For my Writing 4 Children column, in the October 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum magazine, I interviewed Isabel Thomas about writing narrative non-fiction for children using her picture book Moth: An Evolution Story as an example.
Isabel explained that Moth: An Evolution Story is a picture book retelling of a classic evolutionary biology case study of natural selection in action. The story of the peppered moth’s adaptation to the environmental effects of the Industrial Revolution here in England. This book is published by Bloomsbury and has recently been released as a paperback.
She told me how she first encountered the story of he peppered moth at university, where she studied Human Sciences, a degree that’s grounded in evolutionary biology. Natural selection and adaptation were introduced onto the primary school curriculum in England quite a few years ago, but Isabel realised children start asking the big questions about life at a much younger age, pretty much as soon as they can talk. Questions like Where do we come from? and Why are there so many different plants and animals?
“I realised the peppered moth story could the perfect way to introduced natural selection and evolution to young children, and indeed to parents who had studied it ages ago and forgotten how it works.”Isabel Thomas
Her aim was not to create a ‘science non-fiction book’ but a read-aloud narrative that has the power to entrance audiences of any age, and conveys the beauty and wonder of natural history at the same time. Isabel uses the picture book approach to help children make meaningful emotional connections with science, so the desire to understand the world scientifically becomes part of them. Children are familiar with narrative, with the page turn of a picture book, with moments of change and peril and hope. Woven into this familiar fabric, the building blocks of the theory of natural selection aren’t presented as obstacles of hard fact but become almost intuitive for readers as they predict what will happen on the next page turn.
“My top tip is to fastidiously footnote as you go, then you will always have that link back to your sources. Once I’ve amassed information and ideas, it’s a bit like I have a huge pile of Lego bricks. The next stage is beginning to assemble it into something that is greater than these individual parts. Choosing the best way explain or convey my excitement about a subject.”Isabel Thomas
Isabel suggests writers should try and surprise readers, whether that’s through including the very latest science (rather than sticking rigidly to curriculum-linked content), or in the way you use language, or in the way that connect different areas of life. The way to do this is to surprise yourself, rather than trying to follow a recipe. She stipulates writers aspiring to write children’s creative non-fiction should read a lot of children’s creative non-fiction, as this is the best way to absorb language level and parameters – but don’t imitate.
“Be unexpected and make each pitch and project unique to you, as this is what will grab readers’ (and publishers’) attention. If you can think like an 8-year-old, you’re on the right track.”Isabel Thomas
Another writing tip from Isabel is not to ‘write for children’ as you will risk ending up with either dry or patronising text. Her suggestion is to write as if you were talking to a friend about something you find absolutely fascinating because a good non-fiction book doesn’t make the reader feel like they’re learning from an expert – it makes them feel like THEY are the expert.