Making Scientific Concepts Relatable for Kids with Dr. Laura Gehl

Readers, allow me to begin with a confession: when I was a kid, I was not a Science Kid. I never felt super engaged in science class, and, despite having a chemist father and a mom who was a nurse, I was a devout English and History girl all the way.

Until…

Sophomore year of high school, when my best friend talked me into competing in the Science Olympiad at a nearby university. I had no clue what I was doing, but we entered an event as partners and… we won. (Don’t ask me how.)

Suddenly, this English and History buff realized science can be fun! And of course, my adult self greatly appreciates everything scientists and medical professionals are doing for us in the ongoing battle against the pandemic.

I want my young daughters to be jazzed about science, too, so we have lots of STEM-focused picture books in our house. So, how do you write a kid-friendly STEM book? One that’s accessible, exciting, and explains concepts in ways kids can understand?

I’m thrilled to have prolific author Dr. Laura Gehl on the blog today to talk about just that, and to tell us about several of her STEM kids’ books that have recently hit shelves, plus her upcoming book, Odd Beasts, available from a bookseller near you on November 2.

Cover of ODD BEASTS by Laura Gehl.

LL: Welcome, Laura! I’m so excited to have you here. Great name, by the way.

Let’s start by talking about your recent board books. Brilliant Baby Fights Germs and Brilliant Baby Explores Science, illustrated by Jean Claude, were both published by Little Bee on September 7. Tell us more about what inspired you to write the Brilliant Baby series, and what we can expect from these two new titles.

LG: Even though these are books 3 and 4 in the Brilliant Baby series (the first two were Brilliant Baby Does Math and Brilliant Baby Makes Music), I actually wrote Brilliant Baby Explores Science first. It was kind of a love letter to science and the scientific process, partially based on my own experiences working in a neurobiology lab, written in verse.

Cover of BRILLIANT BABY EXLPLORES SCIENCE

LG: I wrote about how science has “winding roads to answers nobody expected” and “confusion, disagreements, and mistakes.” I also wrote about new ideas and big questions and the importance of persistence. There are huge concepts covered in this little book, but I think the rhythmic verses, with Jean Claude’s adorable illustrations, can plant the seeds for truly understanding how science works (something that confounds many adults!).

Interior spread from BRILLIANT BABY EXPLORES SCIENCE.
Interior spread from Brilliant Baby Explores Science.

LG: As for Brilliant Baby Fights Germs, you can probably guess that it was inspired by the pandemic we all know and definitely don’t love. But despite Baby Fauci on the cover, the book is not actually about COVID. It covers good habits for being healthy all the time, including eating and sleeping well (my kids will tell you I never shut up about how important sleep is for physical and mental health), covering your sneezes, and washing your hands.

Cover of BRILLIANT BABY FIGHTS GERMS.

LL: Something I love about the Brilliant Baby books is the fun, rhyming text. In one of your other recent books, Bat Wings! Cat Wings?, illustrated by Monique Felix, you use rhyming text that’s super simplistic, but incredibly effective and fun. How do you decide how to present a particular concept?

Cover of BAT WINGS! CAT WINGS? by Laura Gehl.

LG: I think I tend toward rhyme when I am writing board books or young picture books (Bat Wings! Cat Wings? is aimed at the younger end of the picture book audience, and is shorter than a typical 32-page picture book), because kids that age love rhyme—and because it can make difficult concepts (like germs, or the scientific method!) more approachable. But it certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule. I wrote a whole board book series about scientific careers (Baby Paleontologist, Baby Oceanographer, Baby Astronaut, and Baby Botanist) that was in prose. Sometimes, I try both and see what works best.

Interior spread from BAT WINGS, CAT WINGS? featuring a moose and a goose.
Interior spread from Bat Wings! Cat Wings?

LL: Let’s talk about your latest book, Who Is a Scientist?, which was published earlier this month. I love how this book shows that anyone can be a scientist—and how scientists are regular people who like to dance and eat French fries. My favorite part of the book is the flow chart at the end, which makes the concept of becoming a scientist super accessible for kids. Tell us more about the chart and why you decided to include it.

Cover of WHO IS A SCIENTIST by Laura Gehl.

