Why Talk About Science in Children’s Fiction?

beakersI was a writer before I became a scientist. Or maybe it was the other way around.

It seems, thinking about it now, that my inclination to write has always existed side by side with my fascination with the natural world. I was always drawn to stories with a hint of discovery, facts about living creatures and natural phenomena, and other interesting bits of science in children’s fiction.

It appears to me that science always exists, in one form or another, in fantasy books. Obviously in science fiction, it’s there. But even in stories that aren’t strictly sci-fi, you can often find some idea that has roots in scientific truth.

Harry Potter contains some principles of science applied to a magical world. Science is in the Hunger Games too. The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Yep, it’s there.

Maybe it’s the scientist in me (or maybe it’s simply an interest in the natural world, there before I became a scientist), whatever it is, I’ve been seeing lots of science in the fantasy books I’m reading.

The Writer

As a writer, it’s interesting for me to explore the author’s process for coming up with the idea, or premise or character who has a scientific bent.

Did she come across that tidbit in a scientific journal, and it then gave rise to the story? Was it the spark that began the book? Was it the result of hours in high school biology or chemistry, knowledge that percolated in the writer’s mind, which eventually found expression through her novel?

See, I like to find that intersection between science and children’s fiction, both from the points of view of the writer and the reader.

The Reader

I tend to think that many successful scientists have read quite a bit of fantasy books in their childhood. They’re successful because they’re imaginative and courageous, willing to go where no one’s gone before (sound familiar?).

Young readers of fantasy novels possess a great deal of curiosity and imagination. And, someday, when they grow up, they might channel that imagination into a desire to explore what makes the world tick. Which will then result in profound and/or useful scientific discoveries.

Science does not know its debt to imagination.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So why talk about science in children’s fiction?

Because I believe that children’s fiction has an important role not just in developing reading skills, but also as a way to encourage imagination. And because without imagination, there is no exploration, no wondering “what-if,” and therefore no discovery.

If children are to someday explore and innovate, they must first imagine the possibility that there is something out there that’s left to discover and invent.

I may have left the world of scientific research, but the love of science has never really left me. And my hope is that, by exploring science as it exists in children’s fiction, I can contribute in some little way to a future scientist’s discovery, which will in turn change the world.


  1. I think you’re right that a lot of scientists read a lot of fantasy and science fiction because they’re imaginative. Especially before computer animated graphics, I think my ability to imagine the science I was learning – how molecules were shaped and fit together, how organelles were arranged 3-dimensionally in a cell, etc. – played a big part in my understanding science.

  2. Karennina Posa says:

    Hi E.S.,
    At first glance, hard science and fantasy literature don’t seem to go together. But I’ve long suspected that there’s a common thread between them. I’m glad to see that someone agrees with me!

    I visited your site and was delighted to find out about your science background, and that you “studied plants, because they aren’t squishy and don’t squeal when you poke them.” LOL. Same here! 🙂

  3. I was cleaning up my blog reader and came across this again – I missed that you replied! You might want to put an option for readers to subscribe to comments on your blog. I recently moved my website to esivy.com, so I’ve learned a lot about website set up. 🙂

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