Avoiding the "Huh?"...The Art of Relevant References
by Fiona Bayrock     Copyright 2004  http://www.fionabayrock.com


During a recent school visit, as I held up magazines containing articles I'd written, a hand shot up from the sea of 6-year-olds.  "Hey, I have that one at home!"  For a few seconds, the young boy could hardly contain his excitement, and then suddenly he settled back on his heels, leaned forward earnestly, and in a subdued tone, eyes wide, asked, "Can a worm *really* be longer than a school bus?"     
Bingo.  A victorious "Yessss!!!!" raced through my head.  I had searched long and hard for something "about 30 feet long" so my young readers would understand how amazingly long that worm was.  "School bus" was it...and it had worked!  In this business, where feedback from readers is rare, you don't often know when references hit the mark, but that day, proof was resting on his heels in front of me.  Who knows how long that child will think "long worm" whenever he sees a school bus?  That's the power of a relevant reference.   
Young readers have limited life experience compared to adults, so if you're writing for kids---nonfiction or fiction---you're introducing them to new ideas and information all the time.  It comes with the turf.  The key to introducing new information so kids will "get it" is to link it to something they already know.  Choose relevant references, and not only will your words and ideas "stick", but you'll avoid the "Huh?"---you know, that tilted head, raised lip and eyebrow thing kids do with their faces when they haven't got a clue what you're talking about. 

What's a writer to do?
1) Compare, Compare, Compare
Similes and metaphors are great tools to link new info to something kids already know.   Similes compare two things using "like" or "as", and metaphors talk about one thing while referring to something completely different. For example, Meg Moss starts her archeology article in Ask, May/June 2003, with a terrific simile: the earth is layered with different materials, textures, and colors like a large lasagna. Anyone who has poked a fork through layers of noodles, sauce, and cheese will have an appreciation for the earth's layers, too.  My "sea of 6-year-olds" metaphor in the first paragraph gives you a sense of a large group with lots of movement. Similes are suitable for all ages, metaphors (more abstract) are generally better kept for older kids. 
2) Put Kids in the Action

Use story telling techniques to get the reader right up close to the action.  If you're writing nonfiction, you have to stick to the facts---no made up stuff---but try writing in second person "you" to plop the reader into the thick of things.  "So---you're in the middle of a rainforest.  All around you, you see..." Readers will "be there" and remember what it was like if you let them see, feel, smell, taste, or hear what's going on.  "Beep, beep, beep---getting closer---and closer. Ah hah! Tracks. Cat tracks. Cougar prints heading that way. What does the researcher do?" Readers are right there with the researcher, hearing and seeing exactly what the researcher does, in Megan Kopp's cougar-tracking article (YES Mag, Jan/Feb 2004)   You can also involve readers by showing a direct relationship between them and the subject.  Blood doesn't rush to a bat's head when it hangs upsidedown for the same reason it doesn't rush to a kid's feet when the kid is standing up...or better yet, go for the fun factor, and tell your readers that blood doesn't rush to their, um, rather large body part touching the chair when they're sitting!  (YES Mag, May/June 2002) 
3) Be Visual, Concrete, Fun

Go for concrete, active references...something that instantly conjures up a picture in your mind.  For instance, some small-toothed eels take a chomp out of larger fish by spinning them around really fast , like turning a skipping rope.  Kids can visualize how that fish is spinning around.  Saying something is "big" or "29 meters" doesn't mean much, but tell readers that blue whales can be as long as a basketball court, with a heart the size of a small car, and blood vessels you can swim through, and they'll have a good idea what "big" is all about.  Pascal's law (water can't be squished so the more pressure applied to it, the faster it leaves a pipe...yawn) becomes interesting and relevant to a 10-year-old when you write about it as the science behind squirt guns and Super Soakers.  See?  Even the physics of hydraulics is possible subject matter for kids when you choose relevant references.  Look for the "Ew!", "Cool!", and "Phew!" in your topic. 
4) Make it Work for Everyone

Kelly Milner Halls writes about kiwi birds the size of a chicken (Hullabaloo, April/May 2003), and Geoff Williams about tamarins as "squirrel-size primates" (National Geographic World, June 2002)  Kids everywhere in North America know chickens and squirrels.  "As long as an alligator", or "the size of a pacific tree frog" aren't universal enough.     
Make sure your references are things kids of today would know about.  They likely won't be familiar with LP records, slide rules, or dial telephones.  Think high tech and what's cool and relevant to kids.  How many skateboards long is that shark?  Did the light on that fish blink like a cursor?  
Body parts are great for approximate references.  Hummingbirds as big as your thumb, a tail as long as your arm, or eardrums the size of your smallest fingernail.  And every child has the magazine to refer to, so...is the worm as small as the period at the end of a sentence?  Or your insect "longer than this page" or "about the size of this letter 'o'? 

5) Get Physical

Insert simple physical activities that'll let kids see for themselves how something works.  Have them run their tongues over their teeth to feel the different shapes for biting and chewing, or drag a finger over a comb to make noise like a cricket.   
Create a kid activity that simulates the real thing.  Push and twist a drinking straw into a cheese sandwich to create a "core sample" like geologist take from the ground.  Stick a wet piece of paper to a window to see how licking a suction cup makes it stick better.  How about "cookie archeology"? After experiencing the care needed to "excavate" chocolate chips from a cookie using toothpick tools, kids will understand that archeologists work slowly and carefully so they don't destroy the artifacts.     
Writing historical topics?  Have your readers make something to understand how people did it in the past.  Make ink from blackberries, dip candles, or make mashed potato candy like pioneers.  By going through the process themselves, kids understand what life was like way back when. 
In the end, relevant references will make the difference between getting a "Really?" or a "Huh?".  It's worth spending the time to think of fresh, original, meaningful, and fun references.  Your writing will be stronger and have a greater impact, and editors will be more excited to give you assignments.  Reach down inside and find that part of you that's a kid.  That's where the connections start.
Fiona Bayrock
is the author of BUBBLE HOME AND FISH FARTS (Charlesbridge) and several other quirky science books for kids.
Her news items, activities and feature articles have appeared regularly in YESMag, Odyssey, WILD, Highlights for Children and several educational databases. She is constantly in search of the "Aha!", clever puns, and her coffee.  This article first appeared on kidmagwriters.com, August 2004.


Text 2004 Fiona Bayrock  Art 2005 Ruth McNally Barshaw
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fiona @ fionabayrock.com  ...remove spaces