The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
Demystifying science for kids
By Mia Geiger
A nonscientist, Deborah Heiligman likes to joke that her specialty is writing books on topics she knows nothing about.
She has written children’s books on butterflies, honeybees, earthquakes and leaves. Researching the subjects is the best part of the process for the Doylestown resident.
“I start with the most basic source, the dictionary,” she says. Then she turns to the World Book online. When she’s comfortable enough, she questions adult experts. Her latest children’s book is one Heiligman, the mother of two teenagers, can easily relate to – babies. Titled Babies: All You Need to Know, the picture book published by the National Geographic Society chronicles infants’ growth and development. It offers facts such as that newborns prefer sweet tastes and can’t see color.
The project brought back fond memories. “My husband was really nervous that I was going to need to have another baby,” she says, laughing. Her spouse is Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of science books for adults.
In college, Heiligman took just one science class: biology for poets. “I was turned off to science, it just wasn’t my thing at all,” she says. She feared not understanding the subject.
Her attitude about science changed when she applied for a job at Scholastic News and the editor assigned her a trial article on endangered pandas. She found she enjoyed the challenge. She left the publication five years later and has since written 13 children’s books, mostly on science topics.
The author aims to give children as young as age 5 a positive perspective on science.
“When children are little, they don’t distinguish between subject areas,” she says. “They want to know about everything. They want to know ‘Why are you putting on lipstick?’ and ‘Why is the sky blue?’ in the same moment. . . . If you talk to them or write for them when they are little, you are showing them that they can do science in just the same way you do everything else, so it’s not this big scary subject and they’re not afraid of it.”
Mia Geiger is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.