Books, Science/Math, Writing

Getting from Here to There

My mind is abuzz with navigational terms: astrolabes and gyroscopes, dead reckoning and piloting, latitude and longitude. A couple of months ago, I read Dava Sobel’s Longitude about Englishman John Harrison. Harrison solved the centuries-long problem of determining a ship’s longitude (east/west position) by inventing a sea-worthy clock. By knowing the time at the home port (using the marine clock) and local time aboard the ship (using the sun at high noon, for example), a navigator could use that difference in time to determine his east/west position. For those like me who have long forgotten their geometry: a one hour difference in time is equal to 15 degrees of longitude, since our Earth is a 360 degree circle and there are 24 hours in a day.

There’s quite a bit of drama to John Harrison’s tale. The great astronomers of the day were convinced that the solution to the longitude problem would be found in the heavens. For decades Harrison’s competitors denied him the prize money he deserved for solving the problem. He only received the sum shortly before his death at age 83 when the English monarch intervened.

I thought for sure there was a picture book in there somewhere. First, I thought I’d write a picture book biography of John Harrison. There are only a couple of children’s books about him out there, and they are for older readers ( 8 and up). Still, despite the man’s genius, John Harrison is, shall we say, a bit boring and stuffy. His perseverance is a good moral lesson, but we know little of his childhood and how he became the man he was. This is not the stuff of captivating biography.

Instead, I started ruminating on a navigation book for early elementary students. Over the past couple of months, I’ve devoured books for children and adults, Web sites, lesson plans and more about navigation. I’ve drafted a pretty lengthy outline of what a book about navigation could cover. And, here’s where it gets tricky with nonfiction: determining how much information is just the right amount for ages 5 through 8.

Matching the level of detail to the target audience is a consistent challenge for me. I find myself writing and rewriting as I simplify, simplify, simplify without dumbing down the information. I constantly turn to the writers that inspire me for this age group: Gail Gibbons, Melissa Stewart, Darlene Stille. I reread their books trying to get a feel for the “just right” level of detail. Sometimes I try to explain what I’m writing to my five-year-old to gauge how much I think he understands. When I can, I consult grade-level standards for my state or others. Once I think I’ve hit my mark, I read him the whole draft. Still, the process of whittling down such vast quantities of information is a challenge.

I’m interested in hearing from other writers of children’s nonfiction (books or magazines). How do you ensure your level of detail is a good match for your audience? Do you have any tips for simplifying complicated information?

9 thoughts on “Getting from Here to There”

  1. Thanks for the post! I can identify with the challenges of whittling down info and trying to make ‘boring and stuffy’ exciting – especially I was contracted a month ago to write a few biographies for children. Picking and choosing what to include can be tricky, not to mention tying it all in with a gripping ‘storyline.’ Good luck!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Miranda. I try to remind myself it’s ok to give them bits of pieces now and they can learn more as they get older. But I want to teach them everything!

  2. Kirsten, I am doing research on an incident during the world wide smallpox outbreak. I know that one needs to know much more than she writes, of course, so I am taking copious notes. It will be a challenge, but I have noticed in the last few non-fiction PBs I’ve read, that the author gives website links, a bibliography, and sometimes, discussion or craft ideas at the back of the book, for those teachers/parents who want to delve further into the subject. That will allow the writer to simplify without worrying that content will be lost.

    You are much farther than I am in the creation of a non-fiction PB, and it sounds like you have a handle on what it takes…keep perservering! I will try to keep track of the process, so I can share at another time. Thanks for your author suggestions. I will look them up. It’s good to read more of the books we wish to emulate!

    1. Wow, it sounds like you’ve got a fascinating subject. I like the idea of adding additional resources in the back. I’ve done this with some of my works in progress as well. I think Steve Jenkins does a great job of this too. I’ll check out your blog!

  3. Although I am very interested in writing non-fiction, i haven’t done it yet, so I have no golden words to offer. I do think your idea is a great one, though – a book about navigation. My son would have loved it when he as that age. We read lots of non-fiction!

    1. Thank for your encouragement, Susanna! I think I crystallized my idea, so the writing is going a bit more smoothly. Before it was like swimming up stream. I’m hoping to knock out the rest of the draft in a day or two.

  4. Kirsten, Congratulations on your picture book journey. I’m subscribing to your blog (discovered through Teaching Authors). Great craft ideas & reviews here. I also immersed our family in museums – art & history. One result is that our college gal is now an art history major. Brava to you!
    I don’t know if this is helpful in your writing process but in my I too wanted to bring the story to readers up to age eight. The trailblazing woman who authorized me to write her story for the youngest readers lived such an amazing life, it ultimately was beyond my skills as a beginning children’s writer, to distill all that living into a story for the youngest. The p.b. that resulted, beautifully illustrated by Lisa Desimini, did fine for older students (as evidenced by reviews & recognitions). Now I’m working hard, like you, to bring another p.b. (again a bio) along, but this time I’m hope I’m more armored to write it for the younger readers. Now I know more sharp school librarians & I’m asking them, along with public library youth services staff, for comments in the manuscript phase. Also, I have begun presenting to K & 1st grade with my older student p.b. So I’ve created a lively, spoken presentation, not reading the book. This is helping me enormously in writing the next one.
    Good luck!


    1. Wow, Jan, thank you so much for your insightful comments. I’ll hop over to check out your blog as well. Thanks for encouraging me on my journey. It’s a lot of fun, especially since I can use my little ones in my work.

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