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Transcript from an interview with Vicki Cobb

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Vicki Cobb. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Vicki Cobb

I'm Vicki Cobb. I write nonfiction for children, mostly science books. I want children to discover what it is to discover and so I write a lot of activities that are eye-openers and make them ask more questions. I think it leads to asking more questions.

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A career in science writing

Well, you want to know about my background. I was always influenced by the times in which I live. And I'm sort of a watershed generation because I came of age just before the Women's Movement. And I grew up thinking that men were smarter than women and nobody would ever want to pay attention to anything I ever had to say. And so science — well, first it appealed to my logical side, but also it gave me authority because it wasn't my ideas.

I could really count on science. So science gave me some gravitas and that's why I went toward it. Plus I was attracted to it. And I became — right after college I worked in a deadly job in a lab, saw there was no future so I did what most bright women of my generation did, we became teachers. And I couldn't get a job teaching in high school science, which is what I was certified for, but I finally landed a job teaching seventh, eighth, and ninth grade science.

And if you can teach those kids with raging hormones, you can teach anybody. And it was interesting because that was the early '60s and the book that I had to teach those kids from was dreadful. So I basically went to the library, found trade books that gave a more humane approach to science, and I basically made up my own teaching materials because there was nothing in the books that I felt I could give these kids.

And then, of course, I got pregnant, which is what we did in those days, and I had to leave teaching because they wouldn't let me teach when I was showing. So I had to stop in my sixth month. And there was an ad in the New York Times for teachers to write educational materials, and I thought well, if I could talk about science, I could write about it. And so that was the beginning of my career, and I've never looked back. I really have enjoyed mostly finding a way to tie scientific observation into the lives of children.

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Sharing discoveries

You know, it's a real myth for people to think that children's book authors write for children. We don't. I write for Vicki Wolf, age 11. I remember the child I was. I remember what excited me as a child, and that's who I write for. If it resonates with me, I figure it's going to resonate with other kids. And I know how kids feel about having fun and I know what was fun for me and I know what boredom was. I hated to be bored. So I'm not about to write a boring book. I figure if I'm bored when I'm writing it, somebody's going to be bored when they read it.

And I love to make discoveries and I like to share the discoveries, and some of the stuff that I've discovered is very cool. Like I'll tell you one thing. Okay. Do you want to hear it? Do you know when I was writing this book, Your Body Battles a Cold, I spoke to a doctor who was doing research on colds in children. Do you know that your nose is a computer and your nostrils take turns being the dominant breather? So if you take a mirror and you breathe on a mirror, you'll see two circles of condensation. One will be bigger than the other.

If you go back in a couple of hours and do it again, they'll reverse. So your nostrils take turns being the dominant nostril. I just hear that and I think, "Gosh, I want to share that with kids. That's worth the price of the book just to learn that." I couldn't wait to tell my dentist. You know, she said, "Oh, yeah, I've noticed that." She's always looking up in people's noses. She knows that one nostril's bigger than the other.

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Everyday science

When I research some of my science activity books, I just go to stores. Like I prowl up and down supermarket aisles looking for ideas, you know, and I read labels or just to get the ideas. Or I went to toy stores or stationery stores. I go to the place. If I'm writing about a process like with junk food how food is manufactured, I go to the factories and I see them make it.

You have to be there, you know. You go to museums. I went to Harry Houdini's museum when I researched him. You want to have as much firsthand experience as possible. When I did the Imagine Living Here series, I went all over the world with Barbara Lavallee. By the way, This Place is Cold is just being reissued, which makes me feel very good. I put a little new stuff in it about global warming. And I think if there's a basic premise for my books is that instead of bringing children into the world of science, I bring science into the world of children.

And that's a different way of looking at it and it makes it very difficult for the powers that be that are used to having things organized by discipline to be able to figure out just what I'm talking about, how it comports with the curriculum requirements. But they do. My books do meet those curriculum requirements.

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Evidence

Well, what I tell kids about evidence, one of the things that gives a scientist authority is that when you ask a scientist, "How do you know?" a scientist says, "This is what I did. If you do what I did, you'll know what I know." So in other words, science is replicable human experience. It's not reading primary source like for history where you have a lot of eyewitnesses giving anecdotes and then you have to sort out what really happened from a lot of different perspectives.

