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Ask HN: Help me weave in STEM topics for a children's book
56 points by jelliclesfarm on Dec 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 70 comments
I have been working on a collection of short children’ stories with my farm as the hub. The main characters are all critters and creatures and trees in the farm. The guardian is a crone witch that is the spirit of the Elderberry tree known as The ElderMother. It has a certain magical quality to it, but I really want it to be enjoyable reading for everyone. I would also like to use it as a platform to explain STEM concepts(I am from the bookshelf encyclopedia generation with giant illustrations). So far, I have little stories (less than 5000 words) that includes ‘human concepts’ like how to a stock taking of a pantry(sorry..I started out as an accountant. That’s what grabbed me first as subject), an enchanted nestery run by a pigeon who puts magical spells on birds nests to illustrate different kinds of nests and eggs of various birds, a Beauty Salon for insects whose markings fade...again, to illustrate markings on ladybugs, butterflies and cleaning bee pollen baskets etc. It’s turning out to be more of a picture book. I would like to introduce subjects that teach something of the natural world and the physics in it. My favourite has always been time and the uni directional arrow of time. I also want to write a story that explains why we are carbon based life forms. About the night skies. Also..photosynthesis, on soil biology, migration, hibernation etc are easy to include in a farm setting. How to weave in hardcore STEM topics into a plot?

ambitious here .. but you are mixing mental modes like oil and water. The internal world of psyche is filled with symbolic wisdom and instincts, which is mysterious by definition.. it comes from 'somewhere' in some glimmer of insight..

Science is just the opposite of that .. it is externally focused, repeatable and non-personal..

Your ambition to be both deeply symbolic, and teach reproducible mechanics, at the same time.. is like mixing reds and blues in paint!

In theater and storytelling, there is often a signal to the reader that something "otherworldly" is happening.. a transition marker.. to suspend disbelief of the audience.. this is the entrance to the symbolic..

With public lecture, debate and oration, the basis of presentation is along the lines of authoritative references, short summaries of relevent works known to the audience, and perhaps persuasive content to get the audience to pay attention and give the ideas a chance.

You could mix this things, but it is stretching the requirements of the reader quite a bit, at the least, in my opinion.

I'm trying to write a series of picture books for tech workers to read to their kids. The idea is that it both teaches the kid (and perhaps the parent) how a technology works, and is also fun to read in general.

I'm running into the issues you mention. Either the story is true to itself and teaches the technology and isn't very entertaining. Or I go full symbolism and write a good story. In that case, the story doesn't REALLY teach you about the technology. If you get the symbolism, it teaches how and when the technology could be useful.

At the end of the day, I'm having fun, and I think this story is more marketable than the majority of stuff I write, and I'm genuinely curious to see how people react to it.

Yes...I really enjoy writing it. The key take away is fun, but sometimes as a writer, I get anxious and wonder if I am delivering fun to others...increasingly the reviews from parents have been that they enjoy it but don’t think it’s suitable for bedtime reading. I guess you’d want a child to go to sleep after a story and not stay awake trying to crack a puzzle of how-to and why-not!

I hear you. It’s not easy. I seem to veer off into the descriptive rather than the narrative mode.

I chose magic because STEM can be dry. Growing up, I really enjoyed puzzle books and folk tales from Russia and later, MIR publications. And so I still have a babushka flavoured lens and other worldly magic to anything science. For someone not-Russian, snow was magical..refraction and rainbows were magical..for anyone, talking animals has to be magical. Chemistry definitely is in the realm of magic and alchemy. I also don’t want to ‘teach’ scientific concepts, as it were..but convey scientific method that leads to discovery of scientific concepts. And curiosity. To want to understand how things work. I agree that it’s a fine line...I don’t want to be preachy to kids or as an author...so I don’t want to ‘state’..but lead them to a magical place when things are revealed by special knowledge only through a task or a journey or an adventure.

STEM is not dry. It can be, but does not have to be. Dont start with assumption that kids are not interested in STEM which has to be dry, they are interested even if fully factual books and texts. Don't make it analogical to vegetables hidden inside cake. Make STEM parts fun on what makes stem fun to us (puzzle solving? discovery? just knowing how it works). Mix with magic can then add additional wonder.

How old the kids? I think that your question is unanswerable without knowing that. 3 years like something completely different them 7 years old who are not the same as 12 years old.

Good point re age. I try not to think of that.

It seems. .. you want to use the storytelling signal of an otherworldly adventure, to positively re-enforce learning abstractly about advanced sciences .. ?

The world is already an imaginary world with farm critters...but there is no separation between nature and science...science kind of emerged from the observing the natural world.. I am not sure complex and advanced science can be explained in short stories but I am hoping to create curiosity and excitement...and wanting to learn morez

What’s the significance of mixing red and blue paint? Sounds like a reasonable way to generate purple?

