Q&A Interview With Isabel Thomas - Science Writer and Children's Author | EWmums.com

Children's Silly Questions Could Save the Planet: Meet Writer Isabel Thomas

"A good children’s science book is nothing like a textbook. It’s an opportunity to tell a complete story that helps children make connections between bite-sized facts and the bigger picture."

Posted on

1 February 2021

Isabel Thomas interview - Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Ahead of her panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, we had the chance to speak to the award-winning author herself...

Isabel Thomas is a science writer and children’s author based in Cambridge, UK. She has written over 150 books about science and nature for young audiences, including Moth: An Evolution Story which won the AAAS Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books 2020. Isabel also write features for children’s science magazines and work with all kinds of different organisations to create content for science outreach projects.

"Much of my work is driven by a desire to introduce children from diverse backgrounds to the wonder of science and nature and hopefully inspire them to pursue STEM education and related careers," she said.

Isabel, who grew up in a low income, single-parent family said winning a place to read Human Sciences at the University of Oxford opened up the world for her. Today she lives with her husband, three sons and two skeptical guinea pigs.

How are things right now in the UK?

"At the moment the UK is locked down due to the pandemic, so daily life is focused on writing, homeschooling, cooking nice treats, and having fun together as a family.

Rather than trying to rigorously follow the curriculum, we are taking the opportunity to do some fun projects with the boys, such as painting giant murals on bedroom walls, and building a firepit from reclaimed materials. My writing life has not been changed much, except that I now have so much company at home! I even managed to do a national BBC radio interview from underneath a den built from duvets!

However, I am very much missing the opportunity to run events with live audiences, which used to be one of my favourite parts of the job."

What motivated you to start writing science and nature books for children?

Isabel Thomas interview

"At university I became very involved in student journalism, and really discovered my love of writing. After graduating I was keen to find a career that combined science and writing.

I began by working for a publisher of science and maths textbooks, and then in children’s non-fiction. In my spare time I began writing and submitting my own books. I focused on science and nature right from the start because that was my own background.

Establishing myself as a writer was less like a lightbulb moment, but rather several years of being relentless and never giving up!"

What has been the hardest scientific topic/idea to explain for children in your books so far?

"I don’t think any topics should be considered too difficult for children to understand, if you build bridges from what they already know and link a topic to the bigger picture so children can see why it’s important.

Recently, I have written books explaining evolution, particle physics and the periodic table to young children. Perhaps the hardest to write was Fox: A Circle of Life Story, which is a picture book explaining death and its place in nature."

"My only parent died in my mid 20s, and before I had children, I imagined us having very emotional conversations about death and grief. In reality, the first questions my sons asked were very matter of fact. They were curious not so much about the emotional side of death, but the concept of death itself.

I realized death is a very abstract idea for young children. There are lots of books that help families explore grief, but I found none for young children that define the science of death. So I wrote Fox to explain this in a way that is still comforting.

I hope it will make a space for families to talk about what it means when an animal, or a pet, or a loved one dies, and take away some of the awkwardness that children can feel when they have questions."

Can you describe your writing style in 5 words?

"The critic Imogen Russell Williams once described my style as optimistic with an “underlying note of steel” – this is spot on!

Although I am a bit of a chameleon, and my style ranges from humorous – for example This Book will Help Cool the Climate – to poetic and lyrical – for example, Moth: An Evolution Story and Fox: A Circle of Life Story."

Isabel Thomas books

What is your process for discovering new science or nature topics to write about?

"I am spoiled for choice, as science and nature include everything in the universe!

Sometimes publishers ask me to think about an approach to a particular topic, in which case I dive into the research and see what jumps out at me most. I like to make unusual connections and find new ways into a topic.

Other times, I am completely guided and inspired by the questions children ask – my own sons, my nephews, my friends’ children, and the children I meet when I visit schools and festivals. Children have the best questions in the world!"

What is your best writing advice for those who want to get into the world of children’s non-fiction?

"Be relentless! There is no single way into this industry, which can be frustrating but also liberating because it means you can carve your own path. Keep putting your ideas and writing out there, and if something doesn’t work out, try again. Establishing a writing career is partly about honing your talent and your craft, but also about not giving up.

You should not spend too long honing one particular idea. Your imagination is the key to success and career longevity, so let it wander and talk to your agent or editors about your ideas often, rather than spending months polishing an idea to perfection.

Collaboration turns a good idea into a great project! Keep putting work out there, and if something doesn’t stick – be ready to move on to the next idea."

You’ll be having your own panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February, covering how silly questions can lead to serious science. How did you decide on the theme of your session?

"When I visit schools in the UK, the Q&A sessions are always a joy because children ask such amazing questions. I began to collect questions from children, in advance and weave the answers into my talks, which always delighted the audience.

I also began collecting the funniest, strangest and – yes – silliest questions asked by scientists. So, the idea of writing an entire talk based on questions evolved gradually, and it’s been great fun to put together!'

Do you have any special rituals when you guest at a panel/hold a public speaking position like this? (a neat workspace, sharpened #2 pencils, kids outside, cup of tea, favourite jumper, etc.)

"Breakfasting on bananas for energy! I also have a favourite skirt covered in dancing foxes which I used to wear for every festival appearance. Now presenting via Zoom, I have updated it to a dress covered in foxes instead!"

How important was reading to you before you pursued an education/career in STEM? Do you believe children’s books play a positive role in shaping future interests?

"The right book can definitely spark a future passion! Conversely, there is a danger that young children may be discouraged from pursing science if the only place they read about it is in the pages of a textbook. A good children’s science book is nothing like a textbook. It’s an opportunity to tell a complete story that helps children make connections between bite-sized facts and the bigger picture."

There is a lovely story from Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage that I tell in The Misadventures of Charles Darwin. A few weeks into the voyage, Darwin wrote home bursting with pride at his first ‘discovery’: an octopus that he was convinced was new to science. His mentor pointed out that English beaches were crawling with these same cephalopods, but this didn’t diminish Darwin’s excitement in discovering something new to him for the first time.

When I write a science story, explanation, or hands-on activity, I’m always aiming to give readers the same feeling. If I can encourage children to pick up a book, think ‘wow’, and keep reading, I’ll know I’ve done a good job. If they decide to close a book, head outside and start hunting for beetles, experimenting with kitchen chemistry, or embarking on an engineering project instead... well, then I’ll know I’ve done a really good job!"

Do you have any new projects you are working on right now? If yes, would you be able to share a bit?

"I am always working on several books at once, at different stages of the writing and production process. This week, I’ve been working on topics ranging from gravity to germs, and from dinosaurs to robots!

I’m also looking forward to my next new release, which will be Snug Bugs and Sleeping Lions: Bedtime in the Animal Kingdom. My aim was to create a lyrical, soothing bedtime book about the science of animal sleep which would help young children to see the benefits of a good night’s sleep... and willingly settle down. Maybe this is my hardest task yet!

Where to meet Isabel Thomas at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

  • Date: Saturday 6th February, 2021
  • Time: 12:30pm to 1:30pm
  • Location: Al Riwaq II, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City. Isabel Thomas will be appearing virtually
  • Price: from AED 40
  • Buy your tickets
    • Science (and science writing) begins with questions. They can be sensible questions, like “Why is the sky blue?” But even better, they can be silly questions!

      Audience members are invited to submit their most curious questions in advance, for a chance to see them answered during the event. Remember, the sillier the better!

      Explore more of Isabel's work and collaborations at https://isabelthomas.co.uk/ and say hello at @isabelwriting on Twitter and @isabelthomasbooks on Instagram!

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