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…