It is so much fun to celebrate my fellow book creators and especially so when they’re practically neighbors. Kerri Kokias’ story-behind-the-story of Clever Hans is proof positive that writing for kids is anything but easy (trust me, there are lots of folks who think it is). Kerri’s essay also lends weight to the argument that stories can choose us: think of all the people (me included!) who have heard of Clever Hans but never developed the curiosity about him that Kerri did. Read on to learn more about Kerri and her latest picture book, Clever Hans: The True Story of the Counting, Adding and Time-Telling Horse, engagingly illustrated by Mike Lowery (G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers).
Hi Kirby! Thank you for the opportunity to introduce your readers to Clever Hans: The True Story of the Counting, Adding and Time-Telling Horse (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers). Clever Hans was a horse who lived in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. He was remarkable because he seemed to be able to do things that only humans could do, like solve math problems, tell time, read, spell, and more.
I first learned of Hans years ago in my college Introduction to Psychology class. Hans stuck with me over the years, and when I began writing for children I knew I wanted to share his story. The idea of a horse that could do things that kids of picture book reading age are learning to do themselves has obvious kid appeal, so I knew there was a good hook there. I also knew that Han’s story ended in a way that he had a lasting scientific impact, so I knew that his story would naturally have a happy ending. With these elements identified, I suspected I could flush out a strong narrative.
I began my research with a quick survey of what was more widely known about Hans in popular culture. It didn’t take long for me to notice the discrepancies that I’d have to sort out. There was a big scientific investigation into how Hans learned to do the things he could do, so I ordered a copy of the original research report, which was written in 1911 and translated from German. I spent a lot of time reading, rereading, and generally slogging through those 275 pages. The language used in that time period (and in research reports in general) can be long-winded and dry, and the fact that the text was translated, so I wasn’t even reading what was originally written, meant I needed to slow down to make sense of everything. Luckily, my education and professional background in social science research had acclimated me to parsing through research reports, which helped. I also tracked down as many original newspaper articles as I could find, which was super fun- especially when they included old photographs.
Once my research was done, I had to figure out how to tell Han’s story in a way that would focus on a tight narrative. Lucky for me, in addition to being such an engaging character, Han’s story presented an organic conflict: How was he able to do the things he was able to do? There is a strong element of tension within the scientific method itself, and Hans managed to stump scientist after scientist, so I was able to hone in on the mystery in his story. And lucky for me, Han’s story ended with a satisfying little twist that I’ll let readers discover on their own. I hope readers of all ages will be as smitten with Clever Hans as I am!
Kerri Kokias is the author of SNOW SISTERS (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018) and CLEVER HANS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE COUNTING, ADDING, AND TIME-TELLING HORSE (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2020). Her next book, YOU MIGHT BE SPECIAL will be published by Kid’s Can Press in October. Kerri lives in Seattle, WA.