What scientists do is give a procedure. This is the behavior I went through that produced this result. You can go through the same behavior and you can get the same results. Now, how you interpret it might be different. One of the things that struck me when I wrote a biography of Marie Curie was — this was before the internet because, you know, science is the original wiki; it's a communal work and everybody contributed to it.

And she lived at a time in the history of science when chemistry and physics came together, culminating in modern atomic theory, the Bohr atom and our concept of the Bohr atom. And they were seven — ten — maybe ten really important scientists working on various aspects of this concept about what the atom was, and they would eagerly await the journals, the published journals and they would rush into their labs and they would replicate each other's experiments.

And when you do things... Like I've got tons and tons of science experiment books. I always do the experiments because when I do the experiments, I find something that I can add to it, I can do it better, I can find a different angle to it, and that makes it fresh and I can bring something new to the party, not the same-old, same-old.

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Thinking like a scientist

The most important aspect of being a scientist is asking the right question. And what that means for teachers is you really have to listen to the questions children ask because often kids have ideas and you can just see they know what they're talking about, but they haven't got the language to express it.

And when you — it's not about giving them information; it's showing them how to look at something in a way they already look at it. You know, we all see children have a fresh approach to things. You know, I do an exercise in my school visits where I show them how to think like a scientist and it's very non-intuitive.

If you take a little wad of paper toweling and you rest it at the mouth of the bottle... First you have them look at the bottle and they know it's plastic. And if you go like this, well, this just had water in it, but it should be dry. You shake it and they say it's empty and I say, "Okay. Are you sure it's empty?" Some people — well, there's a little discussion there.

But anyway, if you take a piece of paper and you rest it at the mouth of the bottle and then they have to exert a force to move the piece of paper into the bottle. So I have somebody, a kid, come up and I say, "Do you think you could blow the piece of paper into the bottle?" And everybody says, "Oh, yeah. That's easy." So we now blow the piece of paper into the bottle. [blows on paper] And you see it does — it goes out. It doesn't go in. This is called a discrepant event. A discrepant event is a very — it's an opening for an examination.

So then I say, "Well, why didn't it go in?" And they get the idea it didn't go in 'cause I lied, this bottle isn't empty. It's full of air. You add more air to an empty bottle and the air comes out and it takes the piece of paper with it. So I tell them well, that's right. You know, a scientist does an experiment, they get a surprise, they figure it out. So you know what they do next? They ask another question. So the next question is what could we do to this bottle to change it so maybe you could blow the piece of paper into the bottle?

The older kids say cut a hole in it and I have it and you can cut a hole in it and the air's got someplace to go so it doesn't — it's not like blowing into a full bottle. But the little kids say, "Take the air out. If the air is stopping it from going in, take the air out." And I say, "Well, how can they do that?" And they say, "Squeeze it." [squeezes bottle] Whoops. This is not — this is not a great bottle. But anyway, you squeeze it and then what I do, I use a two-liter bottle. This isn't a two-liter bottle.

But I rest it here and I say, "We're now going to pop the bottle back into shape. What do you think's going to happen?" And we take a vote. And then when I show them when we pop the bottle back into shape what happens and the paper flies in, there's this cheer. I mean they already have an emotional connection with the outcome, but the thing that always blows me is the logic of the five-year olds who say, "Well, if the air's stopping it from going in, take the air out." So that's an example.

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Observation and play

The process of thinking like a scientist, well, I like to begin with giving kids an activity where they observe something. I don't like to talk about the scientific method the way it's taught because it's like teaching art history. You know, it says you observe, you experiment, you hypothesize, you... It's not really the way it works. It's the way — because many scientists bring many different aspects to the way they investigate nature. So observation is certainly part of it.

So I don't tell them observation is part of it. I give them something to observe. So, for example, in my book Bangs and Twangs, the first question is about sound. ??The first question is how many different ways can you make sounds with your body without using your voice? So it gives them something to play with. I like... Play is very important to science. You really...

