Inspiration Information: some book recommendations for kids

As with children’s toys and clothes, books aimed at children tend to be targeted in a gender-stereotyped way. This is a bit depressing. While books about princesses can be inspirational to young girls – if the protagonist decides to give it all up and have a career as a medic instead (the plot to Zog by Julia Donaldson) – mostly they are not. How about injecting some real inspiration into reading matter for kids?

Here are a few recommendations. This is not a survey of the entire market, just a few books that I’ve come across that have been road-tested and received a mini-thumbs up from little people I know.

Little People Big Dreams: Marie Curie by Isabel Sanchez Vegara & Frau Isa

This is a wonderfully illustrated book that tells the story of Marie Curie. From a young girl growing up in Poland, overcoming gender restrictions to go and study in France and subsequently winning two Nobel Prizes and being a war hero! The front part of the book is written in simple language that kids can read while the last few pages are (I guess) for an adult to read aloud to the child, or for older children to read for themselves.

This book is part of a series which features inspirational women: Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart. What is nice is that the series also has books on women from creative fields Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Frida Kahlo, Ella Fitzgerald. Often non-fiction books for kids are centred on science/tech/human rights which is great but, let’s face it, not all kids will engage with these topics. The bigger message here is to show young people that little people with big dreams can change the world.

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts

A story about a young scientist who keeps on asking questions. The moral of the story is that there is nothing wrong with asking “why?”. The artwork is gorgeous and there are plenty of things to spot and look at on each page. The mystery of the book is not exactly solved either so there’s fun to be had discussing this as well as reading the book straight. Ada Marie Twist is named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, two female giants of science.

This book is highly recommended. It’s fun and crammed full with positivity.

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts

By the same author and illustrator, ‘Rosie Revere…’ tells the story of a young inventor. She overcomes ridicule when she is taken under the wing of her great aunt who is an inspirational engineer. Her great aunt Rose is I think supposed to be Rosie the Riveter, be-headscarfed feminist icon from WWII. A wonderful touch.

Rosie is a classmate of Ada Twist (see above) and there is another book featuring a young (male) architect which we have not yet road-tested. Rather than recruitment propaganda for Engineering degrees, the broader message of ‘Rosie Revere…’ is that persevering with your ideas and interests is a good thing, i.e. never give up.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo
A wonderful book that gives brief biographies of inspiring women. Each two page spread has some text and an illustration of the rebel girl to inspire young readers. The book has a This book belongs to… page at the beginning, but in a move of pure genius, the book has two final pages for the owner of the book to write their own story. Just like the women featured in the book, the owner to the book can have their own one page story and draw their own self-portrait.
This book is highly recommended.
EDIT: this book was added to the list on 2018-02-26

Who was Charles Darwin? by Deborah Hopkinson & Nancy Harrison

This is a non-fiction book covering Darwin’s life from school days through the Beagle adventures and on to old age. It’s a book for children although compared to the books above, this is quite a dry biography with a few black-and-white illustrations. This says more about how well the books above are illustrated rather than anything particularly bad about “Who Was Charles Darwin?”. Making historical or biographical texts appealing to kids is a tough gig.

The text is somewhat inspirational – Darwin’s great achievements were made despite personal problems – but there is a disconnect between the life of a historical figure like Darwin and the children of today.

For older people

Quantum Mechanics by Jim Al-Khalili

Aimed at older children and adults, this book explains the basics behind the big concept of “Quantum Mechanics”. These Ladybird Expert books have a retro appeal, being similar to the original Ladybird books published over forty years ago. Jim Al-Khalili is a great science communicator and any young people (or adults) who have engaged with his TV work will enjoy this short format book.

Evolution by Steve Jones

This is another book in the Ladybird Expert series (there is one further book, on “Climate Change”). The brief here is the same: a short format explainer of a big concept, this time “Evolution”. The target audience is the same. It is too dry for young children but perfect for teens and for adults. Steve Jones is an engaging writer and this book doesn’t disappoint, although the format is limited to one-page large text vignettes on evolution with an illustration on the facing page.

It’s a gateway to further reading on the topic and there’s a nice list of resources at the end.