I think the best way to approach such an endeavor might be to essentially demonstrate Clarke's Third Law in each story. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So what you could have is essentially a bunch of stories where characters discover things that seem magical, but end up having very rational explanations (much like Federation tech in the world of Star Trek was pure magic to the less-advanced civilizations they encountered). Maybe even delve eventually into designing experiments to prove assumptions about the principles being discovered, etc, and explaining the scientific method.

It would be a great way to encourage critical thinking in kids without crossing into too fantastical a world for there to be logical explanations for some things. Even with Star Trek, where some things are potentially nonviable (transporters, for example), they still had logical explanations that make sense at a high level.

I hear what you are saying...but including why nonviable tech isn’t translating can leave a door open to create a search for that missing magical ingredient. Every story must start with a quest. The hero must go on a quest and fail. Until ..one day..he succeeds.

I'm an aerospace engineer, so when we had our daughter somebody bought us "Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering" which is one of those board books about a toddler with a bird friend who wants to see outer space. The book touches (briefly) on why bird's wings can't take her to outer space, and that she needs a rocket.

Good inspiration for your stories maybe?

The same author has done ones about coding, thermodynamics, and gravity.

Oh! That is lovely!! I am currently trying to work on a chapter about a bumblebee who is bullied by a finch and The ElderMother explains how bumblebee wings works differently (dynamic stall) than a bird’s feathered wings.

> how bumblebee wings works

Years ago I saw a video (and was later unable to find it again) of a slow-motion bumblebee hovering slowly over leaf litter. Vortices of dust. Fragments of leaf tumbling away, like shantytown roofs beneath a hovering helicopter. That the bee was supporting itself on a downward-moving column of air was visceral.

So perhaps touch on all flight being "higher pressure on the bottom than top", either floating, or pushing things downward.

For visuals, one might rift on wing downwash and vorticies, like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbRmVucs78s or https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1c/33/e2/1c33e2f2fa82b7bf4a86... .

Love that!! I have a lot of slo mo videos from the farm of ladybirds and bumblebees in flight..I do a lot of nothing but staring at the farm. Bees are so awesome and I have spent hours just sitting in front of the apiary.

Myrtle Mouse had an uncle who ran a surgery and apothecary..where she sometimes assisted as a young mouse. A damselfly comes with tattered wings and wants them repaired. In the waiting room, there is a bumblebee with pollen baskets that has been clogged. Maybe I will switch them and make the bumblebee the one with the flight problems and Myrtle can recall how her uncle explained bumblebee flight to her.

On a meta-level, you could maybe look into articles and such about education itself, and see if that improves both your own writing, and maybe even weave in some insights from it:



edit: wait, the first one is about machine learning, haha. Sorry, I was looking through my bookmarks using keywords. Might still be interesting though..

I thought about that..but doesn’t education ruin learning?

Depends on the style, which is why it's worthwhile to look into it. These links might also be interesting:



My recommendation is to try to focus in topics you grock.

If you live/work/own a farm, try to use your unique knowledge about farm activities to give some insight in the books. Some topics (I hope some of them may be interesting.):

* artificial selection / selective breeding

* chemistry composition of the soil and fertilizers

* irrigation? (natural and artificial) (I'm not sure there is some interesting story here, but perhaps you can think one.)

* Lake freezing (Where is your farm?)

* solar/wind/gasoline electricity power generation.

* crop rotation?

* pollination (do you rent bees?)

* different kind of wood / material resistance

I want to separate the human activities from nature’s activities as much as possible. The farming we do is like an open air factory where we destroy existing landscape to create a blank slate to grow what we want in straight rows. I could bring up soil science or soil biomes.

I'm not a writer, so I can't give advice for how, but for a great example, you should check out the novel The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The protagonist is a young girl who finds a "magic" book that is part fairy tale, part computer science textbook. It seamlessly weaves in allegories for binary arithmetic, Turing machines, and programming.

I wish I could give a more detailed description, but it's been too many years since I read it and online summaries focus on other parts of the novel (there's a lot going on!).

It is one of my absolute favourite books! Love it! Thanks!

Have you seen this book of ABCs for babies by Judith Neumann?


I thought it might be useful to consider animations over static artwork in some cases—especially for subjects that are hard to explain without visual explanations -- like a canvas experiment to explain pendulum motion. Or a gravitational slingshot or a chapter on optics and lensing.

Oh!! Thanks for the ideas. All good ones!

I would suggest reading more childrens books :)

I just remembered how many children's books my daghter loves are kind-of stem-adjacent?

We have a book about a forest-bison that is kinda upset that he doesn't hibrnate during the winter, so he tries to persuade the forest spirits that help other animals to prepare for winters rest to help him as well. When he fails, he decides, he will do that himself, and strts searching for a nest :)

Or a little book about how a poppy-seed grows.