There was a wonderful quote of Alexander Fleming who drew pictures in Petri dishes using bacteria because he knew what colors they made. He'd make portraits in a Petri dish. And he said, "I just like to play with microbes." He played. I have a scientist son. He always wants to play. He plays with optics. But that kind of play means a suspension of the rules, an ability to try something just for the fun of it just to see what happens. And that is something children do naturally.

And somehow everything is now — has a purpose in our culture so that nobody's playing with ideas. They're not imagining. I mean Einstein imagined what it would be like to be riding on a beam of light. I mean you need to have imagination to be a scientist and to imagine — to look at things and imagine what makes them tick. We need to put that back and children do that naturally, but somehow it gets bred out of them by the expectation of having the right answer.

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Writing like a scientist

Well, in teaching kids about how to write like a scientist, the most important thing about writing like a scientist is that you have to describe behavior. You have to tell people how to do things. I have a son who's a scientist and he's an optical engineer and he is teaching in a junior college. And he tells me that the students that he's teaching can't write. And he says to them, "You want a job in a lab, you have to be able to report exactly what you did that would produce the results you got so that someone else can replicate it."

So you have to be very accurate. And you can't write good directions to do something unless you do it and you make a note of exactly what you do and describe it in a way that somebody else can replicate it. So that's one thing. Secondly, when you have an experience and you write about it, it — the writing clarifies your thinking so then you're able to speak because one of the Common Core state standards is speaking.

You know, you look at the pundits on television. Watch how they speak. Watch the questions they answer. See how articulate they are. And the reason they're articulate is 'cause they've written about all this stuff. So writing and speaking are connected.

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Interactive science books

I think that young children are more than capable of having an intellectual experience. And one of the things about scientific discovery is a lot of what we know through science is not intuitive. It goes counter to what our senses tell us or experiences tell us.

The whole word "science" means to know. And so those books, which are designed to look like picture books so you're fooled into thinking this is a picture book, but the best picture books make you stop reading. ??You have a shared experience between the reader and the child. And what I wanted to do with those books is to build that interactivity into the text itself.

So, the first question for I See Myself, it says, "Look in the mirror. Who do you see? Your very own self. That's who." Now, where — if you didn't have mirrors, where else could you see yourself? And then go around the room and see where you see yourself so you stop reading and the child goes and looks around the room and they can see yourself in doorknobs and pictures. I mean there's all kinds of places that have reflections. But that gives them an experience. And then they come back to the reader, then you read a few more questions about it.

For example, you need something besides a mirror to see yourself. You know what this is? Here's how you can find out. Take a mirror, go in a closet, and shut the door. And when I wrote that script, my granddaughter was three years old. I gave it to my daughter-in-law. I said, "Try this on Abby." Abby came bursting out of the closet electrified. She said, "Mom, you need light to see." She was three years old. But, you know, in the history of science that wasn't a given. There was a long time when people felt that the light that we saw emanated from the human eye. It wasn't from some external source.

So there's — there is this non-intuitive thing that we take for granted in settled science, but yet you can have a child re-discover it and it's magic.

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Simple experiments

That's — you don't have to, you know, it's part of me when I hear stories of, you know, bringing liquid nitrogen and showing the kids the extremes of physical states and that kind of thing and the magic that can come from that, part of me feels that that doesn't make it accessible to children. We're not going to let children handle liquid nitrogen. So I want to be able to give them wondrous things that they can see themselves.

And there was one thing that they did with little kids, you know, that in I Get Wet I give them an activity where they see that if you put water on wax paper and you can roll it around, it doesn't get wet. And these three-year olds are moving the paper and they're watching the water skate around on the surface without wetting it and it's an amazing thing, you know. You just even if you look at a drop of water form on a faucet, just watch it, it's a wondrous thing. There's wonder. It doesn't have to be the extremes like liquid nitrogen to see wonder.

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Challenging problems

Older children need to be brought back to thinking things through and to predicting. And then you say to them — you give them a challenge like kids will ask me, "What's your favorite experiment?" And my — in Science Experiments You Can Eat my favorite experiment is called bake steak, a study in enzyme action. And that's where you measure the effect of meat tenderizer in an acid or basic environment and how do you...? I had to come up with a way to measure the tenderness of meat.

