Sunday, September 21, 2008

Guessing Games

If you’re of a certain age, you will remember the one-word career advice given
to an ambitionless Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in the opening scene of the immortal 1967 film, The Graduate: “Plastics!” If an aspiring author of children’s non-fiction picture books asked for two words of advice, I might say “Guessing Games!”

Children love to guess. The opportunity to figure out something or to find objects hidden in illustrations, combined with a chance to show off what they have already learned, gets kids jumping (sometimes literally) with knowledge and joy. If an author can present good factual material in an enjoyable format that allows to children to take guesses, the author might have a popular book on his or her hands. It’s happened to me 25 times, with number 26 on its way.

In the late ‘90s, I wrote two dozen science books in the series “Look Once, Look Again.” They came out in two batches of 12 – the first oriented around habitats and the second around anatomical features of animals and plants. The publisher, Creative Teaching Press, predicted they would be in print for five or six years but it’s now been almost a dozen since the first series came out, and the “LOLA” books (as photographer Dwight Kuhn and I fondly call them) are still going strong.

There was nothing special about the idea, other than the interactive possibilities that come from children using both visual and textual clues to identify plants and animals. First they see a close-up photograph of an organism that gives a magnified view of part of its exterior (the plates of a turtle’s carapace, for example, or the kernels of an ear of corn). The text hints at the organism’s identity (“These are plates but you wouldn’t want to eat from them. What animal has hard plates on its back?” or “What has ears but cannot hear?”). And the child is on his or her way. Kids tear through these books and reach for more. With so many colorful covers, I long ago began to call them “book candy.” Unlike mouth candy, this kind of confection allows kids to think and have no-calorie fun at the same time, while expanding their knowledge of the natural world and, in a subtle way, encouraging them think like a naturalist -- in terms of a creature’s characteristics.
As an author who visits schools, I have had the most fun when I've seen class projects derived from mybooks, including class-created books based on “Look Once, Look Again.” Typically, first or second graders have drawn close-ups of animal or plant parts and written clues about the identity, followed by drawings of the complete animal or plant and further explanation. In one school, the students went beyond modeling their work after the LOLA books. They invented fantastical animals that combined characteristics of various real creatures. It reminded me of one of my favoite Dr. Seuss books, On Beyond Zebra, which I first encountered on the shelf of one of my biology professors at Cornell.

Late last year, I published (with co-author Yael Schy, who is also my wife) a book of poems that hint about the identity of well-camouflaged animals found (if you can spot them) in the photographs (also by Dwight Kuhn). The challenge is to find the animal hidden in the picture and identify it from the poem. We adopted a unique design element in which the gate-fold pages open up to reveal another version of the same photo; the difference is that now the background is faded (thanks to the miracle of PhotoShop) to allow the hidden animal to stand out. Then come prose “naturalist notes,” identifying the animal and offering more info about its life history, its use of camouflage, and a few more photos.

Many readers, both young and older, have suggested that Where In the Wild? reminds them of I Spy and Where’s Waldo?. Our book hasn’t yet enjoyed quite the success of those (their illustrations are not limited by the true arrangements of objects in the world), but it has captured the attention of many readers and reviewers (and, I’m pleased to say, award committees–most recently the Animal Behavior Society, which just honored it with its 2008 Outstanding Children’s Book Award). Again, I think the hook is the guessing game format.

With great anticipation, I am waiting to see student projects based on Where In the Wild? Teachers and home schoolers: this is your chance to combine science with poetry. Please show me what you come up with by sending an email to (you know how to turn that into an email address). And all INK blog readers can post some of your favorite non-fiction books that use a guessing-game format. Why limit ourselves to science? How about history, geography, grammar, philosophy, math -- there's no limit! Aspiriing authors of non-fiction: it’s better than plastics.

1 comment:

Bearded Lady said...

So true. Children love to guess. Adults love to guess too. It invites the reader to interact with the book. When I do book readings the kids always seem to love the "find the...." game more than anything.