Sunday, February 7, 2021

Writing the -TEM in STEM

By Jennifer Swanson

So, you want to write a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) book. Awesome!  Why not consider a book with a technology, engineering, or math focus. It’s a great way to introduce young readers to the possibilities of a STEM career and get them excited about new and ground-breaking technology.

These are the topics that I’m very passionate about. If you look at my list of books, you’ll see many of them are -TEM topics. I am always asked where I get my ideas and more importantly, how do you sell a topic that is mostly technology, engineering, or math?

Here are a few tips to do just that.

1.  Find a BIG hook

A -TEM book needs a BIG hook, bigger than most books. That’s because they must be accessible. (If you write STEM books, you’ll hear this word a lot from your editor). Accessible means that this book must not only capture the interest of a kid who already likes science and technology but also that of one who might not.  By “hook” I mean that the topic needs to be very obvious, unique, and something that makes kids stop in their tracks. Humor is a plus. 

Let me give you an example. A few years back, I desperately wanted to write a book about the Google self-driving car. I wrote a proposal titled, “Engineering a Self-driving Car.”

Eh. Not that impressive is it? Editors didn’t think so either. So, I set about trying to come up with a really unique angle for the topic. One that would grab the reader right from the start.

Two years later, I had it. My new title was Save the Crash-test Dummies. My book would follow the day in the life of a crash-test dummy as he goes through his job. The book would depict the history of car safety engineering and end with “Crash”  driving off into the sunset in a self-driving car. Now that is a unique hook! And one, thankfully, editors loved.  

You don’t have to put your hook in the title, but if you can, that’s awesome. It’s the first thing people see, so they immediately know what this book is about.

Most of my books have their hooks in the title:

Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact

Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up!

Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature.


How do you come up with a title as your hook? Be creative.

a.      Do an internet search of terms associated with your topic. For example, when I needed a shorter ending to my Super Gear book, (a book about nanotechnology and sports), I looked up short sports terms and came up with Team Up!

b.     Beastly Bionics came from me searching for words that would describe animals that started with a “B.”

You try it! – Have a topic in mind and need a short title? Search for synonyms for your topic, or look for terms that are in the same family (like sports or animals). Want your title to be alliterative, look for words that start with  the same letter as your title.

 

2.  Expository or Narrative?

Will your manuscript be expository or narrative? That depends on you. Either is acceptable. Some amazing -TEM narrative books have done very well.

Teresa Robeson’s Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom does a fabulous job of telling the story of explaining the physics of beta decay that happens within atoms.

In her book, Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics,  Laurie Wallmark takes us on a journey with Sophie Kowalevski as she mastered differential equations (math).

Both of these books have complicated topics, but they are brilliantly explained through their narrative stories. But not all -TEM books need to be narratives.

Pretty much all of my STEM books are expository. For example, my Beastly Bionics introduces the reader to cutting-edge technology about biomimicry, the science of using nature to inspire complex problem-solving. Many of these inventions are quite complicated and to explain them in a narrative way would take too many words. Instead, I had one invention per spread. I used 5 different sidebars, high energy words, and concise descriptive terms to explain the technology and intrigue my reader.  


How do you decide which way is best for your story? Write it both ways and see which way works best.

You try it! – Take one section of your book. Write it in narrative form and in expository form. Compare them. Does one seem too wordy? Is this topic covered much better with shorter, snappier, sidebars with only a mix of narrative? Or does the narrative flow better? Which one works best?

  

3.  Explain Everything

This is the most important part about a -TEM book. When you are tackling complex technology and engineering topics, you MUST explain them well. To do this, think like a kid! Use comparisons they will understand. And words that are their level. Illustrations help, too. For example, when you describe distance, don’t say 100 yards, say it’s as big as a football field. 


 

In my Astronaut-Aquanaut, when I explain the extreme pressure you feel as you go down deep in the ocean, I tell kids to imagine themselves as a soda can being squeezed and crunched. They get the idea… ouch!

