Technical Communication in Children’s Literature

By | 2011/12/06

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?

2 thoughts on “Technical Communication in Children’s Literature

  1. Larry Kunz

    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. Mark Baker Post author

      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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