So I did it by feeding pieces of meat to a hungry subject blindly so this person didn't know which pile of meat — the meat came from and counting the number of chews before swallowing. And I got amazing data during that. And it was just, you know, I felt, oh, this is so clever. And it was reviewed by The Scientific American saying that I got amazing results doing this experiment. So when kids want something challenging, I say do this experiment. You have to control for a lot of things. You have to use statistics because there are a lot of variables and the statistics smooth out the variables.

But you tell kids — I think when you tell kids that this is challenging, they rise to the occasion. I don't think we challenge them enough. And having them perform well on a test is not a challenge. I think we over praise them. We don't give them something — we don't give them real problems to solve and let them come up with their own creative solutions. We have preconceived notions of what they're supposed to do. And I think that's crippling us and them.

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Why potato chips don't get stale

So the first thing you do is you try and — you look at what's in the child's world that connects to the subject that you're trying to teach. So if it's food, what do they like to eat? You know, that's why I wrote a book about junk food because everybody likes potato chips.

And potato chips are an interesting scientific process in how they make potato chips. And then you can connect the dots and you say, "Well, you ever notice how potato chips are packaged?" And if you noticed, potato chips are packaged in — always in a foil-lined bag. It's light-proof and it's sealed and it's got puffiness to it. What's in that puffiness? Well, it turns out here's a very cool experiment. All you have to do... I give them a way to look at what's going on with the potato chips.

So leave the potato chips in a glass bowl in the sunshine for three days and then taste them and compare it to a freshly opened bag and you'll see the difference. So the potato chip manufacturer has the problem. They do not want their chips to get stale. So you got to keep the light away and you got to keep oxygen away. So, oh, how do you keep oxygen away? Well, you may not know this, but the gas that's in a potato chip bag is nitrogen. There's no oxygen.

Air is a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrogen's a very inert gas. It does not support combustion. So then I thought oh, if it doesn't support combustion, we can prove that it's pure nitrogen, that it doesn't support combustion. You can put a candle flame out with the nitrogen in a bag of potato chips. So I — it's a perfect activity. That's the way my mind works. And then you can — they can see the connection between the properties of the material and then how those — how the engineers have solved that problem and then you can apply it to prove that there's no oxygen in the potato chip bag.

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The voice in nonfiction

What is nonfiction literature? Well, literature has been defined as the single passionate voice. It's not written by committee. And when you read in any kind of literature, you hear the voice. Like for a teacher, the best teachers, you know who they are. They have a personality. They have a way — habits of mind. In good quality nonfiction, the habits of mind and the personality of the author is present.

Somebody's talking to you. It's not sterile. There's a person back there, a person with a sense of humor, a person with real empathy. I mean you get that when you read these people. So that's one thing. The second thing is it's not about the information. It's about the concept behind the information, the premise, the thesis. And a good author has an approach that resonates with children, resonates with the audience.

You cannot write for children without constantly thinking of who you're writing for. You cannot be self-indulgent. Many adult authors are very self... They write about themselves. Now, that's not saying you're not true to yourself. You are. You have to put who you are out there and you have to connect it to the reader and you have to lead them. You have to speak their language and you have to take them where you want them to go and you have to be going someplace.

There's a purpose behind what you're talking about. It's just not random facts. So, for example, in my Imagine Living Here books, which are about different places in the world, the thesis for example, of This Place is Cold is, you know, how cold is it? Why is it cold? How do you know... When you talk about how cold is it, you come up with a fact like you don't touch your eyelashes or eyebrows 'cause they're frozen and they'll break off. I mean this is — this is something all kids can relate to.

You tell how dark it is. Then you describe how you survive in the cold. Why would anybody want to go there and live where it's that cold? You know, all of these factors come in and it all gives you a point of view where everything is tied together by the climate in that and it influences the art. It influences the architecture. It influences what people eat and how they eat. So the whole lifestyle is impacted by the idea that this place is cold.

And it fits together. So if you read one book about Alaska, you might want to go look at a book about Antarctica or some other cold place and see how similar it is and then you can expand. You can do some divergent thinking and expand your concept.

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Critical thinking

You want to teach them critical thinking? They should read two or three books on a subject. I would say take no notes. Just read and see what you retain. I wrote a post called Good Writing is Memorable, Scientific Proof. And there was a study that was done about 25 years ago where they gave students writing on the same subject from academics, from linguists, and from magazine writers. And they tested them on their retention.