 

You Try it!- Explain to a 10-year-old how a ship floats without using the term buoyancy. (Not easy, is it?)

Whatever topic you choose, you can’t go wrong with a -TEM book. They are fun to write, amazing to research, and just might be the one thing that inspires a young reader to pursue a career in STEM. It doesn’t get much better than that. GO STEM!

 

ACTIVITY

Complete at least one of the Try-It suggestions.

 

ABOUT THE PRIZE

Jennifer will be giving away an autographed copy of Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of 40+ books for children, mostly about STEM. A self-professed science geek, she started a science club in her garage when she was 7 years old. Jennifer has spoken about her books and her passion for science at numerous NSTA conferences, SCBWI conferences, book festivals across the country, the Atlanta Science Festival, the World Science Festival, and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival. She is also the creator of the STEM Tuesday blog, STEAMTeamBooks promo group, and has a science podcast called Solve It! for Kids. Find Jennifer at www.jenniferswansonbooks.com

 

88 comments:

  1. Oh I love this post! Thanks for these helpful tips! (And incidentally, I’ve been searching for a mentor text about biomimicry...putting yours on my list now!)

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  2. As a retired middle school math teacher there is nothing I want more than to write books with a math component! Perhaps if I add the T and the E, my goal can be MET!

    Thank you for sharing your books and your experiences!

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  3. Great article as we for sure need more expository & narrative STEAM books! My daughters love learning about new things in picture books that are fun, bright & colorful.

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  4. This was great and very actionable Try-It suggestions. In your example you mentioned explaining "buoyancy" to a 10-year-old, should you avoid the term altogether or is it OK to use some terms if they are explained?

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  5. Wow! Making such difficult topics simple is a great task. Thanks for the article. Would love to write a book about nature or animals. Researching. We'll see.

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  6. Thanks for the inspiration and the concrete, big picture tips!

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  7. The fact that it took two years to get to the angle of crash-test dummies in the self-driving car book was really helpful! For me, as a visual learner, that spread of the penguins, which illustrated the expository writing style, was a fabulous model. Thanks — and GO -TEM!

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  8. As always Jen your personality comes through! You definitely are a cheerleader for STEM and have wonderful words of support for aspiring writers. I am going to use your suggestions to finagle a few manuscripts I am working on. Thank you! :)

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  9. I'm more drawn to the S than the TEM but I appreciate the push to try something new in both narrative and expository formats. I've certainly enjoyed your books and the STEM Women in KidLit podcast you did.

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  10. I'm going to find a TEM topic to try in both narrative and expository formats. Thanks for the exercise.

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  11. Your ideas for doing internet searches to come up with snappy titles -- brilliant!

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  12. Now you've piqued my curiosity about writing TEM. I have an idea I"m going to explore! Thank you for the idea of writing a book in two ways and discovering which works best. I will try this, too, with a manuscript I can't quite piece together.

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  13. great post - written in the "try it" style I've come to appreciate in your books. I think I will try a TEM book next...

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  14. Thanks for the great information!

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  15. Thanks Jen! Loved the penguin spread. I've got a few completed TEM manuscripts that I'm shopping around. I've got a tech background so, I gravitate to the STE part of STEM.

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  16. Thanks for sharing. I really liked your examples for explaining by comparing to things kids would understand.

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  17. Wow, Jen you are one busy person. I don't know if I'll ever write a STEM book, but your tips are great! Thanks

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  18. Thank you! I don’t know if I’ll do a TEM book but great info.

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  19. Thank you for the great suggestions for writing STEM books and for challenging us with the Try It activities. Nothing like learning by doing!

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  20. What a great approach and suggestions for tackling tech-y topics (oops! accidental alliteration there) - I love your ideas for thinking outside the box to attract kids' attention. Thank you!

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  21. You certainly have got me thinking!

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  22. Love this post! Really helpful and inspiring!

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  23. I love your expository style. My biomimicry will be me imitating you!

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  24. Great ideas on how to tackle writing TEM, Jen! I'm also very honored to have my book included in your post!

