Never Underestimate Young Readers

We often hear how students today don’t know literature or history, or that they lag behind kids in other countries in the most crucial areas of math, science, and engineering. Culture is often blamed. Movies and TV shows promote violence and drug culture and advertising commercializes and sexualizes the youth. Video games and movies often glamorize unsavory heroes. Kids today live in a celebrity culture, where intellect isn’t appreciated and everything is dumbed down, numbing young minds instead of expanding them. Some schools barely keep kids in the classroom. Our society is not encouraging children to utilize the full potential they were born with.

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We must constantly strive to reach these kids and give them books they’ll enjoy while stretching their minds and imaginations. As readers and writers for young people, the Emblazoners know tweens are readers and fully capable of understanding rich and complex stories that thrill and teach and inspire. We know what books we read and enjoyed in our youth and we want to reach today’s kids before they give up on learning.

Lynn Kelley and I, writing as BBH McChiller, have decided that when we write our Monster Moon series of books for 7- to 12 year-olds, where we create a fictional world full of fictional characters with fictional problems, that we will always drop in a dabbling of real history or geography, real science, real literature, actual occupations, folklore, and mythology, anything that adds truth and depth to the story.

This exposes kids to the real world in a subtle and unobtrusive way. As a simple example, our pirate rat character often bemoans the plight of his species Rattus rattus, and while kids sympathize with him they are learning the scientific nomenclature for the rat species. Similarly, we have Macbeth being quoted at a Monster Ball. Kids are smart and capable, so why not give them an awareness of history and science and literature in addition to a fun read.

Last month I had the opportunity to be a Grand Award Judge at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles, and I saw firsthand the intelligence and amazing abilities of young people, but also, the worldwide competition with whom they’ll have to compete.

Intel’s ISEF is the world’s largest science and engineering fair where millions of dollars are awarded to students, mainly high schoolers, ranging in age from 13 to 18. Over seven and a half million students from all over the world began on this journey by competing in local, regional, school, state or sponsored fairs, and the top winners/finalists were invited to compete at ISEF for the largest awards given to young people.

The 1,700 finalists came from 70 countries and were the best of the best. Their projects would compare with any college or graduate level research endeavor. Several top category winners were just 13 to 15 years old. The Grand Award winner was a 15-year-old boy from Boston, MA who worked on his project at home combining science, math, and computer learning. He wrote a computer learning program teaching the computer to calculate the relative deleterious effects of various cancer cell gene mutations, all in his spare time. These students certainly gave me hope for the future of the world.

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This year’s top winners were from Malaysia, Germany and United States.
(Photo – Courtesy of ISEF)

These outstanding kids got their interest in science, nature, mathematics, computers, etc. from somewhere. They had already attained this interest and drive before they went to high school. Maybe it was from reading. Interestingly, I noticed that many of the competitors were reading fictional books in their spare minutes. Or, maybe they got their interests from museums or travels. Somewhere they developed an ability to think about the world around them, to question how things work, to see problems and imagine solutions.

We work hard to write books that kids will enjoy and maybe we’ll inspire some readers to become writers or poets. Maybe we’ll write something that while fun to read, also inspires future historians, archeologists, engineers, mathematicians, cancer researchers, physicians, veterinarians, astronauts, and inventors.

Within the context of our novels, we can certainly encourage a zest for learning and for understanding the world around us. It’s easy to tuck interesting nuggets into a story, details that readers will enjoy and remember. Maybe we’ll even trigger that spark of curiosity, and they’ll want to learn more about some factoid we’ve woven into the tale. Maybe they’ll even want to read a nonfiction book on the subject. We can give readers an idea how they can solve a problem or change the world. Books can do that. We should challenge young readers’ minds. They can handle it.

Do you write historical or scientific facts into your stories beyond what the setting requires? Do you think it’s hard to do if it doesn’t directly pertain to the story?

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Kathryn Sant

Kathryn Sant is a retired obstetrician who has witnessed the births of thousands of future readers. She has published a middle-grade novel, Desert Chase (Scholastic), and under the pseudonym BBH McChiller she is a co-author of the fun, spooky Monster Moon mystery series. Curse at Zala Manor is the first book in the series, Secret of Haunted Bog is the second title, and the upcoming Legend of Monster Island will be the third. She is currently working on two middle-grade boys’ adventure novels and the next Monster Moon book.

Her interest in adventure, research, and genealogy has led to a love of world travel, exotic adventures, and museums of all kinds. But she also enjoys quiet evenings reading with her dogs at her side.

20 thoughts on “Never Underestimate Young Readers

  1. Wonderful post, Kathryn! Since I write time travel I need to know the facts to create the fiction. Children are truly the keys to our future, and if we as writers can inspire them to dream big dreams, then we’ve done our jobs well! Cheers!

  2. I needed to hear this. I spent my middle grade years in Scotland, learning classics even at that age. By the time I returned to the United States, my language skills were seemingly light years beyond my peers–not because I was so much smarter, but because I’d just been exposed to more literary works. The Scottish schools figured I could handle it. And I could. I wish we’d try that more here in the States. Kids would rise to it if we’d just trust them with the “good stuff”.

    1. Absolutely, Lia, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have heard that many times. Americans who have gone to foreign schools come back here and are way ahead of their classmates, especially in certain areas including the classics, and very commonly, science and math. We have some wonderful teachers and librarians who may do marvelous things for their students’ learning, but the next year all is lost if no one continues to encourage and challenge the students to their potential.

  3. I love, love, love when kids are learning and don’t even know it. But I also love it when they get fired up about learning. Good books can light that fire. Great post, Kathy!

    1. Either way works for me, too. I love when kids want to learn. Some are natural self-starters. Sometimes we need subterfuge to excite them about a topic they didn’t even know they wanted to learn about.

  4. Great post! My job is kind of doing the opposite. Because I write nonfiction, history/travel books for children, my job is incorporate my character and story elements into the research to make learning a fun educational experience.i

    1. I’m sure as kids we’ve all read some dry nonfiction books along with those wonderful ones we still remember today. Now it’s different. There are so many really superb nonfiction books which do exactly what you say, Barbara.
      I also think you have to love your topic to do it justice. You can tell when a NF writer loves what they are writing about.

  5. I like very few celebrities (I don’t get Katy Perry, Eminem, or Lady Gaga), and mostly they aren’t bad either. I like Jim Gaffigan and Harrison Ford. 🙂

    Great post, and great points. I’ll remember it when I write. 🙂

    1. Erik, I don’t get Katy Perry or Lady Gaga either, but that is the world we live in. Good luck in your writing.

  6. Hi Kathy, I know you ‘sideways’ through your writing pals, Lynn and Maria! Congratulations on your first blog post. Great stuff. Down here in New Zealand, apparently our learning standards in schools are higher than they are in other countries. I constantly need to simplify my words and ideas in my upper middle grade stories to suit the reading levels of children in the rest of the world. That seems such a shame to me!

    1. Yes, I wish kids everywhere had the same opportunities and could reach the levels we know they are capable of attaining. You are lucky to live where students are challenged and achieve a high level.

  7. Great and interesting first post, Kathy! And super cool that you recently got to be one of the grand judges at the Intel’s Science Fair (cool video!). I love the way you weave bits of science, history, and literature into your middle grade novels. Looking forward to reading your “Monster Island.” And I know my grandkids are going to love it, too! You’re a great writer/storyteller and I can hardly wait until you get your historical fiction novels published, too! Your young readers are in for a literary treat! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Maria. You are a master at weaving history into a story. Thanks for visiting Emblazon!

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