Dr Rhaana Starling was one of six judges that came together to select the shortlist for this year’s Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. Dr Starling works in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester, studying black holes and Gamma-Ray bursts. Her work is supported by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship.

Rhaana Starling

As soon as my son was born, I started buying children’s science books for him. Why did I do that – he couldn’t even walk yet, let alone read? Well, I justified it as an investment, since a good introductory science book can last forever. I still have most of my astronomy books from childhood – my favourite to this day is the Halley’s Comet Pop-up Book by Patrick Moore and Heather Couper. I am now a professional astronomer, so you can see why I might be tempted to collect books about the Universe. But I do this for other science too – genetics, minerals, eco-systems, fossils and so on. If I am honest, I think this is actually for me! I want to have a broader knowledge, to really understand topical science issues that I hear people discuss, and to be able to answer the barrage of questions my now 5-year-old throws at me daily. A good children’s book can explain stuff in a clever and concise way, and here I have the perfect excuse for buying them!

Last November I went along to the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2013 award ceremony just for fun. It was great to meet the authors of the shortlisted books, and to see the videos describing what the school judging panels liked. Look Inside Space by Rob Lloyd-Jones took the title. Good choice: I might be a little biased when I say Space is a most inspiring topic! I ended up talking to the Chair of the adult shortlisting panel, and his delight at having been a part of this was clear. What this prize does is three-fold: it highlights the best science-writing for children and parents amid the sea of choice, it rewards the people that create such high quality reading, and most importantly it encourages families to read and learn more about science, feeding curious minds. I wanted to be a part of this too, and I was thrilled when the invitation came to become a judge in the 2014 competition.

I spent March and April of this year reading and re-reading the thirty-odd entries to the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2014. I found myself getting really engrossed in the books, and I spent a lot longer on it than I had envisaged. Books aimed at the youngest children were also vetted by my son! Each of the panellists wrote up comments on each of the books before we met at the end of April. The questions we were asking as we discussed each book were these: was the book well-written, interesting, stimulating, engaging, accessible, scientifically accurate and high-quality? Does the book challenge people’s views about science being too difficult, boring, or inaccessible, to be of interest or relevance to them? I was impressed at the quality of the vast majority of entries, a number of which used very innovative formats or had tackled rather complex subjects extremely well. The panel all brought different expertise and experiences, which together informed our decisions, and the process was a whole lot of fun.

The books we eventually chose as finalists tick all the boxes, and happen to cover a wide range of topics including genetics, ecology, optics, psychology, mathematics, astronomy, space technology and human biology. You can find the shortlist at https://royalsociety.org/awards/young-people/.

It has been a real treat to read all the entries, and quite tough to whittle it down to just six. I believe we have an exceptional shortlist of science books which children and adults alike will love and learn from, and I can’t wait to find out which one our young judging panels around the country will crown as the winner. Less of a surprise will be what my nieces and nephews are getting next birthday…

Rhaana Starling
Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow
University of Leicester, Department of Physics and Astronomy