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  25. STEM TEM...here's another nonfiction lesson that's going to take more than one read. Things to study and absorb here, and then try it out! Thank you! Thank you!

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  26. Great information, examples, and tips! Thank you, Jennifer, for stressing the importance of hooks, choice of narrative vs. expository, and the use of comparisons when we consider writing TEM for kids.

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  27. I liked the difference between your original average title and your final choice of Save the Crash-Test Dummies! That is such a good lesson -- don't be satisfied with the adequate; go for something better! And I also like the idea of trying to explain how a ship floats without using the word 'buoyancy.' This is a terrific assignment -- something children's writers have to do all the time, in every topic!

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  28. Great tips - thank you for sharing your experience and the fun Try-It suggestions!

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  29. This was excellent information. Just what I needed! Thank you!

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  30. I've never considered writing books for the STEM audience but this article gives me the challenge to consider it...

    Great post!

    Donna L Martin

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  31. Thanks for a great post and helpful exercises! I will try them all!

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  32. Love STEM topics. Thank you for your tips. I will try them on a ms I am working on.

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  33. Love STEM topics. Thank you for your tips. I will try them on a ms I am working on.

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  34. Love STEM topics. Thank you for your tips. I will try them on a ms I am working on.

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  35. Fantastic post! Thanks for these tips, Jennifer!

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  36. Love your focus on TEM! I’ve learned it’s not typically what gives me goosebumps (I’m definitely more drawn to the S), but I know better than to say never!

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  37. Great post. Thanks for the helpful tips, Jennifer.

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  38. Wow, Jen! I love these suggestions and will be sharing this post w/Storyteller Academy members who are keen on writing science. I really want to add more hooks to some of my NF WIPS.

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  39. Great post. I was never into science as a child and wish I'd had some of these books. Thanks.

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  40. Thanks for the useful activities, Jen. They transfer well to other projects and I was delighted to apply them to a MG historical fiction project that needed a much better title!

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  41. Outstanding information, Jen.

    Thank you for sharing many great ideas to hook readers about STEAM topics.

    Suzy Leopold

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  42. Thanks Jen Swanson for you super post! You are a true inspiration and I look forward to reading more of your books, sharing them with my grands for further ignignting their love of STEM too.

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  43. Love the tip about searching the internet for related vocabulary. I've started creating word lists when I write down an idea, but that sounds like a great way to expand them. Thank you!

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  44. Thanks for sharing your process and reminding me to keep vocabulary and comparisons relevant to kids.

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  45. Thanks for an awesome post on STEM/STEAM/TEM books, Jen!

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  46. Jen, Thank you for emphasizing the importance of a title with a hook!

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  47. I have a hard time with titles and I think your idea to put the hook in the title is excellent.

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  48. Love your ideas for coming up with catchy titles!

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  49. Wonderful advice, Jen--thanks for the tips! Love the hooky-book titles too!

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  50. I had so much fun doing the no-buoyancy exercise-- thank you! I was sifting and translating physics information for the body of the text and researching parts of ships and writing side bars... and I wrote myself into an entirely different topic. Now I have a new book idea! Fun!

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  51. Thank you so much!! I love your advice to write the story both ways:fiction and narrative. I also enjoy your writing as it has so much energy!!

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  52. Interesting post. I lean towards the A in STEAM, but I will try one.

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  53. Jen, I am such a fan! Your books are fantastic!!
    I am putting together a few expository MG NF proposals right now, so this was perfect. I took on your first challenge and did some research to find a better title hook for one of them, and came up with some possibilities.
    Thanks for the good advice!

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  54. Oh my! You have me so revved up about this. It's a lot to digest, but I so appreciate your enthusiasm and encouragement AND your great tips. Thank you, Jen!

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  55. Oh my! You have me so revved up about this. It's a lot to digest, but I so appreciate your enthusiasm and encouragement AND your great tips. Thank you, Jen!

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  56. Great post! Finding the right hook can be challenging and take time, so thanks so saying it took 2 years to find one of yours. That's so realistic :)

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  57. Thanks for the post on TEM 😁 and finding the hook that draws people in.

