(The title, in case you’re wondering, is Tim Robbins’s inane catchphrase from “The Hudsucker Proxy”)
I’m back from San Diego, where I participated in the sb&f awards ceremony along with the three other winners this year, who were all very nice, with great books – I bought “The Frog Scientist” for Daniel, who’s a bit young for the story but can already appreciate a good frog photo when he sees one. Julian Slane has some photos of it all (not the frogs, the ceremony) in his blog (thanks Julian!). It was great talking to people who are excited about writing science, especially for younger readers.
Which leads me to think, once again: am I writing science for younger readers? Opinions differ. I myself have several conflicting ones. I originally thought, before I started writing the book, that it would be a children’s book; I said as much in an early interview. But after I got some bits done and gave them to my agent to read, she came back from a session with several other people who knew quite a lot about writing and told me that everyone agreed that my style is more suited to adults and that I should keep it that way. I thought “fine, no problem” and thus the book was written, edited, published, and marketed as a book for adults. It included sections that dealt with findings and issues that are not taught at school, or even in specialised microbiology degrees at universities. I pulled out all the stops; I wrote about non-coding DNA, antigenic variation, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, restriction enzymes, epidemiology, sulphur metabolism – whatever I found interesting. Adults I’ve spoken to who read it seemed to like it, including people with degrees and doctorates in the life sciences; “well then” I thought, “it’s a book for adults, then. Case closed”.
But there were some signs pointing elsewhere. A reviewer or two thought the book would suit “a curious teenager”. That sounded fine to me: the intellect of a curious teenager can be a formidable force of nature. I also received emails from one or two teens who liked it (one of them also asked quite an involved question about biochemical nucleotide synthesis pathways in bacteria and humans), but then, kids read the damnest things, don’t they? I know I did. By the age of 12 I had gone through “everything you always wanted to know about sex” (that one eased my way into pueberty), “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” (I liked the bits about motorcycles), and books by O. Henry, De Maupassant, Hemingway, Romain Gary, Wilde, Shakespeare, and many others that my parents had lying around*, including nonfiction and popular science books. I can’t honestly say I understood all I read, but I read it, and enjoyed what I read. So okay, I wrote a book for adults that a few kids came across and liked. fair enough.
And then I recieved an award for writing science for “young adults”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I looked it up: Wikipedia says the definition of that term is the age group of 14-21 for fiction book readers, but 20-40 if you’re talking about psychology. A “young adult health service” is aimed at persons 18-25. In the state of New York it refers to the age group of 16-21.
So now I’m all confused. I have no idea what age group m’book is supposed to appeal to. I think I’ll just keep on writing the way I do, and let either the publisher’s marketing department, or the actual market, decide.
*In the case of “everything you always wanted to know about sex” the term “lying around” is not a precisely accurate description. I had to perform some tricky bookshelf climbing in order to get to it.