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Find more Reaching for the Stars while Staying Down to Earth
Popular science–writer Mary Roach is unafraid of asking the questions people secretly want to know but feel it’s impolite to ask. This quality makes her a perfect match for young readers, who generally think the weirder and grosser, the better when it comes to nonfiction. Let’s see what she had to say about her first youth offering, Packing for Mars for Kids.
Smith: What was the process of adapting your adult book Packing for Mars like?
Roach: This is my first outing into the world of young readers. Because people tell me, “You write like you’re a 12-year-old boy,” I initially thought it would just be cutting the adult book down. But as it turns out, particularly with some of the humor and the references, you can’t just do that. So, it was pretty much rewritten because sometimes I’d packed a couple of concepts into one sentence, and you don’t want to do that for this audience. I wanted to keep it a little bit simpler. So, it was a really fun process, but it was more involved than I thought it might be.
Smith: I love how much of the science you managed to keep.
Roach: I wanted it to be science that would be fun for younger readers, things that would get them excited rather than make them think, Oh, science is a slog. And I don’t want to read this. You know, when I was a kid, I had that attitude about science.
Smith: What kinds of things were you interested in at that age?
Roach: I had a real enthusiasm for the trappings of science as a middle-grade kid, but not the homework of science. Once, my neighbor and I did what we called “The Potted Meat Experiment,” where we made little sandwiches from tinned meat: one we hung from a tree, one we buried, and one we laid on the snow. We had notepads and clipboards, and we came back and took notes, even though we had no hypothesis. We were just playing at being scientists in the field.
Smith: Science in action!
Roach: Very much so! All of that hands-on stuff that good science teachers do—I loved that, and it really stayed with me, specifically at that middle-grade age.
Smith: I think your book holds a lot of potential for creative projects in the classroom or for kids just following their own curiosity.
Roach: Like making simulated feces!
Smith: Yes, this book has it all! And, more seriously, I think it captures the nature of scientific inquiry and how even huge projects by rocket scientists come down to some of the most basic functions that all people experience.
Roach: Space travel, in a way, is this massive rethinking of everything we humans have to do: sleep, eats, drink, crap. All of it! You had to rethink everything that the human body does. So even though space travel falls into the category of astrophysics, there’s a lot of biology in there; a lot of human physiology had to be considered in a really weird and interesting way. It’s a wonderfully fascinating window into how the body works.
Smith: You go into more detail than most books for kids about the experience of space travel.
Roach: I think the more of a deep-dive you can do, the weirder and more interesting it gets—like with the space toilet. There are so many books that talk about things like, how do astronauts go to the bathroom?, but they don’t get into what a fascinating engineering challenge it was. And then, how do you test that toilet? You have to test it at zero gravity. Well, how do you that? And who’s going to be the person using the toilet during the tests? That level of detail is what I get really excited about. But in terms of books for young readers about space, I like to think I took it to another level.
Smith: Would you consider writing anything else for kids?
Roach: I would absolutely consider doing another book, and not necessarily an adaptation of one of my books. It could be very fun to do one from scratch.
Smith: Are there any science writers for children who you recommend?
Roach: Beatrice the Biologist (beatricebiologist.com). Her books and science comics for young readers are wonderful because she’s funny and so good at explaining the basics of, basically, all of science. I love her book called Everyday Amazing (2019), which explains everything from plants to cells to the movement of the planets to genetics. She’s marvelous! If I had, as a kid, been assigned that book to read, I would have retained more about science. Just give every kid a Beatrice the Biologist book!
Smith: Add Packing for Mars for Kids to that order!
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