Experiments in Science Writing for Kids: Getting them in the Lab

Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947) illustrated by Clement Hurd has  inspired a flock of parodies—Good morning brew by Dale E. Grind,  Goodnight goon, by Michael Rex,  Goodnight, I-pad, by Ann Droyd, Goodnight Trump and Goodnight Bush, by Erich Origen and Gan Golan, and F—k you Sun, by Matt Cole and Rigel Stuhmiller are just a few.  President Obama, Keith Moon, and Mr. Darcy have all been dragged in the reimagined big green room for better or worse.   Another entry in the crowded field is Goodnight Lab: A Scientific Parody (2017) by Canadian Chris Ferrie, physicist, mathematician, father of four, and creator of the ever-expanding universe of the Baby University, a series of board books introducing “STEM for the youngest among us” that treat “babies like the geniuses they are.”

Number 62 on Amazon’s list of Children’s Physics Books, straggling behind a cross section of Ferrie’s STEM board books and Jody Jensen Shaffer’s Vampires and Light in the series Monster Science, Goodnight Lab is aimed at a multi-generational audience of scientists from one to one hundred.   Ferrie has impressive credentials as a passionate science educator, but he bit off more than he could chew “poking fun at the clutter and chaos of lab life.”

His lab has green walls, a red carpet, a bright yellow shelving unit  for stashing technical equipment and tools, a yellow table with a  laser plugged into the wall, a notebook, pen, and half-filled coffee mug, with a portrait of Einstein staring down sternly over all the litter.   Seated at the table is a girl of color wearing a white lab coat and protective goggles identifying her as a scientist.

The pedestrian text and static illustrations don’t convey much about how she spent her day in the “world of research” before saying “Good night” to a laser, ammeter, voltmeter, thermometer, spectrometer, cannisters of liquid nitrogen and compressed air and locking up.  Ferrie’s real subject seems to have been the excitement of living the life of the mind, but Brown and Hurd’s depiction of a child’s cozy bedtime ritual is not an especially congenial vehicle for it.  Whether or not this “procedure”  for closing a lab is accurate, it is no more dramatic than showing a writer close the file of the novel in progress, shut down the laptop, and turn out the light before leaving the book-lined study.   The book works better as a novelty for adults than as inspiration for budding scientists.

11 Experiments that Failed (2011)  by Jenny Offill and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter promises a humorous take on the agonies and ecstasies of scientific discovery in a similar spirit to their 17 Things I’m not allowed to do anymore (2006).  The heroins is a girl in a lab coat and goggles without a name and she’s filled a trash can to overflowing with crumpled up sheets of paper covered with drawings of trial balloons.  The book memorializes eleven experiments would fly with food, animals, motion, perfume, and household objects she thought would fly.   She sets out to answer goofy questions that call for equally preposterous methods of proof within the confines of the family home.

It is a foregone conclusion that none of them will work, so it falls to the illustrator to realize spectacular scenarios in which they fail.   One compels the guests at  her mother’s cocktail party to leave early.  Another ruins a pair of her brother’s sneakers and makes his closet too smelly to leave the door ajar.  A third causes the toilet to overflow and the house to flood, bringing the girl’s brilliant career to an ignominious close.

Does the book really teach anything useful about scientific method?  Some of the experiments are pretty funny, others fall flat, and some are just plain silly.  I’m not convinced that’s really what Offill and Carpenter were up to: they seemed much more interested in celebrating girl-generated chaos.   These days naughty girls in the Ramona mold are not anything and expectations for such a character’s ability to stir up mischief are pretty high.

Writing picture books to inspire the scientist in every kid is harder than it looks, even for people who can do the math…


Made by a Child: An Illustrated French Arithmetic Work Book (1833)

A splendid cahier d’arithmetic made for a pupil by his teacher recently on the market.

Workbooks of arithmetical problems sound like the least likely of any elementary educational work to use illustrations as relief from the columns of figures.  That is a perfectly reasonable assumption if you learned basic arithmetical operations from the average twentieth-century textbook, which need not  appeal to the eye or imagination (there are exceptions, of course)..  While this may be true of printed workbooks, it is not really true in the case of the modern print genre of playful, colorful counting books or manuscript workbooks made before 1850. These manuscripts are frequently highly visual, decorated in a wide variety of styles, and their design and illustration offer intriguing evidence about how children acquired basic numeracy 1660-1850, that also raise questions with no easy answers.

Cotsen has added another example of a manuscript arithmetic workbook to its collection.  Le petit livret d’arithmetique was made by Jacques Gounon, a student  of M. Michel Francois “instruteur elementaire” in Moussac, a commune near Uzès in the department of Gard in southern France. The title page is dated 1833, but it is unclear if the year indicates the date of the beginning or the completion  (sometimes the student recorded the dates exercises were completed, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule).  Jacques used a very black ink that showed through the pages, making some of them appear to be covered with patches of scribbles that are more or less indecipherable.  The exercises on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division look as if they embody the traditional rule-driven arithmetic pedagogy dating back to the eighteenth century, but a historian of numeracy might able to identify the printed source Jacques’ teacher assigned or detect changes in the pedagogy after studying the manuscript.

Jacques, who seems to have had some artistic talent, drew headpieces throughout his workbook, none of them with any connection to the lessons below. His subjects are ones which would interest a boy—harlequins, horses, and soldiers.

The choice of some subjects, such as headpieces of the rooster perched on a trumpet, the dragon clutching a man in its claws, and the camel and reindeer bearing  flags, are opaque without some explanation.  My preliminary research indicates that Jacques’ illustrations and decorations had contemporary political overtones.

The two quadrupeds are expressing their solidarity with the current regime by flying the tricolore, whose use had been suspended at the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and recently restored after the July Revolution of 1830.  The rooster has long been an emblem of the French nation based on the play on words between gallus, a cockerel, and gallus, a resident of Gaul.  Somewhat eclipsed by Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic’s chief values of liberté, égalité et fraternité, it may have been a token of Jacques’ loyalty to Louis Philippe, Duke of Chartres, who ascended the throne after his cousin Charles IX was forced to abdicate by the July Revolutionaries.

The meaning and source of the dragon is somewhat mysterious.  Perhaps the beast  was inspired by cheap French popular print, like this block on the cover of a Valentine and Orson chapbook.  Its victim is wearing a hat.  Might it be a clumsy rendering of the Phrygian bonnet or liberty cap worn by French revolutionaries?

Was he directed by his teacher to illustrate some of the arithmetic assignments? If it were mandatory, was it a way of practicing other skills the teacher wanted him to learn? Or was the option of decorating  the workbook been offered as an inducement to plough through the material?  Was he free to chose the subjects without approval?  To answer these questions, we would have to know more about the school’s master and the curriculum he taught.  Was M. Michel Francois a writing master?   Was he trained by a professional calligrapher, who would have been more likely to have his pupils lay out the pages elegantly with embellishments?  Or was he a master who advertised his ability to teach his pupils the essential skills of writing and ciphering that would serve them well in trade and commerce?

Manuscript arithmetic workbooks are not just attractive because of their illustrations, but because they also present complicated puzzles for historians of education to crack.