And hands down they remembered 40 percent more from the magazine writers, people who really know how to present the material in an engaging way. And then they told the academics and linguists what they did and they were upset. So they said, "Let us take another crack at it." So they tried again and they got the same results. There's a gift to being able to speak in a way that engages kids or readers. And I personally think that because we write for children about some tough subjects, we can't be self-indulgent.

We have to really be very clear. We have to write lean, you know, not a lot of hyperbole. We can't — we can't indulge ourselves. I mean there's a lot to writing it. And so when you read our blog, which is Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, INK, you'll read some of the best writing around.

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STEAM

Is there a connection between writing science and writing art and the humanities? The science is — has been called the art of the 20th century because although there's only one nature to be discovered, the creativity comes at how clever you are at getting nature to give up her secrets. So there's a lot of creativity in science and in engineering

The — one of our — one of our authors, Alex [unint.], is a photographer and she is very, very enamored of the patterns of photography, of scientific photography, of the morphology of living things and how they show up in various aspects of nature. So she wants to talk about STEAM, not just STEM. STEAM is — what is — STEM is science, technology, engineering, and math and A, the A is for the arts, that they are connected. There is creativity in these things.

And I'd like to see more of that happening too. I mean I see using technology in an art is another big thing that's opening up. It's all — it's all linked. It's all connected.

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Using quality nonfiction in the Common Core classroom

You ask about how the Common Core standards are — what they're going to do for education. Personally, I think they're very liberating. I think it's going to be — allow for teachers to be creative, allow for teachers to think critically. You can't teach creativity and critical thinking unless you give kids something to think critically about and you allow them to be creative and you have to allow teachers to be creative. Teachers need buy-in. And I think that, you know, I always say 'cause I was a teacher, think of...

Teachers are players. They trod the boards every day. They're up there in front of their classes. They are the inspiration. They're the emotional connection the kids are supposed to have with the work. So I say if you're going to be a player, it helps to start with a good script. And high quality nonfiction is an excellent script to begin with. You can do shared reading. You can ask questions. You can do close reading. You can have projects come out of it.

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Deeper learning with the Common Core

I just would like to say that I think that the Common Core, if it does what it can do, which is to get people back into the process and not cover material, which is kind of like a way of killing your interest in it, it allows kids to do stuff in depth. It's not once over lightly. It allows them to discover themselves and what they really like to do. It gives them powerful experiences.

And ultimately life is not an assessment test. Life is based on what you can do. So you need to give children a way to experience the best of what's possible in all of these disciplines. It's not just about writing stories which really plumb your own personal depth. It's really there's a big world out there. You can't explore the real world without learning something.

You have to know something. It's not all from you. There's — it's interacting with the world, and I'm hoping that we are a door opener for that.

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INK Think Tank

Ink Think Tank is an organization of award-winning children's nonfiction authors in all disciplines. There are about 27 of us that are members. We have a website, inkthinktank.com. And we have one of the things that we offer free is a database of all our books. And the database is where we have aligned our books to national curriculum standards.

This is to allow teachers and educators to find books on the same subjects that they have to teach but that are not textbooks to get them away from the pre-packaged committee, you know, written type of thing.

You can meet some of us authors via video conferencing. It doesn't cost as much as having us in person and you get the same thing. It's amazing how little interaction the kids need with a real author to get them motivated to really want to stretch and grow within the context of something they have read or are reading at the present time.

And that's why Ink Think Tank, we have very, very high standards for who our members are so that you will know ultimately we're looking to be a brand that you know you will get the top authors.

We know our material and we know how to write for children and we know how to communicate with kids. What we don't know is the individual children and what their interests are and that's why we need to partner with teachers and with curriculum people. And we're looking to find ways to do that through Ink.

Parents too. They should — parents need to read the same kinds of — they should read some children's nonfiction. One of the best-kept secrets is if you want to learn something new, read a kid's book on the subject. Don't go to an adult book. They put more information that it's enough to make your head spin. It's too much information.

Oh. We have some fantastic writers. We have historians, real historians. And there were interesting angles like Carla McClafferty looks at the way a presidential — using modern forensi

"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943