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April 26, 2010
Volume 88, Number 17
p. 56

Where Science Meets Children's Fiction

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Courtesy of Marianne Dyson
Fact-checker: Dyson, a former NASA flight controller, polices scientific accuracy in children's books.

Kids just love the fantastic, imaginative aspects of science fiction books; it's what makes them a fun read. But as many science-minded parents know, there is a fine line between "fun" and "accurate," and often authors have imaginations that need to be reeled in.

Marianne J. Dyson, a science writer and former National Aeronautics & Space Administration flight controller, strives to provide parents and educators with a buffer between the fantastic and the factual. She has written her own SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE CHILDREN'S BOOKS and reviews both nonfiction and fiction on her website.

"Parents and teachers seem to think that because a book is fiction, the science does not have to be accurate," Dyson says. "Very few children's book writers and editors have science backgrounds, and fiction books are almost never fact-checked." This can seriously influence young minds and propagate misconceptions, such as the idea that there's no gravity in space, that the moon is a stationary object, or that rocks in space are meteors (those rocks are meteoroids; meteors are the streaks of light they leave behind).

What Dyson hopes to do through her website book reviews "is raise awareness of some of the common errors and misconceptions in children's science and science fiction books so that authors and editors will be more careful, and so that teachers and librarians can help counteract the misinformation with updated and accurate data," she tells Newscripts.

But astronomy isn't the only type of science that makes its way into children's books; chemistry and biology have made appearances as well. Jacqueline Jaeger Houtman, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recently wrote to Newscripts about the publication of her children's book, "The Reinvention of Edison Thomas."


Visit C&ENtral Science to read Faith's blog entry related to this story

» A Chemistry-Themed Book Launch

To ensure the accuracy of her book, Houtman turned to her husband, Carl, who has advanced degrees in chemical engineering and is a member of the American Chemical Society. "I made sure to confirm my facts by consulting multiple reliable websites," she explains. "I also asked experts to explain concepts or review the text for accuracy."

In Houtman's book, 12-year-old Eddie Thomas is an autistic middle schooler who recites the elements of the periodic table when he's anxious and who knows the Latin names for most animals and plants.

"A lot of parents and teachers who work with kids on the autism spectrum are finding the book appealing and useful," Houtman says. "I tried to make it a really accessible book, rather than a lesson-oriented book. It's full of science and gets across how kids on the autism spectrum view the world without hitting people over the head with it."

For Houtman, though, writing a children's book containing scientific elements and an autistic protagonist wasn't just about promoting science and autism awareness, it was also about giving children who are enthusiastic about science a voice to identify with.

"A lot of fiction is written by English majors who don't have a scientific mind-set," Houtman says. "I think books acknowledging that there are kids in the world who are very science-minded are a great affirmation to a population that tends to be neglected in fiction."

In addition to "The Reinvention of Edison Thomas," other children's books containing accurate science include "Home on the Moon," by Dyson, and "Earthseed," by Pamela Sargent. For more recommendations, visit mariannedyson.com.

Faith Hayden wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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