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…


Great American Women Cookbook Writers in Picture Book Herstories

Count on  Deborah Hopkinson, a distinguished author of children’s non-fiction, to take on the challenge of introducing two giants of American culinary herstory in picture book biographies.  Her subjects are Amelia Simmons, whose American Cookery (1796) was the first of its kind and Fanny Merritt Farmer (1857-1912), author of the best-selling Boston Cooking School Cookbook  (1896), which in various incarnations  reached a 13th edition in 1990.  Not having led adventurous lives, painted innovative artwork, made major advances in science, or written famous fictions, the two women had to be largely reinvented to be worthy of remembrance.

Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915), the first to write recipes with precise quantities measured in standardized equipment in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), was a product of the domestic science movement.  She came from a well-educated Boston Unitarian family and was expected to attend college.  Those plans were upended by a paralytic stroke (or polio) she suffered at age sixteen.   She regained enough strength in her twenties to learn cooking and operate a boarding house known for its bill of fare out of her mother’s home.  Although mostly confined to a wheelchair by thirty, she still pursued a busy and successful career teaching, administering the Boston Cooking School, founding her own school, and improving nutrition and care of invalids.

Fanny in the Kitchen could have been the inspirational story of a physically challenged female icon, but Hopkinson chose instead to dream up a story revolving around the daughter of Mrs. Charles Shaw, Fannie’s employer of  who recommended she attend the Boston Cooking School. Fannie cooks like an angel, much to the dismay of Marcia Shaw, who feels she has been displaced as her pregnant mother’s helper.  Fannie, as realized by illustrator Nancy Carpenter, has the briskly efficient no-nonsense air (and turned-up nose) of Mary Poppins.  She is kind and attentive enough to see that Marcia likes being in the kitchen and wants to learn.  Marcia’s lessons give her the idea of writing everything down to make it easier to retain the art and science of cookery.  Her pupil’s mastery of cake baking coincides with her departure for new horizons.Almost no biographical information survives about Amelia Simmons beyond a few tidbits in the cookbook.  Hopkinson’s solution?  Admit up front that she’sl Inventing a credible backstory for the “American orphan” that is  a “revolutionary confection.”   It goes like this: her father perished in the war of independence and her mother died shortly thereafter of smallpox, leaving their daughter poor and friendly. The wives of the town elders decide that rather than making the municipality responsible for her maintenance, a family will take her in as a “bound girl,” presented by Hopkinson as a kind of mother’s helper rather than a contractual form of slavery.   Stalwart  Amelia walks into the Beans’ chaotic home, where two of the six boys take bites out of apples and toss them aside like colonial Ramona Quimbys.   Without missing a beat, she takes over household management from their overwhelmed mother.

This is a cheerier and more palatable take on Miss Simmons’ slightly sour explanation of her qualifications for writing American Cookery.  Being “reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics,” she possesses “the more general and universal knowledge” a female needs to be of service to her employer, the “Lady of fashion and fortune.”  Simmons’ advice that an orphan in service must maintain a character for strict virtue, coded language for the unpleasant reality that she will have no protectors to forestall the unwanted advances of the master or his son is given a pass by Hopkinson,

She does, however, assume that Amelia Simmons intended to rise above her gallingly low social position.   Having learned to read by helping one of the little Beans with his letters,  when asked by Mrs. Bean how she might assist her,  Amelia replies that she wants to master the art of American cooking so she can share it with her fellow citizens.  But first she has to build upon a foundation upon English recipes, then advance to variations using American ingredients like winter squash, molasses, and corn meal, testing them on the hungry Bean family.   A successful afternoon tea where the town ladies sample Amelia’s divine cakes and strawberry preserve, leads to an invitation to bake a cake as a gift for display on the occasion of George Washington’s inauguration.  That “plucky patriot” Amelia outdoes herself by producing thirteen cakes, one for each of the new states, lavishly decorated with gilt.  Our first president pronounces his slice “Delicious.”

Of course, there is not a word of truth in this pretty tale of the new nation.  There is nothing distinctively American about Amelia’s independence cake, whose recipe is very close to almost any English recipe for  a yeast-raised great cake, with its huge quantities of flour, butter, eggs, brandy and “plumbs”—raisins, currants, and citron.  If Hopkinson had slipped in more nuggets from American Cookery—Amelia’s praise of shad, her suggestion that raising rabbits was a sure money-maker, her distaste for garlic, her recipes for what looks like a good old pot pie, a Christmas butter cookie flavored with ground coriander seed, or candying watermelon rind as a substitute for citron—there wouldn’t have been much of a story, however mouthwatering such details might be to the adult reader with a fine palate.

At times these two picture book biographies seem to be turning back the clock, even though there is never even a whisper of a suggestion that homemaking is the only path for girls– or ought to be. They do, I think, suggest to young readers that the kitchen was a site of empowerment for women in previous centuries and that ought to be remembered and honored as such, even if producing light, delicate biscuits will never be in one’s skill set.  This model of female advancement has not yet outlived its usefulness, but rather morphed in surprising ways in the twenty-first century.  Last week the New York Times Food Section ran an article about Arab women, their careers outside the home stymied, who have found an alternative calling demonstrating home cooking on YouTube food channels.  Pleased and surprised to win millions of subscribers and earn respectable incomes, they find great satisfaction teaching others the secrets of  making delicious food.