Not all researchers would take on writing a children’s book, but this is what some of the members of Young Academy of Sweden have done. Steffi Burchardt, one of the researchers, is holding the finished book in her hand.
“I just received the book from the publishers, and am really happy and proud! It’s fantastic to be able to flick through all the great stories and illustrations,” says Steffi Burchardt, who is an associate professor and university lecturer in structural geology at Uppsala University.
The book Forskardrömmar – Berättelser för nyfikna barn – contains 60 true stories about children who grew up to become researchers. It includes famous names, such as Linnaeus, Christer Fuglesang and Sara Danius, and researchers who are less well known.
“We have included some young researchers who may change the world, such as Funeka Nkosi. The story about her is absolutely wonderful. She grew up in South Africa, where the electricity rarely worked and the water was often turned off. She is now at Uppsala University, researching how chargeable batteries can be made faster, safer and more durable.”
Lack of stories about children
The idea for the book was hatched in conjunction with a meeting at Young Academy of Sweden in spring 2019. During the coffee break, Steffi Burchardt and Robert Lagerström, another researcher, started talking about children’s books about prominent persons, such as Godnattsagor för rebelltjejer (“Goodnight Stories for Rebellious Girls”).
“It was about what the persons achieved as adults, and we worked out that no-one had told stories about how persons with such experiences lived as children. It should be easier for children to identify with other children than with adults. After all, children think that all adults are ancient,” says Steffi Burchardt.
And that was that – Steffi Burchardt and Robert Lagerström, associate professor in system architecture and IT security at the Royal Institute of Technology, decided to write the book that they were lacking.
The formed a work team with Annika Moberg and Helena Rosik at the offices of the Young Academy of Sweden, plus a further three members: Tove Fall, an epidemiologist, Mia Liinason, who does gender research, and Christian Ohm, a particle physicist.
He could control his friends’ computers
First, the team members wrote about themselves as children, to get examples of texts to show to the researchers they wanted to interview. These self-portraits are included in the book.
Readers can, for example, find out that Robert Lagerström really liked to do the opposite of what his mother told him as a child. When he got his first computer, Robert Lagerström invented a game that meant he could control the computers of others. He sent the game to his friends, and had fun when he could move their mouse pointers without them understanding what was happening.
After leaving school, Robert Lagerström did a degree in computer science. His mother thought it was a bad idea to become a researcher, but he did so all the same, and now he is fighting cyber criminals.
When Steffi Burchardt was little, she explored nature and collected stones. Her favourite book was about a scientist who climbed into a volcano in Iceland and emerged in a volcano in Italy.
She loved to learn, but was bullied at school and told by her parents that she was stupid and lazy. What made her struggle on was the fantastic feeling she got from learning more about the world. Steffi Burchardt studied geosciences at university, and found new friends there. She is now researching dead volcanos all over the world, but particularly in Iceland.
Stories as varied as possible
The researchers in the book were chosen to ensure their childhood stories would differ from each other as much as possible, to illustrate the diversity that exists.
The team interviewed researchers of different genders, in different fields, with differing social and ethnic backgrounds, and from both cities and countryside. For the stories about deceased researchers, they used published sources and information from surviving relatives.
“Some researchers grew up in secure environments, and with adults who supported them, while others had a tougher time. We wanted to show that you can become a researcher even if you are a refugee from war, if you were bullied, or if you had to fight conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia,” says Robert Lagerström.
The book’s illustrations are also varied. Eleven illustrators using differing styles have created the portraits of the researchers as children.
“All children should be able to find an illustration that they like, and that can function as an entry into the book. If we had just used one illustrator, we would have lost those who don’t like that particular style. And the book would also have become a bit monotonous,” says Steffi Burchardt.
Inspiring children to become researchers
The book is aimed primarily at 8–12-year-olds, and the aim is to make children interested in higher education and research.
“We want all children to know that you can research anything you like in principle, and to feel that they can become researchers in the future if they want to. Our dream is for some organisation to buy the book and hand it out to all pupils in Year 4 throughout the country,” says Robert Lagerström.
To trigger children’s imagination, the book has pages where they can write about what they would like to research themselves. Some of them will be able to meet a researcher. This is because the team will be visiting libraries and schools, both virtually and in real life when possible.
“We particularly want to reach children who might not otherwise hear about research, and therefore we intend to focus on areas with fewer persons with university educations. The educational level of parents is still the most important individual determinant of who becomes a researcher, according to the Swedish Higher Education Authority’s reports on skewed recruitment,” says Steffi Burchardt.
A humbling task
Writing for children is of course an art, and the members of the team wrote all the portraits themselves, with the support of a children’s book editor.
“We felt humbled by the task, but the result is better than we expected. The hardest thing was to not put everything in, to focus on an individual aspect of every person’s childhood,” says Robert Lagerström.
The team was thorough.
“Each text was scrutinised by two persons in the team, like in a peer review. We also read the texts to children close to us, and children are of course very honest,” laughs Steffi Burchardt.
She thinks it has been a privilege to talk to the researchers about their childhoods:
“They really opened up, and for some it was emotional to share difficulties from their childhoods.”
Goes straight to the heart
One of the persons portrayed is Jenny Larsson, Professor of Baltic Languages at Stockholm University. As a child, she felt ignored and invisible until she got a teacher who gave her more demanding school work. She thinks she would really have liked the book if she had been able to read it while growing up.
“I would have loved the illustrations and the exciting stories, and would have identified with several of the children. I think that the book will give strength and hope to many. What you read as a child goes straight to the heart after all, and has a deep impact,” says Jenny Larsson.