Or a book about a tale of friendship between a doormouse and a vole, where the vole is sad he won't have anybody to play with the whole winter, because the doormouse hibernates.

Or a short book about an islad that has 2 kindoms, each has 3 castles, under every one 4 cities, in every city 5 houses, in every hous 6 room, in every room 7 cabinets, in each cabinet 8 boxes. And then it shows a dot for all of the boxes on a page.

Or a book about a father and his daghter that recieved magic space-suites from an old wizzard, so they go visit each planet in solar system.

Or two siblings that realize that the ants they have at home know pythagoras theorem, so they learn to communicate with them.

Or the kid who discovers his weird neghbour actually managed to communicate with the plants (well, more just their raw emotions?) and then they use this to help the neglected plants in their back-yard?

I might remember more? :)

I forgot the favourite, where somebody shits on little-moles head, so he goes from animal to animal to compare their poop to the one still sitting on its head. It is very informative :)

I presume the German language version is the original. But I could be wrong

Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte, wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hatte


Yes this is it! :) Never occurred to me to search for a video :P

I have the distinct disadvantage of not having any children or even young ones around me. I guess the child audience I had in mind was myself and the stuff I wish I learnt then...

Perhaps you could consider writing and adult book that at first glance is disguised as a children’s book. Then you wouldn’t need proxy kids to judge it. You could use your own judgement.

In that case I can only recommend going to a library and skimming few books in the young-reader aisle :-P

There definitely are many I found there to be entertaining or insightful just for me,even if I never got around reading it to my daughter :)

Writing a book you wish your younger self had stil seems a worthwhile endeavour :)

Feel free to email me (see profile). I am the author of Lauren Ipsum, a kid's book about computer science. Happy to help with this.

Love your book btw. I was scrolling down to see if someone had already suggested it.

PS. One of my favorite excerpts from Lauren Ipsum: `That's how it starts. A little Jargon doesn't look like much. Some people even keep them as pets. But they form packs, and they are very dangerous.`

Just started reading it! Love it!! Will ping soon!

Thank you! Will do!

When my kid was four, the "why" stage started. Why after why. We found (more often than I expected) that the final why was often answered with "because of gravity," which we demonstrated in depth early on.

I am curious..( and others’ input welcome too in this thread) as I don’t have kids. Do you explain Death to children?

Also. I wrote a short about 2 birds getting drunk on fermented fall fruits. I didn’t use the word ‘drunk’but explained their antics(a little comical but also to explain fermentation and how disorientatation can occur)

My friends were horrified. I didn’t understand why that’s a bad story idea. Isn’t it actually a good thing rather?...to know about effects of drinking and ‘not to fly when buzzy’(for the scrub jays in the story, of course)..?

Also..it happens in nature all the time. Animals get drunk too from fermented fruits.

Death: I have explained but follow the guideline not to give too much information to the child up front. That is, answer their questions simply and downplay your own potentially emotional reaction.

Drugs: I don't see anything wrong with a simple cause and effect lesson, and showing that the effect is generally negative in the long term. However, experience and feelings from past trauma (say family alcoholism) make this a taboo subject for many folks. You may have to tread so lightly that the lesson is lost or not worth the aggravation.

Agreed. We discuss death with our young kids if it comes up. And is has in relation to our food, pets, and loved ones. Maybe we did too good a job. Our 5 year old frequently reminds us that it’s ok for someone/something to die. “That’s part of nature and we can always keep them in our hearts” She likes her meat and we try to teach her to respect where the food comes from and that one should treat the farm animals kindly. We also eat a lot of vegan and discuss why that is also a good choice.

Not so much STEM (more accounting), but I'd check out the book Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand. It explains basic accounting concepts via a simple lemonade stand business. Might give you some inspiration.

Why wouldn't accounting be considered a pretty solid part of the M in STEM? It's applied mathematics and in my opinion one of the better angles to teach young people maths.

I guess you could include it under M, but that seems like a stretch to me. Makes more sense to categorize it as business.

They learn numbers by watching farmers from a field next door. Which made me wonder..do animals have a concept of numbers? I had to conclude that they do..Myrtle Mouse runs the General store and stores food to sell in winter. So the little mice learn to count pumpkin seeds and acorns etc. I couldn’t go beyond counting. Unsure as to how to bring in complex math concepts.

More to maths than numbers of course... it's been a while but I'm thinking Alice in Wonderland. or Flatland maybe

I am just rereading flatland. That would be tough for me.