LG: Millbrook/Lerner is amazing with out-of-the-box back matter, and my editor suggested the flow chart idea. I loved the idea as soon as she said it, because my daughter devours magazines like donuts, and the flow chart reminded me of the interactive elements in children’s magazines. Also, the whole point of Who Is a Scientist? is to show kids that they can be scientists too…and following a flow chart to you see which type of scientist you might want to be underscores that point in another (super cool) way. As you can imagine, it was very fun to create!  

Interior spread from Who is a Scientist, featuring a female meteorologist dancing on the beach.
Interior spread from Who is a Scientist? (Photo credit: Ali Rae Haney)

LL: You have another science-focused book coming out next month, Odd Beasts, illustrated by Gareth Lucas. In addition to the fun rhyming text, you also included pictures of real-life peculiar creatures with some fascinating back matter. How do you decide which back matter to include in a story? How do you keep it interesting and accessible for kids?

LG: Great question! I think back matter should either complement (supply something different from) or supplement (lean into) the main text of the book. The Who Is a Scientist? flow chart is an example of supplementing, because it is another way of highlighting the same main message of the book… anyone can be a scientist, including you!

The back matter of Odd Beasts is the opposite—it complements the main text. In Odd Beasts, the text is extremely simple and the illustrations are more abstract than photo-realistic (incredibly gorgeous illustrations, by the way, one of which was accepted into the 2021 Society of Illustrators Original Art Show—yay Gareth!!!), so it makes sense to have back matter that shows photos of the actual animals and gives a bit more information.

Interior spread from ODD BEASTS, depicting a pangolin.
Interior spread from Odd Beasts.

LL: One more question, Laura—what practical advice do you have for writers of STEM-focused kids’ books? Give us your top tips.

LG: The most important advice I have is to write about topics that you personally find fascinating… topics where you could easily go down a month-long rabbit hole researching more and more intriguing tidbits. If you find a topic interesting, your readers will too. Your passion for the topic will find its way into your writing and will also push you toward interesting back matter. If you are writing about something that you are not passionate about, forget it. Even if the topic is important, or you heard editors are asking for books on this topic, or you think there’s a hole in the market… none of that matters if your heart isn’t in it.

Interior spread from BRILLIANT BABY FIGHTS GERMS.
Interior spread from Brilliant Baby Fights Germs, a concept that’s important for all of us right now.

LG: Another piece of advice I have is to consult experts if you are not an expert yourself. It’s very important for the science to be accurate, even in a board book. You will be amazed how willing experts are to help out… whether that means answering questions or reading your text/looking at the illustrations to check for accuracy. If you go on university websites, it is easy to find email addresses for experts in virtually any field. And since scientists are just as passionate about your topic as you are, they are often happy, even excited, to help. 

LL: Thanks so much for being on the blog today, Laura! Readers, if you want to connect with Laura, you can find her here:

www.lauragehl.com

@AuthorLauraGehl on twitter

@AuthorLauraGehl on Instagram

www.facebook.com/AuthorLauraGehl

…and you can order her books here:

https://bookshop.org/books/who-is-a-scientist-9781728441085/9781728441085

https://bookshop.org/books/odd-beasts-meet-nature-s-weirdest-animals/9781419742224

https://bookshop.org/books/bat-wings-cat-wings/9781568463742

https://bookshop.org/books/brilliant-baby-fights-germs/9781499812275

https://bookshop.org/books/brilliant-baby-explores-science/9781499812268

Photo of Laura Gehl.

Laura Gehl is the author of nearly two dozen popular picture books, board books, and early readers. Her books include One Big Pair of Underwear (Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, International Literacy Association Honor Book, Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice); the Peep and Egg series (Parents’ Choice Recommendation, Amazon Editors’ Pick, Children’s Choice Book Award Finalist); My Pillow Keeps Moving (Junior Library Guild selection, New York Public Library Best Books of 2018 selection); I Got a Chicken for My Birthday (Kirkus Best Picture Books of 2018 selection); and Baby Astronaut (A Mighty Girl Best Book of 2019 selection). Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband and four children. She is represented by Erzsi Deàk at Hen&ink Literary.

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Hiya, reader! Laura Lavoie here. If you enjoy my blog, let’s connect on social media so you can have the inside scoop about upcoming posts! You can find me on Twitter and Instagram: @llavoieauthor

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