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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people.
This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Sourcebooks.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Julia Smith talks to Australian author Chris Ferrie. Chris is an award-winning physicist, a mathematician, and popular author of science books for children.
Chris has a new picture book series, The Everyday Science Academy, the first four volumes of which come out in June 2020 from Sourcebooks.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me, Chris.
CHRIS FERRIE: Thank you for having me.
Please tell us a little about your new series.
So the new series is a little bit different than the older series in that it’s more visual. So, in the original series, we had more abstract concepts that I was trying to distill down into simple pictures and sentences that parents and children could just kind of read and engage with together. And this one’s a little bit quicker, it’s a lot more visual. It’s words and pictures, and it’s kind of for a different audience that just wants to quickly jump in and jump out, rather than having to go through a whole story about some concept.
What age group would you say this is ideal for?
Well, I think since the pictures are so bright—to be honest I read textbooks to my kids from age zero. So I don’t think there’s a lowest age—but yeah, these are very similar to kind of “first words” books that you would find for shapes, numbers, letters, and these sorts of things. So, this can be read from age zero.
But I think you’ll you get more questions and obviously more engagement from the child as they grow older, whereas I think typical first-words books have a lifetime that’s quite short. I mean My First Shapes, for example, isn’t going to last more than eight months to a year before you move on to something else. Whereas, I think you can continually get something else from books that are more conceptual, and you can build on the words and the images as the child gets older.
Absolutely. What would you say inspires your writing?
I think primarily it’s my own kids. I wouldn’t even be aware of the children’s books at all if I didn’t have my own children. I don’t have a big extended family, and as an academic you don’t really interact a lot with young people. And in our kind of Western society, children are very rare. Everyone’s inside the house, there’s no kids in the streets. It’s almost like a different world once you become a parent. So, it was really my own children that inspired me to start writing these books. But after interacting with kids at libraries and bookstores and events, and seeing how excited they were about science and the way I was conveying it in my books, it really gave me the inspiration to continue.
Speaking of libraries, how have they played a role in your reading or writing life?
I think it kind of ebbed and flowed over the years. I certainly remember visiting the library a lot when I was a child, both the school and the public library in the town that I grew up in. I would gravitate, unsurprisingly, to the nonfiction section. And I remember picking out all sorts of books about dinosaurs and space and usually kids’ encyclopedia type things, lots of atlases and maps.
Then, I think as an undergraduate student I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the library. And then as a graduate student I was in the library for a different reason, looking at academic journals. But as I went through my postgraduate studies it was really the phase where journals were moved almost entirely online, so you could access the material online. Unless you want some rare volume, you don’t need to visit the library to access academic journals anymore. But I’m always excited when I visit the library because as good as these recommendation algorithms are online, there’s nothing like just finding a physical book in a library, just browsing the shelves and picking out books and flipping through them. You can’t replicate that online.
You really can’t. When you’re not writing what is it that you like to read? Is it textbooks or do you—
No, I read kind of nonfiction, popular science books. The last book I read I just finished was Underland, by Robert Macfarlane, which was excellent. The next one on the list is an older book called Code, by Lawrence Lessig. So it’s kind of a nonfiction, popular science type stuff. And every night I’m reading completely different things to the kids.
What age range are your kids?
So, the oldest is 10, so she’s reading on her own. She will often be up all night reading her books, mostly graphic novels. Occasionally she’ll join the rest of the family and listen in. Then eight and six and—I was really surprised, even when my six-year-old couldn’t read when he was five, I thought it would be challenging to read graphic novels because he wouldn’t really know what part of the story you were reading, but it was actually surprisingly easy to just read.
You don’t have to point, and they can follow along. It was quite a surprise to me when I started doing that. But they really enjoy even fairly complicated graphic novels, like Amulet, for example. I was reading to my five-year-old and it’s very visual, but you don’t have to point to what speech bubble you’re reading from; they can follow along quite easily. So, we do that, and then we have a three-year-old, and she’s kind of all over the map now.
That’s great! Do you find that it’s a challenge to break down the more sophisticated science concepts for kids?
I guess my approach has not been kind of from the spirit of a teacher or a lecturer in the sense that when you’re in that mode, you’re really thinking about What should I say? What should I have them do so that they pass a test later on? That’s not the idea that I had with these books. And when you take away that sort of testing and worrying—Do they really understand? or How do I test their understanding?—you see that children are not stressed out about this. To them it’s just a book and every book is the same. “There’s a book, it has pictures, and someone’s going to read it to me. That’s great!”
And they don’t tell you when they don’t understand parts of a story. Like I said, I read fairly complicated stories. We read Harry Potter to a three-year-old, and she doesn’t say, “I’m not following along the story.” She doesn’t complain about that. She’s excited that someone’s reading to her. And in the same vein, if there’s something that’s a little bit more complicated from the science perspective—for example, just last night I was reading a kind of lift-the-flap book about space, and it’s quite complex. I don’t remember the title, but it was by Usborne. And you lift the flap, and it says, “At the center of every galaxy is a supermassive black hole.” And she just says, “Oh wow,” and then goes to the next flap.
You don’t have to worry so much about Did she really understand that? Is she going to pass a test now? It’s a long process. We have to remember that experts in this field do this for 15 years, and we’re trying to slowly build up that ability to reason and think about things more abstractly, more conceptually. And this is a kind of a slow, gradual process. And it’s not clear that at any given step of the way you can test to see whether or not things are going as you expect. You know what I mean?
I think it’s like a language. We talk to our children; some people talk to their children before they’re born. But we’re not worried all the time about Do they understand this word? Does that word have too many syllables? We just talk to them the way we would normally talk to other people, perhaps with a more animated voice or with a higher pitch. But we use the same words and the same complex sentences and we notice at the beginning that the children pick up a few sounds, pick up a few syllables, and start to build up words, and the words are usually wrong or garbled or slurred, but eventually they get there.
We don’t try to teach children language [exclusively] by the basics. We don’t say, I’m not going to start speaking to you in sentences until you’ve learned these letter sounds. We just speak sentences to them. And so that’s the approach I kind of was trying to take with my books, that I will just say it the way we say it in science and the children will pick this up.
Yeah, it’s like a friendly exposure. That makes sense.
But I did want to take away all of the jargon. There are some elements of science, unfortunately, that are intended to make it sound more complicated or more important, because everyone has these fragile egos. They want to make sure that people understand that they’re smart, so they use big words and fancy jargon. I definitely wanted to get rid of all of that and try to find analogies and essential concepts and ideas, without bringing in the specialized jargon that makes it seem more complicated than it is.
Well, it’s a really cute series. You’ve got a little red kangaroo who hops through and has the child’s perspective in all the volumes, and it asks some great questions about how things work. I really think that kids are going to like it.
Yeah, I hope so.
Thank you so much for chatting with me! And thank you to everyone for listening to the Shelf Care Interview. The Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Sourcebooks, publisher of the Everyday Science Academy series available June 1. Happy reading.
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