On Good Authority: Telling the Truth to Kids

Before the election, in what has become the "post truth" or "false truth" era of news, a friend just told me that her seven-year-old granddaughter came home from school with a "news" story. A boy told her that if Donald Trump is elected president, he (the boy) is allowed to touch her where she goes "potty." So her mother took the issue up with to the principal. I have no idea how it was resolved. But this is shocking evidence that false news (outright lies) have now filtered down to our children.

It's understandable that children are not sophisticated enough to sift truth from non truth. They are always asking "It is true?" That's why we children's nonfiction authors have a special responsibility to make certain that "nothing is made up" in our books. That's what the word "nonfiction" means. There are standards for truth for journalists--nothing is printed unless it is verified by three independent sources. As a representative of a group of award-winning children's nonfiction authors, iNK Think Tank, Inc, let me unpack a little of our process--how we learn what we write about and then what our publisher does to make sure we're telling the truth.

My newly released classic (44 years in print) Science Experiments You Can Eat is a book of procedures. How did I know what to write? I did every experiment in the book and did not write up the ones that failed. So I was my own primary source. In this new edition (third) my editor read it as if it had never been published before and returned the manuscript to me with 300 queries. I responded to every single one.

Another recent re-release is a book about Alaska called This Place Is Cold. In the original book I had said:

"It's no big deal to have a pilot's license in Alaska. One person in every sixty-one has one." (The original version said "One person in every seventy-six has one.") I had to check on those figures twice for two different passes.

In the original research for the book, I visited Alaska; I read books about Alaska and I interviewed many people who lived there. My sources are listed in an author's note.

There are many steps between submitting a manuscript before it becomes a children's nonfiction book. By my calculations, a thirty-two page picture book of 3,000 words (5 typewritten pages single spaced) is reviewed by at least seven people, each reading it an average of four times--25+ readings before it becomes a book. Talk about dotting the i's and crossing the t's! This much investment is a statement about honor and pride of workmanship but mostly it is a tribute to the ultimate user--children. In the writer's jargon of "show, don't tell" our book shows them, "We're giving you our very best. It's what you deserve." It is also designed to last and to be treasured.

Without exception, iNK authors travel to do research first-hand. If they write history, they all use primary source material; they go out of their way to interview experts and when the manuscript is finished, it is vetted by an expert. In some cases, they take courses before starting their research to make sure they comprehend their subject matter on a deep level. Only then do they understand what they can leave out and still be accurate and clear for children.

It is only when children are educated by materials that are written on good authority to be truthful that they develop the prior knowledge to be able to discern false news when they hear it.