A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Children’s books often present information that is outside the realm of their comprehension. Often, that information is not a normal part of childrens’ background knowledge (about a particular topic). For example, as adults, we understand the concept of a “million.” We’ve dealt with that number many times in our lives, we know what it means when someone says that so-and-so is a millionaire, and we have seen that word or number in print in the newspapers and magazines we read.
For young children, however, the word “million” doesn’t hold much meaning because it’s not a word that comes up frequently in their math lessons, nor is it a word that surfaces in most of the books they read. If “million” is to be used effectively in a book, youngsters have to have something against which it can be compared. In other words, they have to balance the new word with something with which they are already familiar. David Schwartz did a marvelous job of this in his book How Much Is a Million? (1985). He used a number of comparisons in order to give readers some insight into what the words million, billion, and trillion mean. He did this by outlining how long it would count to each one by saying each number completely and going nonstop. To count to a million would take 23 days, to a billion would take 95 years, and to count to a trillion would take more than 200,000 years. WOW!
When I wrote A is for Anaconda: A Rainforest Alphabet (https://amzn.to/2HJw7yB) I wanted to give readers a sense of how large certain animals were. Certain numbers don’t convey much information if youngsters can’t understand how those numbers relate to something with which they are more familiar – something in their background of experiences. So, I decided to use some familiar comparisons to help readers understand the size of these creatures.
The longest recorded anaconda was 28 feet (8.5 m) long. That’s longer than a car! (p. 1)
The largest tarantula in the world is the goliath bird-eating spider of South America. This rainforest spider weighs up to four ounces (113 gm) and has an 11-inch (28 cm) leg span – about the size of a dinner plate. (p. 26)
In drafting my book Weird Walkers (1996) I wanted readers to discover some of the most unusual walkers on the planet. These included a fish that walks out of the water, a lizard that walks on the surface of water, and even a tree that “walks” through the water. But, in order to make these biological specimens meaningful for children, I sought to compare how these forms of locomotion were similar to, or different from, the ways in which children typically walk (or locomote).
In describing millipedes, I drew some comparisons between the legs of these critters and the legs of children.
How would you walk if you had eight legs? How about 80 legs? How about 200 legs? How would you coordinate all those legs so that you would be able to move forward and not trip over a dozen or more of your own legs? (p. 8)
Comparisons gives readers a frame of reference – an opportunity to learn about something new by matching it with something familiar. By including those comparisons in your nonfiction books you help readers process a subject in greater detail and with a heightened sense of comprehension.
Anthony D. Fredericks (www.anthonydfredericks.com) is a former professor of education at York College (now retired) and an award-winning and best-selling children’s author of more than 50 titles. His late
st writing instruction book – Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2GOr0AF) – will be released in June.