Usborne Publishing has recently been named Independent Publisher of the Year and Independent Children’s Publisher of the Year 2014. Usborne publishes a huge range of books for children, including science books. These books are rigorously checked by scientific experts, who work with Usborne writers from the book’s conception to ensure that all the science is accurate as well as fun. In the case of Usborne’s flap book See Inside Your Head, the writer/expert team also had a familial link…

Alex Frith is the Usborne editor/writer responsible for creating See Inside Your Head, a lift-the-flap book on the mind and senses, for children as young as six. His mother Professor Uta Frith is a developmental psychologist working at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. She worked on the book as an expert consultant.

How do you go about writing a scientific book for children like See inside your head? Is it the editor or the scientific expert who decides what should be included?

Alex Frith: The editor usually has the first run at drawing up a list of topics, but the expert gets involved at an early stage to highlight any obvious things that are missing. With this book one of the hardest parts was coming up with accessible metaphors for how the brain works, which is vital as the literal mechanisms are a) not thoroughly understood yet and b) terrifically complex. We decided editorially that we wanted to have little neuron creatures to help guide the reader around the brain.

Uta Frith: I came up with the idea about the brain as a garden which needs to be looked after and has many interesting plants and landscape features. This allowed the idea of pruning to be introduced. Pruning of synapses is one of the most important tasks of the brain during development and during learning. I was delighted to see that Alex used a picture of a garden.

If the expert is involved from the start, why not just get them to write the book themselves?

UF: You might ask if there is any sense in having a non-expert write the book, rather than a scientist. Actually, a scientist is very unlikely to do it well; it is a great skill to digest complex information and present it in an appealing way. But I was really pleased that Alex asked me to be a consultant for his book ‘See inside your head’. I am very keen that children’s first experience of science is accurate and reliable.

All children are curious about the world and their curiosity leads them to ask often difficult questions. One of the most difficult questions is about who they are and what is inside their body and their head. The most interesting thing inside the head is not the brain but the mind. Alex tried to keep to this truth by not having lurid anatomical pictures. Instead it is all about what the brain does, not what it looks like.

How can you simplify something as complex as the human brain, so that it can be understood by young children?

UF: That is an incredible challenge. We don’t yet know how the brain creates the mind, and we know only a tiny bit of the computations that must be going on to do something even as apparently simple as catching a ball, let alone doing a difficult maths problem.

Actually, you might choose exactly the same approach for adults as for children. The two audiences need not be treated differently when it is about a completely new topic that they are curious about. For example, neuroscience – a subject that adults may never have studied at school, meaning they’d have no prior knowledge.

See inside your head introduces children to how their brains work. How did you first learn about your brain?

UF: I think I was quite unaware about the complex functions of the brain. When I was a child the mind seemed to me to be something that had nothing to do with the body. Even now I feel I often have to remind other people that the brain and the mind are just two sides of the same coin.

AF: As the son of two neuroscientists, I don’t remember a time in my life when the brain wasn’t a common topic of conversation around the dinner table. I did a school project on the brain when I was 9, and I even a requested a brain-shaped cake for my 10th birthday, which was duly made (in five separate lobes, no less!). I’ve been a (willing!) subject of a variety of psychology experiments, have sat through several brain scans, and spent one summer being a guinea pig for a technique called ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’, which is as bizarre as it sounds but not at all scary or painful. Despite all this, I still have a very limited understanding of how the brain works and the many things it can do. I find the topic endlessly fascinating.

How did your own interest in science develop?

UF: When I was a child I had a book with a title like ‘Ein Lausbub findet zur Technik’. It was a nice introduction to science and engineering. The title roughly means ‘A naughty schoolboy discovers technical stuff”. It had a nice cartoonish picture on the cover with a boy climbing up a chimney and trying to look inside it. I could not see why I as a girl shouldn’t also be interested in how things work. I really liked the book and still have a copy.

When I was young, girls were treated very differently and much less was expected of them in terms of academic achievement. I did not see the sense in this as I wanted to learn and to know everything. I was insatiably curious.

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