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?