Computing for Kids

After posting this, I realised that we have lots of other children’s science and tech books that I could have included. The best of the rest is this “lift-the-flap” book on Computers and Coding published by Usborne. It’s a great book that introduces computing concepts in a fun gender-free way. It can inspire kids to get into programming perhaps making a step up from Scratch Jr or some other platform that they use at school.

I haven’t included any links to buy these books. Of course, they’re only a google search away. If you like the sound of any, why not drop in to your local independent bookshop and support them by buying a copy there.

Any other recommendations for inspirational reading for kids? Leave a comment below.

The post title comes from the title track of the “Inspiration Information” LP by Shuggie Otis. The version I have is the re-release with  ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ on it from ‘Freedom Flight’ – probably his best known track – as well as a host of other great tunes. Highly underrated, check it out. There’s another recommendation for you.

In a Word: LaTeX to Word and vice versa

Here’s a quick tech tip. We’ve been writing papers in TeX recently, using Overleaf as a way to write collaboratively. This works great but sometimes, a Word file is required by the publisher. So how do you convert from one to the other quickly and with the least hassle?

If you Google this question (as I did), you will find a number of suggestions which vary in the amount of effort required. Methods include latex2rtf or pandoc. Here’s what worked for me:

  • Exporting the TeX file as PDF from Overleaf
  • Opening it in Microsoft Word
  • That was it!

OK, that wasn’t quite it. It did not work at all on a Mac. I had to use a Windows machine running Word. The formatting was maintained and the pictures imported OK. Note that this was a short article with three figures and hardly any special notation (it’s possible this doesn’t work as well on more complex documents). A couple of corrections were needed: hyphenation at the end of the line was deleted during the import which borked actual hyphenated words which happened to span two lines; and the units generated by siunitx were missing a space between the number and unit. Otherwise it was pretty straightforward. So straightforward that I thought I’d write a quick post in case it helps other people.

What about going the other way?

Again, on Windows I used Apache OpenOffice to open my Word document and save it as an otd file. I then used the writer2latex filter to make a .tex file with all the embedded images saved in a folder. These could then be uploaded to Overleaf. With a bit of formatting work, I was up-and-running.

I had heard that many publishers, even those that say that they accept manuscripts as TeX files actually require a Word document for typesetting. This is because, I guess, they have workflows set up to make the publisher version which must start with a Word document and nothing else. What’s more worrying is that in these cases, if you don’t supply one, they will convert it for you before putting into the workflow. It’s probably better to do this yourself and check the conversion to reduce errors at the proof stage.

The post title is taken from “In A Word” the compilation album by Nottingham noise-rockers Fudge Tunnel.

Some Things Last A Long Time II

Back in 2014, I posted an analysis of the time my lab takes to publish our work. This post is very popular. Probably because it looks at the total time it takes us to publish our work. It was time for an update. Here is the latest version.

The colours have changed a bit but again the graphic shows that the journey to publication in four “eras”:

  1. Pre-time (before 0 on the x-axis): this is the time from first submission to the first journal. A dark time which involves rejection.
  2. Submission at the final journal (starting at time 0). Again, the lime-coloured periods are when the manuscript is with the journal and the green ones, when it is with us (being revised).
  3. Acceptance! This is where the lime bar stops. The manuscript is then readied for publication (blank area).
  4. Published online. A red period that ends with final publication in print.

Since 2013 we have been preprinting our work, which means that the manuscript is available while it is under review. This procedure means that the journey to publication only delays the work appearing in the journal and not its use by other scientists. If you want to find out more about preprints in biology check out or my posts here and here.

The mean time from first submission to the paper appearing online in the journal is 226 days (median 210). Which is shorter than the last time I did this analysis (250 days). Sadly though we managed to set a new record for longest time to publication with 450 days! This is sad for the first author concerned who worked hard (259 days in total) revising the paper when she could have been doing other stuff. It is not all bad though. That paper was put up on bioRxiv the day we first submitted it so the pain is offset somewhat.

What is not shown in the graphic is the other papers that are still making their way through the process. These manuscripts will change the stats again likely pushing up the times. As I said in the last post, I think the delays we experience are pretty typical for our field and if anything, my group are quite quick to publish.

If you’d like to read more about publication lag times see here.

Thanks to Jessica Polka for nudging me to update this post.

The post title comes again from Daniel Johnston’s track “Some Things Last A Long Time” from his “1990” LP.