Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When Facts Change: Updating Nonfiction

Originally posted on May 21, 2008
Every author encounters facts that shift over time, from expected changes such as a new President to the unprecedented landing of an alien spacecraft on the White House lawn (theoretically.)When you least expect it, carefully researched details or large chunks of a book can be rendered obsolete overnight. As an example of the latter, remember when this graphic was ubiquitous on cereal boxes and school cafeteria walls across the U.S.?

In 1994 I had based a book on t
he USDA Food PyramidThe Edible Pyramid: Good Eating Every Day, so it was a bit of a hassle when the USDA updated the program some ten years later, however welcome the changes were.
Since the point of the book is to explore the foods found within the various sections of the pyramid, the graphic was on most spreads. It's usually a fairly easy matter to update a book’s text, but artwork is another story.Fortunately we illustrators now have software such as Adobe Photoshop to assist in this task. The original illustrations were hand painted, so the production films were scanned and turned into digital files that I could then alter as desired.

The new pyramid included steps on the side to emphasize the need for daily exercise, so I wanted to create a new illustration showing the characters’ favorite activities. It was a reasonably easy matter to cut and paste to condense two spreads into one to gain the needed space. Making digital art match hand-painted art is a little trickier, but can be done. It was also nice to fix one small but annoying glitch in the original book... in the hand-lettered text the misspelled word “ravoli” has now been spelled correctly at long last. Note to self: don’t use painted lettering because it’s much more difficult to make changes.

Another of my books was dealt a body blow by of all groups, the International Astronomical Union, who decreed in 2006 that Pluto is no longer a planet, but instead is a “dwarf planet.” One commentator I heard at the time asked, ”What's next, they‘ll take Yellow out of the rainbow?“ My contribution to the still ongoing debate is to say that a “dwarf tomato” is still a tomato....

The frustrating thing for me was that only six months before the IAU announcement I had already revised Postcards from Pluto: A Tour of the Solar System to include a variety of factual changes in the years since its publication. For example, in the first edition I had been too specific about the number of moons around various planets, a strategic error on my part since new ones are discovered fairly often. Of course, the fact that the very title of the book contains the not-a-planet-anymore Pluto means that no amount of updating may satisfy those curriculum makers who prefer the official planets and only the official planets. Sigh.

Another example of a changing fact in one of my books is New Hampshire’s famous rock formation and icon, The Old Man of the Mountain. I included an illustration of it on the state‘s page in my Celebrate the 50 States! Unfortunately, it collapsed in 2003 (the rocks, not the book!) In this case, it seems a fitting memorial to leave the page as is.

As these examples show, facts can behave like bucking broncos, and authors can’t always ride them for long. But that’s what web sites are for... to post corrections and updates, right?

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