Tracy Vonder Brink's Guide to Tackling Tough Topics for Kids

Tracy Vonder Brink
Tuesday, April 5, 2022

With apologies to Kermit the Frog…it’s not that easy being a science writer for kids. We cover complex topics such as black holes, but we also handle potentially upsetting issues like the ever-present pandemic. We can’t write for kids as if they’re small adults; their intellectual and emotional development are works in progress. They even differ from each other—as any parent will tell you, 8-year-olds process their world in vastly different ways from 14-year-olds.

As science journalists and writers, we have an obligation to reach kids, and reach them effectively, because they are the future adults who will make the decisions that can change the world. So, how do we write for kids when the going gets tough?

Tracy Vonder Brink has covered topics from melting polar ice to the invention of ramen noodles | Tracy Vonder Brink

When it comes to explaining complex science, patronizing our audience is disastrous, because nothing irritates kids more. They’ll stop reading. Instead of dumbing down, we should meet them where they are and then grow their knowledge.

The average preschooler probably isn’t familiar with the word “virus,” but they do know “germ,” so define a virus as a kind of germ and build from there. A middle schooler knows what a virus is, so refresh a bit, just in case, and then expand. The young adult reader should know the basics of virology, so our writing can take them to the next level of knowledge. Kids can learn any concept when it’s explained in a way that builds on what they already know.

It’s also helpful to give young readers concrete examples to put information into perspective. The Daily Mail’s recent tweet about an asteroid “half the size of a giraffe” was an exceedingly strange comparison—especially for an adult audience—but the impulse was valid. Statistics and measurements don’t mean much to kids, so look for opportunities to compare measurements to something they know, such as the length of a school bus or the width of a basketball court. Measurements and statistics are more meaningful when kids can visualize their extent in the real world. Photographs, illustrations, and diagrams also help kids better understand information.  

By all means, always use the correct terminology, but also ground terms with familiar examples. When describing how a katydid makes noise by running its scraper over a complex of ridges called a file, adding a comparison such as, “it’s a bit like running the edge of your fingernail along the teeth of a comb” creates a lightbulb moment. Relating science to a child’s experience with the world forms connections they’ll remember.

Kids love stories, and good science communicators are also good storytellers. A new technology might be interesting, but make an emotional connection for your young reader by including the moment that made that scientist decide to devote her life to the work. Go beyond the statistics of climate change by describing a day in the life of a polar bear whose icy home is melting. Kids also love to laugh, so a touch of humor is always welcome, especially when the topic is on the dry side.

Science may lead to scary places, but we do kids no favors when we avoid alarming topics. They’re too smart not to realize that bad things happen, and it increases their anxiety when they suspect adults are sugar-coating the truth, or keeping it from them. At the same time, they are children, and we don’t want to terrify our readers. We need to give them the facts and address their fears, but we must also balance tough topics with reassurance and hope.

Wherever possible, give kids some kind of concrete action they can do to help. So yes, tell them it’s true that amphibians are in danger of dying out and explain why that’s happening. But, at the same time, share the ways people are helping and suggest the reader can help, too, by never littering, so amphibians’ habitats stay clean. Or offer a citizen scientist project about amphibians that the child could do with their family. Look for opportunities to leave kids with hope and action.

I kept all of this in mind when I wrote an article about COVID-19 for the March 2022 issue of ASK, a science magazine for 7-to-9 year olds. I wanted to answer kids who wondered exactly what happened that forced them to do school from home and canceled all their activities. But I also needed to be sensitive—some of my readers had likely lost family members or knew people who’d been hospitalized.

Seaerra Miller illustrated Tracy Vonder Brink's COVID-19 story with relatable scenes of scientists at work | Seaerra Miller

In writing the article, I never shied away from the fact that many died from COVID-19, but I framed the story almost like a medical mystery, which gave me the opportunity to explain how scientists around the world identified the virus and how they developed tests and vaccines. (I’m also extremely fortunate to have a physician spouse who checked my accuracy and an editor who helped me think things through.)

Seaerra Miller illustrated the story with relatable scenes of scientists at work, of family life during the pandemic, and with a terrific science cartoon that helped kids understand how an mRNA vaccine works. For a positive action kids could do, I suggested ways they could help keep themselves healthy that were realistic for 8-year-olds, such as washing their hands, eating good foods, and wearing masks.

Finally, I ended with the idea that while germs will always be with us, we can work together to continue to outsmart them. I knew I had done my job when a mother tweeted a photo of her son reading the ASK issue and added, “We both learned new things from the COVID article and loved that it ended on a hopeful note about working together!"

As science journalists and writers, we have a duty to be bold and not self-censor for fear of angry parents or school boards. Children need us to tackle the difficult topics they wonder about but other adults in their lives avoid.  With craft and care, we can help the next generation feel the wonder of science in all its forms—even the tough ones.

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Tracy Vonder Brink is a contributing editor for Click, ASK, and Muse. Her work has appeared in Highlights, High Five, Click, Spider, ASK, Cricket, Muse, and Science News for Students, as well as in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. She won a 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award in the Children's Science News cateogy for a story about a conservation canine named Eba who helps scientists find floating scat from orcas.