1 Jul 2016

On Books - and "Real Books"

Writing for kids can be a monstrously thankless job. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “When are you going to write a ‘real’ book?” Grrrr.

Kids’ books are real books. The level of material they contain is often superior to material aimed at adults.  With good reason:  What we read when we’re young will stick with us for a lifetime. And if the ‘facts’ we learn are wrong….

Let’s pause for a moment and think about pearls. Do you, by any chance, think they form when a bit of grit gets into the oyster? So sorry. Not so.
I only learned the true story of the pearl while researching The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press). I fact-checked a ‘fact’ that I ‘knew’ was true: that oyster tidbit. I thought doing so was a formality; a waste of time even.

Yet when I looked for a good source to cite for the snippet, I couldn’t find one. I found lots of cut-and-paste text saying the same thing (grit, grit, grit). But no reliable data. I spent countless hours digging deeper. When I finally burrowed down to some solid research, I was shocked. Pearls, it turns out, are formed when a parasite, not a bit of grit, gets into the oyster’s gut.  

Because of ‘gems’ (read: booboos) like this, I always take extra care to get the facts in my books right. That’s easier said than done. In my latest science book, Monster Science (Kids Can Press), I planned to describe Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiment. When I fact-checked the basics, I wound up with questions about the number of pea plants he grew. The figures repeated most often in reference material were 28- or 29,000. But where, exactly, did these figures come from? Could it be verified?
I spent a solid week looking for answers. There were none. It seems the numbers were fabricated and repeated again and again, just like the pearls-are-made-by-grit “fact.”
So I got to work. To compute a more reliable answer, I sourced Mendel’s own data and google-translated it from German. When I added up his own tallies for the pea plants he grew, it was significantly closer to 20,000 than 29,000. But that figure, too, was just a best guess: Mendel's data was incomplete. So no one really knows how many pea plants he grew! 
“10-20,000 plants” went into the manuscript.Unsurprisingly, the copy editor flagged it as an error, because she was comparing it to all the widely published – but wrong – numbers on the web! 
That could become a big problem. A book’s saleability can be hampered if reviewers think the research is sketchy. So my “10-20,000 plants” phrase couldn’t stand either.
So what to do? Long, detailed backs-and-forths transpired as we parsed the data and experimented with language. We finally came up with a phrase that delicately bridged the gap between what we knew was dead-accurate (“who knows?”)  and what sounded right  (29,000).

In the end, we spent over two weeks working on one ‘minor’ phrase. Why? Because we respect our readers.  And that’s why kids’ books are real books. They contain the best possible information available today, presented in clear, easy-to-understand language. Easy enough, that is, for even grown-ups to understand. 

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