Last night, the Royal Society held its annual ceremony to award the Young People’s Book prize, a £10,000 award given to the best book communicating science to a young audience. Writers, scientists and young people gathered together at the Royal Society in London to meet each other and find out who had won the prize. This year’s winner is Rob Lloyd Jones for Look inside space, an interactive book packed with amazing space facts hidden beneath more than 70 flaps to lift. Look inside space was selected to form a shortlist with five other books by a panel of expert adults, comprising Professor John Goodby FRS, Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Jenny Read, evolutionary biologist, science writer and blogger Grrlscientist, assistant headteacher Shazia Lydon and presenter of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants Simon Watt.
But the really special thing about these awards are the young judges. Forming panels in schools and other young people’s forums across the country, over 1000 school children aged between 7 and 14 read and discussed the shortlisted books, submitting votes on their favourites and ultimately deciding the winner. The panel from Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls attended the ceremony, assisting Royal Society President Paul Nurse to award the prize. ‘It’s such a privilege to be here at such an established institution,’ says Charlotte Mather, a student from the school. ‘Especially giving an award.’ Students from the school handed the award and trophy to Rob Lloyd Jones, and spent time chatting to the authors at the reception afterwards. ‘Our young judging panels have made an excellent choice,’ says Professor John Goodby, FRS, chair of the adult panel. ‘It sounds like they particularly enjoyed the interactive elements of the book. I hope it sparks the imaginations of young aspiring astronomers and astronauts.’ It sounds like the books may have achieved just that: ‘I want to be a scientist,’ says Maryam Hussein from Ellen Wilkinson School, on her future plans following reading the shortlisted books. ‘Because I want to do something practical with an effect on the real world.’
Young judges attending the event also had the opportunity to meet winner Rob Lloyd Jones, who shared some of his thoughts on writing and science. It was a trip to India, he revealed, camping under the stars of the Thar desert, that planted the seeds of Look Inside Space. ‘I didn’t want to go into the tent,’ says Rob, on the inspiration of the desert sky. ‘The night sky, away from all the lights of towns and cities, shivered with thousands and thousands of stars, unlike anything I’d ever seen. I watched shooting stars and gazed at the Milky Way, and realised that I didn’t really know what was out there.’ Rob’s own wonder led him to share it with young people through his books: ‘to spark a fire in someone, that’s all I hope for from anything I write.’
So Rob didn’t start out as a scientist: ‘My interest in science really began when I started writing for children,’ says Rob, whose first job was as an archaeologist. He spent muddy weekends in digging in fields and dreaming of writing books to inspire young readers – books that ‘make big concepts understandable and exciting.’ Books are special for Rob because they can be so interactive: it’s when he gets ‘children reading together, or with their parents’ that Rob feels his job is done. ‘That’s when discussions start and magic happens,’ he says. It seems he’s achieved just that: ‘The books made science seem more interesting,’ says Cara Murphy from Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls. ‘It wasn’t just sitting at a desk learning science, and you could learn at your own pace.’
In the worlds of twelve-year-old Owain, a young judge from Woodfield Academy, Redditch: ‘Spacetastic!!!’