An interview by Shelley Carter
Lorna Hendry is a writer, editor, graphic designer and teacher, and studied a Bachelor of Science at university before writing children’s non-fiction. She currently writes for Wild Dog Books and in her current published work How to Win a Nobel Prize, she teams up with Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall to teach kids about the wonderful world of science through fiction and do-it-yourself science experiments.
Tell us a little about your writing career: how did you become a writer?
My background is in graphic design but in 2007, my partner and I quit our jobs, took our kids out of school, and embarked on what ended up being a three-year camping trip around Australia. When we got back, I decided I needed to write a book about it. I had no idea where to start, so I enrolled in a short course with Writers Victoria. That eventually led to a publishing contract for my travel memoir, Wrong Way Round (Hardie Grant, 2015), and ultimately a new career in writing and editing.
What made you decide to write for a younger audience?
Like most things, I fell into it by accident. I was studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University and I did an internship at Wild Dog Books. They publish nonfiction books for early to middle primary school. Their motto is: “Explaining the complex simply”. Towards the end of my placement, they asked if I’d like to write and design a book about penguins. It was a no-brainer: penguins! What’s not to love about penguins?
At the time, my sons were just a bit older than the target market, and I had done some home-schooling on our trip, so I was really interested in writing for that age group. And my first degree, straight out of school, was a Bachelor of Science. While I never worked as a scientist, I’ve always been interested in it and I’ve always read a lot of popular science.
Penguins Close Up was my first published book, and I’ve created books for Wild Dog Books ever since. Those books led directly to the opportunity to co-write How to Win a Nobel Prize (Black Inc. 2017) with Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall, which has been a real career highlight for me.
You’ve written 17 books for Wild Dog Books – what subjects do they cover?
The early ones were fairly short books (24pp) about animals (penguins, kangaroos, and endangered species). Then, we did a series on the human body and each of the five senses. After that, we moved onto longer large-format books on more complex topics. That happened because my young beta-reader, who I used to test the books on before I sent them into the publisher, was getting frustrated with the books on the senses. One day she said “You keep saying ‘the brain does this, the brain does that’, but HOW does the brain work?” She was completely correct, so I wrote The Brainy Book to answer her questions.
Since then, I’ve done big 64-page books on genetics, number theory, left and right, and germs. The latest one is about maps.
Why do you think it’s important for younger audiences to have access to the resources you are creating?
Oh, look, this is probably a bit of an unpopular opinion, but – as much as I adore fiction – I do think that we really need to turn young people on to science at an early age if we have any hope of saving this planet. We are going to need a generation of critical and imaginative thinkers, who aren’t afraid of complex ideas and who understand that science can be fun and important and directly relevant to their lives and the lives of every living creature we share the world with.
Science can be a difficult subject to understand, even for adults. How do you package/present the information in a way that is ideal for a younger audience?
You have to structure the books in such a way that you give them the basic information first, then slide into more complex and challenging topics in a way that feels like a natural progression. I think it’s important to always find a way to relate the facts directly back to the readers. For younger kids, that usually means talking about their bodies, their close relationships, and the world directly around them. The ideas are big but the lens you use to discuss them has to be kid-sized.
Humour and great images also help. For example, Body Parts: The Nose is about the sense of smell and how noses work, but it does have a picture of a girl with a huge river of snot coming out of her nose. The Brainy Book has a massive photo of brain surgery, complete with blood and grey matter and scalpels. The Giant Book of Germs has a photo of a guy eating spaghetti while sitting on the toilet. Kids love that stuff.
All the big books also have activities scattered through them so they aren’t a passive read. They invite kids to test out their knowledge or apply the ideas (like genetic inheritance) directly to their own lives.
Do you have any tips for someone wanting to write similar books? Any common mistakes you have come across along the way?
I’ve made a few! Research can be tricky and really time-consuming, so now I find an expert (who I end up using as a fact checker) and talk to them really early on in the process about what information will be good to include, and what they think the focus should be. That often leads me into areas I wouldn’t have necessarily found my way to on my own. For example, my subject expert on The Massive Book of Maps told me about micro-mapping, which was fascinating and completely new to me. The epidemiologist who I talked to about The Giant Book of Germs insisted that we move away from the word ‘germ’ and use ‘microbe’ instead, which led to a page about the etymology of the word ‘germ’ and a discussion of why we think germs are ‘bad’. And that’s the heart of the whole book, really – germs are enormously valuable organisms, and we wouldn’t be here without them!
It’s also really important to think about how the imagery and the words work together. They need to support each other but not repeat the same information. Some pages need exactly the right picture to explain a tricky concept. In The Gigantic Book of Genes, I used a tiny pink dot on the page to visually represent 0.1% – the amount of genetic difference between all human beings. You can SAY 0.1% but no-one really understands what that means, not even most adults. You need to show it.
Lorna Hendry’s latest book, How to Win a Nobel Prize, is out now. Purchase it here!