Shirley Smith Duke ’73 (MA ’74) never dreamed she’d be writing science books for children when she attended Austin College. She enrolled to be a teacher. After a semester of studying biology with Dr. Henry Buscher, she knew she wanted to study science.
Entering the field of science as a future elementary teacher among many enthusiastic pre-med students proved daunting, but Shirley persevered. Austin College provided a solid foundation in biology, along with a master’s degree in education. She moved to San Antonio to teach elementary school. After teaching 25 years in the classroom at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, she retired—and changed careers.
While teaching, Shirley reviewed books for her school library. Weak writing in some made her think she might do better. She began to write. Numerous rejections later, she took a class, and there she wrote her first book that sold. The picture book No Bows! featured an independent little girl, and that was followed by Unthinkable, a horror novel for young adults. Another class helped her find her niche in children’s writing as she continued sending writing samples. After a few years, she received two assignments. Shirley was thrilled—she was going to write nonfiction for kids at last.
The titles arrived: You Can’t Wear These Genes and Infections, Infestations, and Diseases. Horror! All she could think about was the “C” grade she’d made in genetics— and the many changes in the field since that class. She took a breath, researched, and then wrote both books, exceeding the prescribed word count by 1,000 words and the reading level by three grades. How was it possible to write about genes in less than 3,500 words for fourth graders? She found out fast.
Cutting the text and lowering the grade level took pass after pass. “Unpack this section. Rewrite chapters four and five,” instructed the editor. Determined to get it right, Shirley rewrote numerous times. Glossary, index, captions, revisions, and bibliography followed. It was all worth it when she learned the publisher loved the books and she secured new assignments for the following year.
Enterprise STEM, Forces and Motion at Work, and Environmental Disasters went far more smoothly and were followed by Gases, a combination of reading and science. Two second grade science experiment books came next and freelance science writing produced a life science workbook and science flashcards.
She’ll be writing again for next year’s market. New titles include The Nervous System, The Earth and the Role of Water, and Animal Science. She’s also writing several life science books and recently has begun editing two series of science books for her publisher.
Her writing has taken her to schools, book fairs, and libraries and she’s presented at local, state, and national educational conferences. She shares her fascination with nonfiction in a weekly blog at SimplyScience and was honored by a request to guest blog last season for NOVA’s “The Secret Life of Scientists” web program, where she started by writing a cheer for the periodic table of the elements.
Shirley attributes her successful transition from educator to children’s writer to the liberal arts program at Austin College. A strong science background led her to a rewarding teaching career. It also provided the means by which to change job titles. She remains a teacher—she simply does it from the pages of her books.
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