When my daughter was 3 years old, she racted really well to stories that described sort of ecology. I.e. we watched together one of the how-to-train-your-dragon cartoons on netflix, and she really liked the stories where several fragons had either symbiotic or adversarial relationships. Dragons as a pecies in HTTYD make no sense, but many of the relationships do (symbiotic relationships, food-chains, migration for better nesting space, e.t.c.) and served as good conversation starters :)

I am into imaginary creatures! I draw a lot from Japanese yokai. I adore those creatures.

STEM evolved to answer questions about our world. You could just give those questions to your characters and have them work out the answers the way humans did.

For example: How do we know the world is round? Why can't we jump into outer space? Why is the sun so warm? Why do animals breath air? How are birds able to fly? Every thing we experience in life has an interesting STEM answer that most kids would love to know. Please try to get kids to realize that they should be a lot more curious.

Yes..there are a few question/answer segments in the Crows’ chapter. They hold a parliament every day where young crows can ask older crows questions.

Like..Why is thunder loud? Why is the sky blue? Why does the sunflower always face the sun?

Also..more philosophical questions like why the mighty oak has small acorns that fall but the creeping pumpkin vine that needs support have giant pumpkins? I didn’t know why nature designs so!!! But I too would love to know why...writing these made me look up stuff because I didn’t know as well. There was opportunity to explain gravity as well as concepts like size vs scale.

You might enjoy the first "How to remember sizes" section of this my page[1] (very slowwwwly loading - it wasn't intended to be public). The microview/nanoview pair of story frames provide a tangible context for handling things down to atoms, with or without numbers. Though, "barely tested implies barely works".

[1] http://www.clarifyscience.info/part/Atoms

Thanks!! Size/Scale is something I have just started to write about and wondering how to weave a narrative around it.

This is a cool idea. Are you familiar with the early 90s indie band “They Might Be Giants”? Well they are parents now and have been making kids music. Our favorite is “here comes Science!” They did a great job discussing lots of STEM subjects ina fun way.

I know the group (and horrified that they are ‘dated’ which makes me ancient!). I will look them up on YouTube! Thanks!

Let us know what you think. I really like the sun songs. Try to listen to them in order.

Basically just an idle thought after reading this: I wonder if you could do something with lensing/water droplets/telescopes/night skies. Using water droplets would seem to fit the insect/small animal theme.

Thank you..that’s a great idea..first thing that came to my mind was surface tension and how water drops are formed..maybe a game involving water droplets!


One thing I'd love to see is a description of the scientific method. We come up with an idea, then we come up with an experiment to test that idea.

And surrounding scientific inquiry, is scientific discourse, which is now taught even down towards K. Eg, don't chose among widely-differing jellybean counts based on friendship.

Apropos children and verification, while looking for something to point to, I stumbled on and enjoyed the introduction section of https://mindmodeling.org/cogsci2018/papers/0062/0062.pdf , fwiw.

Creating models of ideas to see if it works or fails?

Another one to Google for inspiration is Lauren Ipsum, a child's story about computer science

Thanks. I just learnt about the book!

> magical spells

> STEM topics

I often find the juxtaposition of these two themes unbearable, if only because it reflects the world we live in today. Magic beliefs give way to true love and romance, but also igorance and disasterous concentrations of political power. STEM beliefs give rise to incredible technology and a world of convenience, but also lead to awful environmental consequences owing to extreme resource use and pollution, and possibly amplify differences in economic inequality.

Friend, if you can weave a children's story around the nuanced interplay of science and magic, then I will buy your book.

P.S. have you read the Moomin books?

I disagree; for one thing, how many books where magic exists fail to run into awful environmental consequences, extreme income inequality, and strife like war or political instability? It depends on the story, but it'd be tough to read the Lord of the Rings series and think, 'I bet that ring could have magically fixed everything'.

Also, kids aren't stupid and eventually they figure this out: "Ninety percent of most magic merely consists of knowing one extra fact." Then they just need to work out those facts.

Have you read Off to Be the Wizard or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? I wouldn't call them children's stories, but maybe young adult.

how many books where magic exists fail to run into awful environmental consequences, extreme income inequality, and strife like war or political instability?

For a refreshing and deeply pessimistic take on these issues Jonathan Stroud's Bartimæus books are recommended.

An excellent counter point, magic can have bad environmental consequences etc too. It seems I have conflated magic thinking with irrational thinking, which is what I really meant.

I haven't read the titles you mentioned, but I will check them out, thanks :)

Magic can be as rigorous as science if written well. Take Sanderson's books: it's a major plot point in the Mistborn series that the (in-universe) understanding of the magic system is incomplete, and the astute reader can pick up on what the missing pieces ought to be before it's revealed in the story.

To clarify, I mean unbearable when done badly, and merely unsettling when it is done well and reflects humanity's reality with subtle acuity.

Yes, I love the Moomin books..I have read most of them(except one I think)

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