than having an 11-year-old point out your homonym error.)

If anyone needs challenging text highlighted on their pages, it’s the adults. Maybe publishers will take advantage of new ePub formats to add flashing callouts to writing that could trip us up. WARNING: NON-LITERAL STATEMENTS AHEAD! THERE IS NO HARE!

As for the fiction-hating mom, she surprised me by writing again. “Thank you very much for your letter,” she wrote. “Your point that children need to think analytically...is an excellent one. I admit that I sometimes think if it’s in print, it must be correct.” I was satisfied that I had helped her to read more like a kid.


3 Responses to “What the Rosy Hare Told Me about Writing for Kids”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Excellent piece! However, I do tend to share the same concern as those parents. I've never seen an issue of Muse sadly but I too wonder whether mixing fiction with a science predisposition can be misleading. You tend to say that children will recognise it instantly. While I certainly agree that regular readers will, what about the casual reader?

  2. Chris Smith Reply | Permalink

    Kids are awesome. They're so unafraid to think compared to adults. I'm wondering if science writing for kids should pay attention to the parents. too. Should the writing tend to the parents' needs, or how do you write in such a way that parents understand the pursuit is better than the answer?

  3. Elizabeth Preston Reply | Permalink

    Chris: I wonder about that too! Unlike with an adult audience, readers aren't buying the product for themselves. So I have to consider the parents at least a little bit--if they're unhappy, they won't renew a subscription. But I mostly focus on the kids. Even if the parents don't totally get it, they're usually happy as long as their kids are.

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