Well, almost everything! It’s a bold claim for the cover of a book but I guess it makes sense for an encyclopedia. I’m excited to see it in print because it’s the first book I’ve worked on for DK. I grew up reading DK science books. I love them. I still can’t quite believe I wrote the science and human body sections of an actual DK book!
The Children’s Encyclopedia is aimed at children 5-9 years making it the youngest full encyclopedia DK have produced. We were creating something new with it’s own style. It was exciting to be working on a groundbreaking project.
Each topic had to be explained in one page with very few words. That’s a huge challenge – explaining all of gravity or the brain or evolution in just one page and so that a five year old can understand it. I think that’s what makes it such a good book for adults too. I’m excited about reading all the sections I didn’t write – because I get to learn about everything in the world in easy to digest summaries!
So how do you write an encyclopedia? I’m sure there are many ways but here’s how I did it. First I was asked if I’d like to write it. I said YES – WOOHOOO – YES! In a slightly more professional way. My agent helped negotiate the contract and we were off.
Reviewing the topics
Next I was given a list of the science topic headings by the chief commissioning editor Lizzie Davey. I reviewed these and pitched some new ones and we finalised the list. Some spreads got dropped later – it depended on the North American market and space. But our final list was 37 science pages.
I checked the school curriculum for each topic to see what was covered at primary and secondary school. I read books and did research and started to write page plans. I had a good understanding of some topics already – for example I wrote book a whole book on light – but that actually made it harder when I was trying to write the light page and fit an entire book into a page – you can’t really do that. I had to start fresh – review light as a whole – choose the most important elements and also think about a good central image. Here’s how the final page turned out:
DK books are so visual and the image ideas need to be really strong. I had a few sections to work with, an intro, three small stories, a wow fact and an extra info box. It’s like doing a puzzle – working out how to explain something from first principles keeping it correct, engaging AND fitting it into the format. The human life cycle page is an example of one of the human body pages I ended up writing too.
Writing page plans
My page plans were made up of bullet points saying what I’d cover in each small section. They also included suggested images. Sometimes I’d add examples of images but say ‘like this but with this and this added’. Or other times it was less complicated – for the page on gases, the suggested main image was a party balloon. I sent my first few page plans in and they really liked them so I was asked to write the human body section too. Which was another 19 pages – hurrah! Here’s an example of one of two of the science pages I wrote:
Reviewing page plans
Page plans went to the editor and she made suggestions. We changed them until they were the best they could be and then they went off to the design team.
Writing final text
The design team sent pages back looking all beautiful and I wrote the final text to fit into the specific word limits the pages allowed, once all the visuals were in place. Then it went back to the editor for suggestions and finally to the copy editor. Last of all the final pages came back to me for final checks.
Here’s an example of how I tried to think of images that were relevant to children – using chocolate as a solid:
The writing and checking process took place over 6 months. And now, here it is, a real book in print with a golden case!
One page I’m pleased with is the page on ‘Feelings’. Emotions are something I’m continually learning about and find fascinating. Scientists don’t agree on what emotions actually are or how to define them so it felt like an exciting challenge and a privilege to attempt to define them for children. I wanted to make sure they felt okay about having and expressing feelings too. I discovered there was one thread in the research that scientists around the world did agree on. An agreed set of facial expressions that are recognisable in every culture – they have even been tested with remote tribes. Therefore facial expressions are universal in communicating emotions. So I asked for the central image to be a face wheel and then I wrote about each emotion.
I found the intro so difficult – in under 40 words define emotions! But I’m super pleased with it – it’s about the reason for emotions as well as what they are. And covers inner and outer world contributing to feelings. They did a photo shoot to get the faces right and I think it looks great!
I really love working out how to explain something complicated in a way that makes it seem straightforward – so this book has been a joy and a huge challenge for me.
It’s available online and in all good book stores around the world. Hope you enjoy it. Oscar the cat asked me to say you should read the page on cats but I didn’t write that! If you’re reading it and want to check out my pages they are the red and dark pink marked pages. And I also wrote the story of energy, story of colour and story of sciences double page topic specials. These had to cover a topic using every other section for example art, people, living world, Earth etc! So the red circle is human body and dark pink is science and all the other sections have a colour code too:
I wrote 20% of the spreads in total, there are other authors listed at the front in the experts section. Yep, I’m really in there! I’ve never been listed as an expert in a book before! Don’t worry if you know me, I’m not planning to pull out the “Well are you an expert?” card in the pub – ha ha!
Hope you love it!
Thanks to everyone at DK for your help and support, especially to Lizzie and the editorial team and to my agent Lindsey Fraser. Also thanks to Patrick Thomson for expertise on the cells page and to Manuel Breuer for reviewing the evolution page – you both get credited at the end of the book.