Hidde, Nora, Darkus, Sara, Ada, Roza, Cornelis, Edu, Antares, Lucretia: these are the fellow scientists with whom I most often discussed the place of science and technology in our society during my doctoral research. We have thought about it for hours. Me at my desk or stretched out on the couch, she… between the cover of a children’s book. They are all scientists and technologists who play a role in children’s fiction or non-fiction, all telling readers something about the hows and whys of science and technology.
After all, adults are not just willing to put the future in the hands of children. They try to form children through education and upbringing. Literature and, more specifically, children’s and youth literature illustrate which norms and values adult authors want to pass on and what not. This makes children’s books an exciting field of research: they show what is going on in society, what ideas adults want to retain and what they want to oppose. Children’s books are therefore a good barometer for persistent ideas and recurring stories. I studied more than a hundred contemporary Dutch-language children’s books in order to track them down, from first-reader books and adventurous book series to psychological youth novels and literary non-fiction.
Children’s books feed ideas about science and technology.
Of course, books only really come to life in the mind and play of the children themselves. They store (often unconsciously) the norms and values that adults pass on through stories, and build on them. What is alive in children’s books also interacts with other media and cultural forms. While games, television series, vlogs, etc. play a more important role for many children, the building blocks they use are the same. Characters and plots are exchanged. And the same goes for scientists and technologists.
Who says ‘eureka’ anymore?
The young Nora from Sunday Monday Starry Day makes an invention to help her neighbor over his fear of speaking, Ada Brave, scientisthas endless questions, Roza Rozeur, engineer perseveres until she realizes a cheese head for her great-aunt, Hidde uit spinner grows pink butterflies in his insect lab to win over a girl, the grandfather of Calpurnia Tatea wakes up despite the 19thecentury gender roles to wonder and question, Sarah Mustard, mother and polar scientist from Accidentally! steals a log to save the north pole, and so on
To characterize these characters as scientists in the stroke of a pen, the author or illustrator naturally also uses stereotypical elements: they speak in fragments of jargon, think logically and methodically, conduct science in isolation in a cluttered shed, cellar or attic room, or wear sloppy clothes or (more often not or) a lab coat. But it rarely ends there.
Mad scientists, professors-teachers or absent-minded professors – the remaining stereotypes – do not just happen, and rarely alone. They bring tension or humor, but also challenge readers to think about the distinction between fiction and reality, or about which scientific research is desirable and which is not. For example, most readers will immediately get the feeling that the insanely learned and mean mother Lucreatia Cutter from beetle boy not using her research for good.
Other characters also help readers reflect on the many facets of science and technology, from demand to desirability and use. I already mentioned a few examples: in children’s books children get to work with inventions themselves, regularly with their grandfather (in the books I studied only once with a great-aunt!); girls tinker with technical solutions despite failures; children and young people develop socially and emotionally thanks to their scientific activities, mothers reconcile field research with parenthood or act so rebellious as scientists that they raise ethical issues.
More than a hundred contemporary children’s books show that a wide range of scientists and technologists get a role, supplanting the stereotypical professor.
That wide variety of science-interested characters helps readers explore diverse ways of science—bringing not only fear or hope, but also insight, wonder, and concern.
All the moms in the lab?
The corona crisis of recent years illustrates how quickly the media, citizens and scientists are losing their minds on the possibilities and goals of science. The idea still prevails that science makes reality measurable, predictable and controllable, and therefore also the future. Children’s books make that image much-VOICE-mig. On the child’s scale, they enrich discourse on science or, more broadly, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) with ‘typically childlike’ characteristics, which have acquired a permanent place in children’s and youth literature. Attention for nature, curiosity and wonder, care for others and for the environment are reconciled with the view of science as objective and rational.
That gives hope for the future. An honest and varied picture makes people feel more involved. On the other hand, those who think that science only produces facts feel more easily cheated and turn away from it more quickly. In order to visualize how we want to use science and technology as a society, what we are afraid of and what we dream of, the study of children’s books and the studies of science and technology benefit from mutual exchange. So we don’t just need mothers in the lab, but also mothers who read children’s books. So like me.
Frauke Pauwels is competing for the Flemish PhD Cup 2022. Discover more about this research at www.phdcup.be.