Technical Communication in Children’s Literature

I recently came across a reference to technical communication in a children’s book. I’m wondering how many other such references they might be. (The topic seems apt given Tom Johnson’s recent questions about the place of technical writing in the high school curriculum.)

I was delighted when I found out recently that Joan Aiken‘s Armitage family stories has been collected and published together, and that the collection was available for the Kindle. The best known of these stories is The Serial Garden, which is the name given to the new collection, but there are a number of others that I had never read before, including one called Miss Hooting’s Legacy, in which the Armitages are bequeathed a pair of “mechanical helots” (in other words, robots) in the will of deceased old fairy lady (in other words, a witch).

The mechanical helots as in a state of disrepair and they set about restoring them, relying on the instruction manual, from which several delicious passages are quoted. My favorite is this:

“‘Keep latched prehensile work/monitor selector function aligners well lubricated with sunflower or cottonseed oil.’ which do you think those are?”

“It’s hands?” suggested Harriet.

Of all the improbable things that happen in the Armitage stories, that passage of technical writing is, alas, the least improbable of all. We can, however, take some comfort in the ingenuity of readers like Harriet to decipher this sort of stuff.

There must be other examples. (The field is ripe for mockery, alas.) Can anyone else think of examples of technical communication in children’s literature?

Author: Mark Baker

Mark Baker is the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process as well as other books on content and content technologies and dozens of articles on technical communication, content strategy, and structured writing. He has worked as a technical writer, tech comm manager, director of communications, trainer, programmer, copywriter, and consultant and has spoken frequently at industry conferences. He has designed, built, and used multiple structured writing tools and systems, including the one used to write this book. He blogs at and tweets as @mbakeranalecta. For more information, see

2 thoughts on “Technical Communication in Children’s Literature”

  1. Not literature, exactly, but the plot of Toy Story 3 takes a dramatic turn for the better when Woody and his friends discover the instruction manual for Buzz Lightyear.

    1. Hi Larry,

      Toy story definitely counts! Your example puts me in mind of the plot of The Greatest American Hero, a TV show in which a school teacher is given a superhero suit by alien visitors so that he can save the world — only he looses the instruction manual and has to work out how to use it by trial and error. (Makes me wonder if the showrunners had read The Nurnberg Funnel.)

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