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On Structure

As alluded to in the last post, one of the things I find most interesting about Pick Me Up is its (pseudo?) hypertextual structure.

Although themed into rough encyclopedic categories of society, people, science, nature, etc, if you read the book cover to cover it flicks between these, ‘shufflepedia’ style. What is more, underlined words denote topics you can look up elsewhere in the book (not just to a glossary, textbook style, but via the index to pretty loosely related other topics - the idea is to lock you into surfing through the book, as you would wikipedia). This is part of its approach to knowledge, which argues that everything is connected.

One of the theoretical pieces I’ve used a lot in my research is an article by Ron Curtis which argues that the ‘closure’ of narrative structure forces science stories into false conclusions. Curtis argues science opens up questions rather than closing them with answers, it runs in a constant 'ebb and flow' of ideas, not to a neat happily-ever-after of a singular conclusion.

Pick Me Up is not the only book to try to get around the constrictions of traditional structures (be they narrative, or as with encyclopedias, more thematic) to produce a more naturalistic 'ebb and flow'. Today, I happened to pick up another children’s science book that does similar thing, through the very traditional device of the footnote - Why is Snot Green, by Glenn Murphy. Some examples:

another footnote

yet another footnote

yes, it's another footnote

yes I'm collecting footnotes

a footnote

There aren't all the footnotes in the book (it's littered with them) just a semi-random selection. Notably, Murphy's references tend not to be a simple ‘see also’, but a way of sparking interest in another topic or a way of explaining in more detail. They tend to have a lot more context than the Pick Me Up ones. Generally, Murphy's book takes a conversational approach to structure, based around questions Murphy suggests we ask (or should ask) about science, sometimes questions spin off each other, eg (also from page 48 of the book):

conversations in text

I wonder at what point in writing Murphy decided to fracture his narrative so, and I wonder if Curtis is right - is there something about science writing that works against the closure of traditional storytelling? (see this post for a different perspective on a similar topic).


I'm glad you spotted the conversational format as a deliberate narrative device. I decided on it very early in production, reasoning that the majority of science books aimed at kids are very didactically very "top-down", and that I wanted to do something different.

In an effort to include some element of personal context and dialogue, I thought of using the Q&A dialogue style sometimes seen in short magazine articles. I then adapted it to sound even more informal, and tried to imagine what the genuine verbal responses would be, had I really been discussing this with an 8-12 year-old.

I worried at first that the assumed voice of the questioner (artificial as it is) would come across as patronising, and worked hard not to let it become so in the text. After testing it by way of writing 2 sample questions for the publisher, they really liked it, and gave me the go-ahead to continue in this vein for the rest of the book.

Having found success with this method, I'm reprising it in the sequel (out next year). But for the next one I have the added element of reflexivity, as I've asked (through the Science Museum website) for question contributions from kids and schools, the cream of which will be addressed on the site and in the next book.
In its first month, I've had around 60 useful repsonses, so I'm hoping that will work out.

You should read Pick Me Up. Bizarre book.

Interestingly, Russell Stannard is inspired by a similar attitude. His 'Uncle Albert' books are semi-fictional, and include a child character (who asks lots of questions) as a sort of 'avitar' for the reader. He also published a couple of books of questions asked by the readers. I'm sure the Horrible writers and many others would also *say* they are trying for a less top-down approach. Whether they manage it is a good question. Some people argue that children's books are inheriently top-down, it's interesting to see writers play with this.

The question and answer structure is a brilliant device, it makes me think of Plato and all those other classical writers who wrote like this -- no scientific method/resolving structures here, instead the reader is an actor, an active part of the unfolding story. It also presents scientific ideas in the form of an 'argument' rather than as received wisdom. For a children's book especially this is probably a good way of involving the reader.

But, a question for Glenn if you're there -- I'm curious to know how different the 'real kid questions' are from yours? Are there big differences in the types of questions?

The other thing I wanted to mention is the random 'tagging' process of reading in Pick Me Up. It strikes me as a bit of a conceit and I'd really have to try and read to see if it was fun. The designers could have just put the topics in some sort of order (across pages) and kept the cross-references, footnotes, keywords for readers who want to flip through randomly. Or maybe this structure ensures that no reader will attempt a 'linear' (and possibly inappropriate), reading. A bit like when I read a Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide from cover to cover, including captions. ouch.

Yes, I thought about Platonic education too.

On Pick Me Up's 'tagging' - yes, really is a conceit, I mean if you want to play with hypertext why put it in a book? I tend to find the links they have provided are pretty crap (but then I think that about a fair number of the links in wikipedia too)

This structure reminds me of 'fighting fantasy' books - an attempt to remediate computer games into books. It is one way of trying to write an interactive narrative (ok, there is the argument that EVERY narrative is interactive to some extent, but you know what I mean). Another example is Lesley Howarth's Ultraviolet - which is an SF novel. I highly recommend it.

Were Fighting Fantasy about remediated hypertext? I always assumed they were more game based (though I guess D&D had a very early place online...)

Have you seen the new Dr Who 'interactive' fictions?