Guest post by H.P. Newquist
GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.
See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020.
Chocolate and Valentine’s Day. They’re almost synonymous, aren’t they? They weren’t always linked, but “The Book Of Chocolate” explores the origins of this now-pervasive pairing.
Chocolate was a bitter drink prized by Mayans and Aztecs for its health benefits, and cocoa beans were used as currency in Central America long before Columbus showed up. When it evolved into an actual treat in Europe during the mid-1800s, chocolate became an expensive and rare food, regarded as something reserved for the rich and the royal. On those occasions when it was given as a gift by commoners, it meant that someone had made a financial sacrifice to buy it—and thus was showing a great deal of affection. Valentine’s Day was the day on which this affection was made most public.
As for all those heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates, we can thank Richard Cadbury—of the famous Cadbury chocolate company—for indulging his artistic side in the 1860s and painting boxes to hold his family’s chocolates during special occasions. There is more on that particular history in the book.
Science plays an important role in the pairing of chocolate and Valentine’s Day. The chemical elements of chocolate that affect the brain may have unconsciously led people to equate chocolate with love. They affect the same parts of the brain that cause feelings of happiness and joy. Chocolate, oddly enough, is one of the most complex chemical combinations known to science. As of the most recent research, there are over six hundred chemical compounds in raw chocolate, ranging from theobromine to caffeine. In fact, there may be over a thousand chemical compounds; scientists are regularly finding more. The reason that we don’t know the exact number is because the chemistry of chocolate changes at every single stage of its production. Cocoa beans change their composition as they ferment; nibs change from heat during roasting; cocoa butter changes when it’s separated from the mass. It changes again many times when other ingredients and their own unique chemistries are added to the mix: sugar, milk, spices, fruits, and anything else that makes up the final product. Cocoa beans are so complex that scientists haven’t been able to come up with a substitute for them (like they have for sugar).
This latter point is what makes the story of chocolate a perfect springboard for science. All books are, of course, stories of one kind or another. And I’ve found that truly unique and interesting stories are often excellent vehicles for “stealth science.”
Chocolate: An Example of Stealth Science
Stealth science is a method of introducing readers to science without them thinking it is science, or without scaring them off by labeling it as science. In essence, readers are unaware that they’re learning any science. In each of my books, I weave stealth science into the theme of the story. For instance, in The Book Of Chocolate, one of the most fascinating elements of growing cocoa starts with a midge. The midge is a fly so small you can barely see it: a full-grown midge is barely 1/32 of an inch long. In order to stay airborne during flight, the midge’s wings must beat one thousand times per second. To understand how fast that is, you can blink your eyes five times a second if you’re incredibly quick about it. For each blink, a midge’s wings beat two hundred times.
This is a fascinating set of facts rooted in the realm of science (in this case, zoology). And yet, the reader isn’t told that this is a quick science lesson. It is a natural—and just as important, engaging—part of the story of chocolate. The science is extracted from everyday objects, environments, or situations.
In addition, I think science books and lessons best serve children (and adults) by being stories written from the outside in—a method of presenting stealth science, as it were. Too much of how we try to engage people in the sciences starts at the level of the atom or the seed—both of which are literally and figuratively invisible in our daily lives. Our normal observations about the world begin from the opposite perspective. For instance, people look at an orange, and they see the entire sphere before they see the seed. Kids peel the skin off an orange, break open the wedges, and suck out the juice before encountering the seed. The same is true of experiencing the internal workings of a car engine or a clock. In the realm of mechanisms, you learn by looking at the whole and then stripping it down, not by starting with an abstraction that is then created from seemingly disparate parts.
I use this approach in all my writing—for example, “The Great Brain Book” and “The Book Of Blood.” Kids are familiar with skulls and the entire brain, so I explored the brain’s anatomy by delving through the skin, the skull, the layers, and lobes of the brain until we got to synapses and axons and dendrites. With “Blood,” I began with the imagery and myth of blood in various cultures and our experience seeing it from cut fingers and loose teeth. That’s the fascinating “outside” element of blood that leads stealthily down into the spleen, bone marrow, corpuscles, and platelets.
This approach works well outside of books. I applied the technique to a traveling guitar exhibit, where people learn about electromagnetism, sound waves, decibels, pattern recognition, and other science-related elements by interacting with the guitar, the world’s most popular instrument. (The exhibit is in St. Louis at the Science Center, so stop by if you’re interested.)
Stealth science gets children and adults involved even if they have no idea they are subliminally learning. And it can be applied everywhere, every day: flowers, food, sports, clouds, buildings, computers; every single thing. If I’ve gotten a reader to think about the chemistry of chocolate—or about the culture of the Maya and Aztecs—when they’ve come ostensibly to learn about candy and cakes, then I’ve accomplished something.
HP Newquist is an author who has written about everything from technology to music. His most recent books are From Here To There (Viking/Smithsonian) and The Book Of Chocolate (Viking). He has won numerous awards for his work from science, academic, and library associations. Notably, of the 21 books given the Best STEM Award by the NSTA and CBC in 2018, two were written by Newquist. When not writing, he serves as director of The National GUITAR Museum and gives talks on artificial intelligence. Learn more about him at http://newquist.net/