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  58. This was really helpful. No wonder your books are popular, you're such a great teacher! I am going to look at my list of topics and see if maybe I need to change my approach. Thank-you.

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  59. I love all of your book titles! You definitely hook the reader in with them. Such great tips for how to do that. Thank you for sharing!

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  60. Great post Jen! I love the suggestion on alliterative titles and searches. BIG Hook is so important, thanks for the reminder!

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  61. I really enjoyed your examples and activities in this post. Your books are amazing - I'm just blown away by Astro-Naut/Aqua-Naut.

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  62. Thank you all for your kind words and enthusiasm for my post. I hope you enjoyed it and also that there will be MORE -TEM books for kids to read in the future. GO STEM/STEAM!

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  63. What an excellent article! I particularly appreciate the reminder to explain things in a way that kids can understand.

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  64. Thank you for all your tips. I am going to be thinking more creatively when it comes to title. Love all your kid friendly titles.

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  65. Great advice Jen and I love your explanation of the genesis of CRASH TEST DUMMIES. I am looking forward to trying an expository approach with one of mine. One thing that holds me back, is figuring out how to format a MS with multiple sidebars. Thanks.

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  66. Thanks for the suggestions, Jen. And trying to explain to a ten year old is a great practice, too.

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  67. Thank you for the fantastic set of definitions and examples. This is a fabulous resource!

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  68. It's amazing how long finding a good hook can take. As a former engineer, I ❤️ STEM. Although I've sold a science-based book and am working on another, they're narrative nonfiction, so I have yet to crack the TEM-nut. Would like to one of these days. I have included some TEM is the back matter for my debut.....baby steps...Thanks for these exercises!

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  69. Just call me "SAM" - I love Science, the Arts, and I enjoy Math. I have to admit, I somewhat struggled through this article--my gifting is not in the areas of Technology, and Engineering; so, I have, believe or not, chosen to focus on the topic of "Math: Whole Numbers: Where Do They Live?" I am excited, to a degree, to get back into the exploration of math, everyday math, functional math, etc.!

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  70. Awesome article- I loved the try it suggestions

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  71. I'm a STEAM writer. I love to mix science and art. And I agree that it's vital to include one's hook in the title. Thanks for sharing!

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  72. I admit I lean toward the S and A in STEAM, not the TEM. But your suggestions have helped me see that I might be able to focus on one small aspect of TEM concepts and be able to speak with some authority.

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  73. I love all your books Jen. Thanks for these tips!

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  74. I like your suggestion for writing a piece in two different forms to see which one works better for the topic. This can be a challenge, but I think you're right, that it will lead one to see what type of nonfiction works best with the topic. Thanks! :)

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  75. Your books aren't just for kids, LOL! Thanks for breaking down many of the big "why" questions into information that adults can easily understand, too, without being drowned in the old-text-book style minutia!

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  76. Jennifer,
    I have a narrative fiction book that I need to switch the emphasis to more TEM. I know little about that entire area but your suggestions will let me tiptoe into the area one step at a time. Thank you1

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  77. I agree that TEM is fun to explore! Math and technology topics aren't as widely covered, which can make them exciting for kids (and authors) to discover. I learned so much writing my book about cybersecurity!

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  78. Great post! Thank you! Very helpful info! (and that crash test dummy hook is BRILLIANT!)

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  79. As a teacher, I'm constantly challenged to explain complicated ideas to kids in an understandable way. It comes quite naturally to me now. Coming up with a -TEM topic is a bit more challenging for me...I keep my feelers out, for sure. Thanks!

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  80. Especially great try it suggestions. Thanks.

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  81. So many great take-aways. Thank you for sharing, Jennifer!

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  82. Great tips! I may try to write a draft on a -TEM topic to see what I discover and learn. Thanks for hooking me in!

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  83. Jennifer, I am truly impressed with the way NF writers take complicated topics and make them understandable for young children.

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