During a recent school visit, as I held up magazines
containing articles I'd written, a hand shot up from the sea of
6-year-olds. "Hey, I
have that one at home!" For
a few seconds, the young boy could hardly contain his excitement, and
then suddenly he settled back on his heels, leaned forward earnestly,
and in a subdued tone, eyes wide, asked, "Can a worm *really* be
longer than a school bus?"
victorious "Yessss!!!!" raced through my head.
I had searched long and hard for something "about 30 feet
long" so my young readers would understand how amazingly long that
worm was. "School
bus" was it...and it had worked!
In this business, where feedback from readers is rare, you don't
often know when references hit the mark, but that day, proof was resting
on his heels in front of me. Who
knows how long that child will think "long worm" whenever he
sees a school bus? That's the power of a relevant reference.
Young readers have limited life experience compared to
adults, so if you're writing for kids---nonfiction or fiction---you're
introducing them to new ideas and information all the time.
It comes with the turf. The
key to introducing new information so kids will "get it" is to
link it to something they already know.
Choose relevant references, and not only will your words and
ideas "stick", but you'll avoid the "Huh?"---you
know, that tilted head, raised lip and eyebrow thing kids do with their
faces when they haven't got a clue what you're talking about.
What's a writer to do?
Compare, Compare, Compare
Similes and metaphors are great tools to link new info to
something kids already know.
Similes compare two things using "like" or
"as", and metaphors talk about one thing while referring to
something completely different. For example, Meg Moss starts her
archeology article in Ask, May/June 2003, with a terrific simile: the
earth is layered with different materials, textures, and colors like
a large lasagna. Anyone who has poked a fork through layers of
noodles, sauce, and cheese will have an appreciation for the earth's
layers, too. My "sea
of 6-year-olds" metaphor in the first paragraph gives you a sense
of a large group with lots of movement. Similes are suitable for all
ages, metaphors (more abstract) are generally better kept for older
Put Kids in the Action
Use story telling techniques to get the reader right up close
to the action. If you're
writing nonfiction, you have to stick to the facts---no made up
stuff---but try writing in second person "you" to plop the
reader into the thick of things. "So---you're
in the middle of a rainforest. All
around you, you see..." Readers will "be there" and
remember what it was like if you let them see, feel, smell, taste, or
hear what's going on. "Beep,
beep, beep---getting closer---and closer. Ah hah! Tracks. Cat tracks.
Cougar prints heading that way. What does the researcher do?"
Readers are right there with the researcher, hearing and seeing exactly
what the researcher does, in Megan Kopp's cougar-tracking article (YES
Mag, Jan/Feb 2004) You can also involve readers by showing a direct
relationship between them and the subject.
Blood doesn't rush to a bat's head when it hangs upsidedown for
the same reason it doesn't rush to a kid's feet when the kid is standing
up...or better yet, go for the fun factor, and tell your readers that
blood doesn't rush to their, um, rather large body part touching the
chair when they're sitting! (YES
Mag, May/June 2002)
Be Visual, Concrete, Fun
Go for concrete, active references...something that instantly
conjures up a picture in your mind.
For instance, some small-toothed eels take a chomp out of larger
fish by spinning them around really fast , like turning a skipping
rope. Kids can
visualize how that fish is spinning around.
Saying something is "big" or "29 meters"
doesn't mean much, but tell readers that blue whales can be as long as a
basketball court, with a heart the size of a small car, and blood
vessels you can swim through, and they'll have a good idea what
"big" is all about.
Pascal's law (water can't be squished so the more pressure
applied to it, the faster it leaves a pipe...yawn) becomes interesting
and relevant to a 10-year-old when you write about it as the science
behind squirt guns and Super Soakers.
Even the physics of hydraulics is possible subject matter for
kids when you choose relevant references.
Look for the "Ew!", "Cool!", and
"Phew!" in your topic.
Make it Work for Everyone
DON'T LET GEOGRAPHY STOP YOU
Kelly Milner Halls writes about kiwi birds the size of a chicken
(Hullabaloo, April/May 2003), and Geoff Williams about tamarins as
"squirrel-size primates" (National Geographic World, June
2002) Kids everywhere in
North America know chickens and squirrels.
"As long as an alligator", or "the size of a
pacific tree frog" aren't universal enough.
BE ON TIME
Make sure your references are things kids of today would know about.
They likely won't be familiar with LP records, slide rules, or
dial telephones. Think high
tech and what's cool and relevant to kids.
How many skateboards long is that shark?
Did the light on that fish blink like a cursor?
USE WHAT YOU HAVE
Body parts are great for approximate references.
Hummingbirds as big as your thumb, a tail as long as your arm, or
eardrums the size of your smallest fingernail.
And every child has the magazine to refer to, so...is the worm as
small as the period at the end of a sentence?
Or your insect "longer than this page" or "about
the size of this letter 'o'?
JUST DO IT!
Insert simple physical activities that'll let kids see for themselves
how something works. Have
them run their tongues over their teeth to feel the different shapes for
biting and chewing, or drag a finger over a comb to make noise like a
Create a kid activity that simulates the real thing.
Push and twist a drinking straw into a cheese sandwich to create
a "core sample" like geologist take from the ground.
Stick a wet piece of paper to a window to see how licking a
suction cup makes it stick better.
How about "cookie archeology"? After experiencing the
care needed to "excavate" chocolate chips from a cookie using
toothpick tools, kids will understand that archeologists work slowly and
carefully so they don't destroy the artifacts.
Writing historical topics? Have
your readers make something to understand how people did it in the past.
Make ink from blackberries, dip candles, or make mashed potato
candy like pioneers. By going through the process themselves, kids understand what
life was like way back when.
In the end, relevant references will make the difference
between getting a "Really?" or a "Huh?".
It's worth spending the time to think of fresh, original,
meaningful, and fun references. Your writing will be stronger and have a greater impact, and
editors will be more excited to give you assignments. Reach down inside and find that part of you that's a kid.
That's where the connections start.
Bayrock is the author of BUBBLE HOME AND FISH FARTS (Charlesbridge)
and several other quirky science books for kids. Her news items,
activities and feature articles have appeared
regularly in YESMag, Odyssey, WILD, Highlights for Children and several
educational databases. She
is constantly in search of the "Aha!", clever puns, and her
coffee. This article first appeared on kidmagwriters.com, August