Can you imagine a world without cars? It isn’t easy! Science educator and award-winning author Jennifer Swanson‘s new book Save the Crash-test Dummies navigates readers through the history of car production and offers a front‐seat view of the science and engineering that makes the world’s most important vehicle safe for us to drive.
We asked Swanson about her research and writing process for this entertaining book. Check out the full interview!
Q: What inspired you to write a book about crash-test dummies?
A: When I was a kid the first set of crash-test dummy commercials encouraging everyone to “Buckle up! Safety first!” came out. I also grew up watching my dad tinker around with cars. Before my parents would let me drive, I had to be able to pump up a flat tire, change it myself, and learn to drive a manual transmission (stickshift). It only seems logical that someday I’d write about crash-test dummies and cars. After all, as the saying goes, you write what you know.
Q: How did you come up with the title Save the Crash-test Dummies?
A: With a little help from my husband. We were out walking our dogs and discussing the new crash-test dummies commercial. I said, “If we had self-driving cars, we wouldn’t need crash-test dummies anymore.” He said, “Yes. You’d be saving a lot of crash-test dummies that way.” Boom! That’s how I got it. Save the Crash-test Dummies. A great title!
Q: Your book includes tons of information about the history of car safety and engineering. Why is it important for young readers to be aware of the history of car production?
A: I think learning about any type of engineering is important. After all, engineering and design is what makes practically everything we use in the world. That chair you are sitting on right now, that was engineered to allow you to sit at a certain angle with arm rests that fit a human body size. It was also designed for comfort. See how that works? Cars are no different. This book also shows how designing things can be a long process. It can take years to get something right. And there are lots of failures along the way. Too many to count, in fact. But those failures help engineers learn. They figure out why it didn’t work and then come up with a way to solve that problem and make it better.
Q: What research did you do to prepare for writing this book?
A: I read tons of articles and books about safety and engineering, and studied lots of diagrams about car design. Of course, I watched a bunch of crash-test videos, too. They are cool, and yet sobering to watch as well. They make you appreciate that driving a car is a serious process and one that requires your full attention.
Q: What was the most interesting thing you discovered that you did not know prior to your research?
A: I learned so much while writing this book. A lot of early prototype cars experimented with many ways to keep people safe. Some of them were a bit, well, odd. My favorite was the windshield that would pop out when you got into an accident. The idea was that you would be safer flying out of the car and landing on the hood. Um… Not sure I agree with that one. Thankfully, that idea never made it out of the prototype stage.
Q: You have authored more than 35 nonfiction books. When compiling information for one of your books, how do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
A: I ask myself, what would a young reader want to know? What is a COOL fact? One that will make my reader say, “WOW! I didn’t know that.” You have to tell the story of how cars were engineered, of course, but I always focus on the really intriguing facts. Like the one about a real human being who was the first crash-test dummy, Colonel John Stapp. You could say that he was the “father” of Crash, the first crash-test dummy. Facts like that are what make the book come alive.
Q: Save the Crash-test Dummies is designed to look like an old-fashioned car manual. How involved were you in the design of the book?
A: I was not that involved in the art design, but I have to say that it is AMAZING! When the art director showed me her idea to make the book like an old-fashioned car manual, I was so excited. What a brilliant idea! When coupled with the awesome illustrations from TeMika Grooms, I feel very honored to have this fantastic creative team working on my book.
Q: What do you hope to see in the way of car innovation?
A: I have big hopes to “drive” a self-driving car someday. That would be SO cool! Perhaps in my lifetime they will have self-driving buses, vans, and cars that steer us through traffic. Being the mom of three kids, I spent the better part of seven years driving kids around. To be able to get into a car, sit back, and let it drive you safely, I would love that!
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
A: I hope it gets them thinking and asking questions about their world. As I tell my students, science is all around you. You just need to open your eyes and see it. Kids ride in cars all the time. Maybe if they read this book, they will stop and think for a minute about how amazing the car actually is, and how many people—and crash-test dummies—have worked hard to make this happen. After all, we could still be using horses.
Q: You clearly have a lifelong love of science, teaching, and writing. When did you decide to combine them and begin writing for children?
A: I’ve been writing for kids for about 10 years now and I LOVE it! It’s the best job in the world! You see, I am still that nine-year-old kid who used to ask questions about how everything worked. I needed to know and understand, well, everything about the world. Now I’ve taken that thirst for knowledge and poured it into books for kids who are like me. I am writing the books that young me would have loved. Hopefully, my books might inspire a whole crop of new scientists and engineers who will go on to discover amazing things for our world.
Q: What subject(s) are you tackling next?
A: I’m usually working on several different ideas at once and I don’t always talk about what I’m doing. But I’ll give you a small hint, here are a few topics I am researching: sports, particle physics, robotics, footprints, and astrophysics. Of course, not all in the same book! But you can be sure my future books will include a unique angle of engineering, science, and technology and TONS of fun facts because that is the stuff I LOVE to learn about.