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Maria Sosa: Anatomy of a ‘Top-Notch’ Science Book


Read any good books lately? Maria Sosa wants to know.

Sosa is the editor of Science Books & Films, an online AAAS publication that features new literature and visual media. It’s an arm of the AAAS Education and Human Resources directorate that offers guidance for teachers and librarians, as well as parents and lay readers looking for a good read. 

Every month, Sosa marshals a team of volunteer reviewers from the AAAS ranks to rate those new books. And she also oversees the judging for the annual AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize, which recognizes the year’s top tomes and helps get them into classrooms. Additionally, she serves on the AAAS Art comittee and recently helped curate  S.T.E.A.M. Within the Panels: Science Storytelling through Comic Books, Comic Strips and Graphic Books.

The 27-year AAAS veteran recently talked with MemberCentral about what makes a good science book, how the digital revolution has changed the business, and what books keep her turning pages.


Q: In addition to the Subaru Prize, SB&F releases a list of best books every year. What sets them apart from others?

When our SB&F reviewers really give something the highest rating, it’s usually because the science is top-notch. If you want a list of science books to use for educational purposes, or see the process of science and how science is done, all those things are portrayed the way they really are. I think that’s something that is really important for general science literacy.

For the prize list, our review panels also include librarians, English teachers, and literacy experts, as well as at least five or six scientists every year. Those recommendations are more for leisure reading—reading because you love science, or have a kid who doesn’t love science and you want to give them something interesting. The books we publish in our other best-books list are more useful in schools, although they could be the same books. They’re more for learning, though they should also be good and enjoyable.

Q: What would you say are the top elements of a science book?

I put everything down to  the writing. The writing has improved so much that between the science writers, who are educated as science communicators, and the younger scientists who, because they are living in the modern world, know how to write in an engaging way, the books have become a lot more accessible. I see a lot more general interest in science from information consumers. I think it’s a combination of the internet, short videos, and then they can go to books. People like Stephen Colbert are having authors on, and it matters. ...

For kids, obviously when they’re younger, it’s the art. It’s the relationship between the illustrations and the story. The story is always engaging, but I’ve found that sometimes people think the story is more engaging than the information. I don’t think that’s true at all. You can make pretty much any info engaging if you put it in a story context. But if it’s just a story without any information and it’s a science book, probably somebody like Maurice Sendak has written a better story. There’s too much competition from the fiction writers.

The other thing that’s really engaging to kids is if they see themselves in a book. If the pictures have kids at all interacting with the story. That is very engaging to them. But something else they really, really, really like is finding things. They like finding things in the pictures, like the whole Where’s Waldo thing—it’s a combination of the way the art interacts with the words and the story. 

Q: How has the rise of the internet affected the material or the audience?

I remember about 15 years ago or so, there were people here—they’re not here anymore—who were like, “Why are you doing books? People don’t read any more.” In fact, there was a little bit of  a down surge in reading of print books with the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers in the last 10 years. But it’s gone back up, and people are not only reading more, but reading print books. So that’s pretty interesting. …

One thing I think is kind of amazing from the publishing standpoint, is how the technology is so much faster even for print books. When I first started, there might have been a one- or two-year time gap between the first research papers hitting journals and a book coming out. That’s just kind of collapsed. When Science does the breakthroughs of the year, within a year, there’s books written by scientists about them. There’re also kids’ books, even.

I think that’s had a big impact on science education. When we first started, everything was a dinosaur book. People were just looking for things that kids would like, but there was never that sort of synthesis with what they should be learning. We have these topics that we’ve identified as important, so how do you fit in new science? How do you fit in cutting-edge science? Kids’ books are doing that now. They’ll come out with interesting new subjects, and you can’t predict from one year to the next what the topics would be … now we have books that have won the prize that are on photosynthesis and the ocean and phytoplankton, and those books are K-3.

For adults, there’s a lot of news and media out there, but it’s superficial. It’s meant to engage, and that’s good. It’s difficult for them to come in and pick up an article in Science, although they’re getting very easy to read and the new look is helpful. But they can pick up a book like How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro. She tells it in a story, it’s her own research, and by the time they’re done, they really understand the topic. 

Q: What’s your most recent favorite?

My favorite recent science book is Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. She’s a really great writer. I love the way she incorporates literature, because she started out as an English major. But it’s really integral to the way she explains plants and botany. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you’re reading really great, inspirational essays.  

I also like Diane Ackerman a lot. She does kind of the same thing. It’s philosophical, but not in a heavy way. The way she appreciates science is the same way anybody would like to, but she also has the tools and the ability to really get in there and  learn so much about it. She really has the same attitude that we nature lovers have.

Q: Do you ever delve into fiction—science or speculative fiction that’s grounded in hard science?

I’ve tried to periodically. We’ve published bibliographies from time to time, and we’ll try to include something that’s good and science-based, like “The Martian.” I’d love to do that more, but we need to get a corps of volunteer reviewers to do it. So it’s a question of time. But I definitely think that’s something we should do. We do publish feature articles sometimes on science-fiction films, but we don’t review feature films. I’d love to do more of that. If members want to get involved or volunteer to review science fiction books, we could easily get the books from the publishers and send them to them.

Q: Do you read this stuff for fun as well, or do you ditch it after work for something lighter?

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction, Neil Gaiman and stuff like that. I do read a bunch of adult science books. I don’t read everything that’s reviewed—I just can’t do that—but I read anything that’s a finalist. But I go through phases. I recently went through every book I read in college, like Jane Austen, to see if I still like them, and for the most part I did. … I don’t like to read too many of the current bestsellers that are general fiction that everybody else has read. I don’t know why. It’s not that I dislike them, but I’m more likely to read science fiction or classics.  

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