I have three kids of reading age. When I finished Avogadro Corp, they asked to read it. A few thoughts raced through my mind: They’d probably be bored by it, or maybe scared. But I’d probably let them at least try to read it. Except that I’d used a lot of curse words. So I said no.
I wrote my second book, and they asked to read it. I had used less curse words, but I had a teen character who smoked and did drugs. Doh. I said no. I started my third book, and it has less curse words, no smoking by any of the main characters, but it had a sex scene I didn’t particularly want to explain to them.
Around this time, they asked if I was I ever going to write a book they could read. I said yes, and then didn’t get a chance to work on it for almost a year, although some ideas germinated in the back of my mind.
One particular memory: I’m a fan of Cory Doctorow, and I went to see him speak at Powell’s. He writes smart science fiction about the issues he cares about in real life: privacy, control over our data, the police state, and activism. Although I’d guess his largest pool of readers is adults, his books are definitely oriented towards teens, and making them aware of their power and influence in the world, and equipping them with the tools to make a difference. Only Doctorow can write a novel in which you learn how to encrypt your hard drive or install Linux.
At the Powell’s speaking event, Cory asked the audience “Do you want a reading or do you want a speech?” There was a unanimous cheer in support of the speech. Afterwards there was a question and answer session.
What really stuck in my mind was the teens in the audience. They made up maybe a quarter or less of the room, but they loomed large in my mind. These are the people Cory wants to reach. And during the Q&A portion, the teens stood and asked questions of Cory about privacy and jailbreaking phones and technology, which he addressed. It sounds sort of factual and ordinary when I describe it, but it was powerful to me in the moment.
I knew that if I was going to write for kids, I didn’t want to just write entertainment. I wanted to address issues in the same serious way that I address topics in my adult science fiction. Sure, robots and AI make for good entertainment, but I write the stuff I do because I think it’s important for people to think about it, and I treat it as seriously and accurately as possible.
So what topics did I want to address for kids? What is appropriate for the age I wanted to write for? I decided to focus on a few things:
- Logical reasoning. It’s a foundation skill every intelligent person needs. The format of a detective story is ideal for this.
- Building and manipulating technology. Kids love technology, but many are passive consumers. I want them to see themselves as creators, customizers, and makers. In the novel, the kids build an autonomous quadcopter for their science fair, then use it as a tool in solving a mystery.
- Judging the validity of information. Can you trust the source? It is true? How can we know? Being a critical receiver of information is important when we’re deluged with advertisements and dubious information all over the place.
I started working on The Case of the Wilted Broccoli in the fall of 2013, and published it this summer. It’s a kids mystery novel featuring an eleven-year-old girl detective named Willow who has to solve a mystery at her school when people start getting sick from the school lunch. Some of the inspiration came from The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown, all much-loved books in our household. But it’s a story that embodies the principles I mentioned above.
I have one scene in The Case of the Wilted Broccoli about Wikipedia that my critique partners and an adult editor told me I should remove because it wasn’t necessary to the story. But I knew it wasn’t necessary for Cory Doctorow to explain how hard drive encryption works, yet he did anyway. I kept the scene in, and multiple kids have told me they loved it. Here’s an excerpt:
In class, their teacher reviewed the bridge-research assignment. “You’ve all picked your bridges, and you should have started your research. You have one week left to turn in the first draft of your report, which should be two pages long. And remember, no using Wikipedia.”
Linden groaned inside. Teachers were always saying they shouldn’t use Wikipedia, but he loved, loved, loved everything about it. He raised his hand.
“We should be allowed to use Wikipedia,” he said. “Wikipedia is equally accurate and more comprehensive than traditional encyclopedias.”
“Anyone can edit Wikipedia. It’s simply not a credible resource.”
Linden’s felt his blood start to pound in his ears. He respected his teachers, but they weren’t always right. “But it’s been studied by dozens of researchers, and they’ve found it has high quality, even in specialized subjects. Even if someone puts incorrect information into Wikipedia, the editors usually spot and correct it within minutes.”
The teacher tapped her foot. Linden couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or amused.
She looked at the wall for moment, then turned back to the class. “Regardless of the accuracy of Wikipedia, if you all do your research using it, everyone’s reports will look exactly the same. Each person researching the Fremont Bridge will read the same information, and I’ll get back ten of the same reports. So no Wikipedia.”
The teacher’s point was good. But Linden knew some secrets about Wikipedia. Some of the best stuff was not in the main page for an article, it was hidden on the Talk page. That’s where the people writing an article had discussions. And if two people disagreed about a subject, the history of their arguments was preserved forever on the talk page.
That wasn’t the only secret, of course. The History link displayed every change ever made on a Wikipedia page, so visitors could know what had been deleted or added.
Linden had already started his research on the St. Johns Bridge last night. After he read the main article on Wikipedia, he discovered on the Talk page that there was a disagreement over whether the bridge should have an apostrophe in the name. Should it be written St. Johns or St. John’s? It turned out the bridge was named after James John, also known as “Old Jimmy Johns” or “Saint Johns.” Since Johns was his nickname, the name of the bridge shouldn’t have an apostrophe in it. And yet the main article hadn’t said anything about who the bridge was named after.
I hope that each book I write for children embodies more of these principles while telling an entertaining story that kids want to read. Some day I’d like to give a talk or reading and have kids show up to ask me questions about building drones or editing Wikipedia.
If you or someone you know has a child ages seven through eleven, please check it out and let me know what you think.
The Case of the Wilted Broccoli is a kids mystery novel featuring an eleven-year-old girl detective named Willow who has to solve a mystery at her school when people start getting sick from the school lunch. She and her brothers build an autonomous quadcopter for their science fair while investigating the food supply for their school. It’s available in paperback, and for Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Nook.