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She shakes up formula for science textbooks

By Lisa Leigh ConnorsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2004



The Greek mathematician Archimedes used mirrors and the sun's rays to fight Roman sailors. On Magellan's journey, the crew ate rats and boiled leather. And Lewis Carroll used tangram puzzle pieces - five triangles, a square, and a rhomboid - to create characters.

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Welcome to science class, Joy Hakim style. In her new textbooks, Ms. Hakim uses history as a starting point to leap into scientific theory and practice. She hopes to convince young students that science is not just for scientists.

"We've left science out [in history books], and science underlies everything," says Hakim. Smithsonian Books next month will publish the first book in her new six-volume series, "The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way."

It's new territory for the author who has been named the J.K. Rowling of education writing. Previously, Hakim wrote "A History of Us" textbooks, which won the Michener Prize for writing in 1997. The books have sold 4 million copies.

What makes Hakim's writing different? For one, she's not an academic, and before tackling "A History of Us" she had never written a textbook. What motivated the grandmother of two and former journalist was her perception that the history books her children and grandchildren brought home were dull, with uninspired text and poorly conceived layout.

She was also inspired by a 1985 University of Minnesota study which found that readers retained 40 percent more material written by journalists than by academics. Textbooks could be better, she decided, and then set out to prove it.

Hakim's books have received rave reviews from parents, teachers, and students for their sheer readability. Teachers who sample them for class sometimes say they can't put them down.

However, the books are not without controversy. Hakim has neither the depth nor the objectivity of a more experienced writer, some readers complain. They worry that her texts are too opinionated, that the history she narrates has a liberal slant, and that she rarely offers any opposing viewpoints. A middle school in Florida banned "A History of Us" books, calling her explanation of the Vietnam War too liberal.

Hakim says she sends all of her manuscripts to science and history experts to double check her facts. Too many textbooks lack a strong narrative voice, she insists. "That's what's wrong with books out there," says Hakim, who received her bachelor's degree in government from Smith College and master's from Goucher College. "That's why they're dull. I really try hard to give different opinions and offer different viewpoints. I'm telling a tale. I'm a storyteller."

Although it's too early to tell what readers will think of her new science books, Doug MacIver, codirector of the Talent Development Middle School at Johns Hopkins University, says that books like Hakim's are needed because too many texts today are so far from kids' interests.

"History, when it's well written, is full of real heroes and real villains. She does a great job of making that come alive," says Mr. MacIver.

To get her books off the ground, in the late 1980s Hakim used $60,000 of her own money and sent manuscripts to several schools around the country. She solicited feedback from teachers and students and even paid kids to "edit" the books. At the end of the process Hakim felt she had something special.

But publishers didn't share her enthusiasm. Scholastic and Houghton-Mifflin turned her down. Even Addison-Wesley's innovative publishing branch felt it was too innovative.

Finally a colleague connected her with Oxford Books, which published 4,000 copies of the first three volumes in 1993.

Students are not without complaints about Hakim's style. "The kids joke about it because it's very chatty," says Sarah Whinery, a teacher at the Gordon School in East Providence, R.I., who has used the "History of Us" books for eight years. "Some of the language includes stuff like, 'Now get in your time machine and go back.' "And the kids go, 'Oh please.' "

But at the same time, says Ms. Whinery, Hakim puts a face on history and the students remember her style of writing. "It's good in that it's not dry."

"They're very concise," James Randolph, an eighth-grader at the Sage School in Foxboro, Mass., says in praise of the books. "They get to the point, and they bring fun to history."

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