Monday, August 25, 2008

Wondering Whether the "Facts" are True

This is a repeat of my post on February 25, 2008. I have made some changes and added a few new pictures.

The opinions and questions of children often fascinate and delight me. As an author of non-fiction children’s books, I receive many letters from young readers. One that stands out came from a nine-year old girl named Lisa who wondered about the accuracy of various statements in my first book, How Much Is a Million? I was thrilled to receive her letter, for I am always happy to learn that my books are being read critically.

Lisa wondered about the truth of my book’s claim that counting from one to one billion (saying each number individually) would take 95 years. After questioning a few other statements in my book, she closed her letter:

“I had mixed up feelings about your book. That’s where the magic comes from the world of books. The magic of books is not knowing whether the facts are true or not.”

In my presentations at schools, I often tell children, "Wondering is wonderful." I find it wonderful that Lisa is wondering about the truth of statements in my books.

I wish more readers of my books—of all books—would wonder about them the way Lisa does. Active minds read critically, questioning what they have read as the reader blends his or her own experiences, knowledge and observations with the author's raw ingredients. Critical readers ingest a nourishing stew that is more than a bowl of information.

I feel privileged to have seen many examples of readers extending or challenging statements in my books. The members of a 2nd/3rd grade class doubted that the average height of elementary school students is 4'8" (142 cm), as reported in the backmatter of How Much Is a Million? Using 4’8” as the average height, I had figured that average shoulder height would be about 4’, and I multiplied 4’ by 1,000,000 to estimate the height of a one-million child tower, which came out to about 757 miles (1,218 km): “If one million children climbed onto one another’s shoulders,” the book begins, “they would be taller than the tallest buildings, higher than the highest mountains, and farther up than airplanes can fly.”

The members of this particular class doubted that the average elementary school student is only 4’8” tall, and to prove me wrong, they measured every child in the school. They found the median, mode, and mean, and they graphed their data in several ways. Finally, they declared that the average height is only 4'4" (132 cm).

But they didn't quit there. Like a journal article by professional scientists, the report included a section devoted to reflecting upon their results. Scientists would call it the “Discussion” section. In it, the students wondered aloud if there were a legitimate explanation for the four-inch discrepancy between the average height I reported and what they found. They proposed some possibilities: Their school stopped at Grade 5. Maybe I used data from an elementary school that went up to Grade 6 or 8. That might explain why my average height was higher than theirs. Alternatively, their school could have been shorter than normal... or perhaps mine was taller than normal. Or maybe I just measured a single child and declared him or her to be normal! “He’s 4’8” and he looks normal,” I might have said, “so that’s the average. Done!” I find their out of-the-box thinking quite impressive.

In If You Made a Million, my book on money (using United States currency), I write that one million dollars would be equal to "a whale's weight in quarters." A group of children wondered if a whale really did weigh the same as four million U.S. 25-cent pieces. They looked up the weight of a blue whale (appx. 60 tons or 54,400 kg) and calculated that the blue whale’s 60 tons is the weight of about 10 million quarters or $2.5 million— not $1 million, as my book says! They wrote to tell me their results, and in my reply I pointed out that the book does not name a particular species of whale. It simply says a million dollars is equal to “a whale’s weigh in quarters.” And in the back of the book, where I provide the calculations, I specifically note that the weight of a million dollars in quarters (about 50,000 pounds or 22,680 kg), is "the approximate weight of many kinds of whales, including the sperm whale." Then, as if anticipating their objection, I had added the fact that blue whales can be much heavier.

I thought my arguments had absolved me of error in their minds, but these students were not convinced. They sent me a color copy of the illustration in the book, with an arrow pointing to the blue-tinted caricature of a whale. Handwritten in thick block letters were their final words on the matter:“This is a blue whale!”

After recovering from laughter, I wrote back to suggest that they take it up with the illustrator, Steven Kellogg.

To me, the point isn't who is right and who is wrong. Often it’s a matter of interpreta-tion, as in the case of the whale. The point is that wonderful things happen when children wonder about what they have read. They can pursue their wonders through research and, if appropriate, mathematical calculations or estimations. As nine year-old Lisa wrote, “The magic of books is not knowing whether the facts are true or not.”

It truly is magical.


* Note: I am using the American definition of “billion” as 1,000,000,000 or 109. Traditional British usage is different, although the American form is being used increasingly in Britain.

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