The New Advocate
Volume 6, Number 2
Spring 1993

Concepts & Themes
Accuracy in Books for Young Readers: From First to Last Check
Bruce McMillan

Bruce McMillan is a writer, photo-illustrator, and speaker. His recent books include Going on a Whale Watch (Scholastic, 1992), Mouse Views: What the Class Pet Saw (Holiday House, 1993), and A Beach for the Birds (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Penguins at Home: Gentoos of Antarctica will be published by Houghton Mifflin in September, 1993.

When I was in Antarctica photographing a book about penguins, I had a chat with a scientist, Dr. Rita Mathews. During Antarctic cruise expeditions, she often gives talks based on her research. I had just listened to a naturalist give a presentation, and I was talking with Dr. Mathews about a point the speaker had made. The point in question conflicted with some creditable research I had read recently on the subject. This led to a discussion about accuracy and factual information. When Dr. Mathews speaks, she refers only to up-to-date, reliable facts that can be verified with reputable references. She doesn't repeat a statement or fact that someone just happened to tell her, or that she'd read in a trade book, unless she qualifies it as that. She is sure of her source. As a result, she doesn't consider a statement to be factual information unless she can understand it and can verify it. I wish I could rely as much on what I read in children's books, as on what I hear when Dr. Mathews gives her presentations.

Misinformation makes its way into nonfiction books that reach children by getting past three checkpoints: author, publisher, and reviewer. There is no doubt in my mind that the major responsibility lies with the originator of the text, the author. However, that doesn't eliminate the role of publishers and reviewers in assuring accuracy.

Who should be writing our science trade books for young people? Two years ago, School Library Journal published an article concerning the credentials of authors who write young people's science trade books. 1 The article questioned whether these books should be written by people with a background in writing or a background in science. Citing a study of children's book authors, it concluded with a concern that most children's book authors lack science credentials.

I often respect the work of authors who have a background in science because their background influences and shapes their approaches to the subject. For me, a scientific background, including a college degree in biology, and writing skills honed after college, provide me with the knowledge and tools necessary to make a subject come alive with a clarity appropriate for young readers. Must authors of children's books have a combined background of both scientist and writes? Some scientists can't relate their knowledge on a level that's accessible to children. Because good writers write accurate books, the answer is simply no. Whether it's a writer, scientist, or writer-scientist, the text should explain clearly what it intended with no misstatements or errors of omission. It should be free of inappropriate value statements. Finally, it should be an interesting read.

When I read children's nonfiction books, I look for reputable writers who write with clarity and accuracy regarding factual information and who use research sources in support of their writing. When doing my research, I always consult appropriate adult books, as well as professional research studies. I purchase every pertinent book that I can on the subject. Generally, I don't use children's books as a reference source. I look at them only to make sure that I don't inadvertently make a similar book. I've discovered that factual errors often get repeated from one book to another and have a way of taking on a life of their own. This happens in adult trade books, but to me it appears to occur more often in children's books.

For example, one children's book about whales states that "the flukes move up and down in the water, pushing the animal forward." 2 Another states "whales push themselves through the water by moving their flukes up and down." 3 Before I researched my book on whales, I never would have questioned these two statements. But, as they appear, without elaboration, they are misleading. These statements are as clear and accurate in describing whale propulsion as the following statement is about tossing a baseball: Pitchers throw the ball by waving their throwing arm back and forth. How then do whales propel themselves? A reputable source on whales for adults describes whale propulsion by stating it occurs when the tail flukes move up and down. Significantly, it then goes on to state that "forward propulsion is principally developed during the upstroke," 4 and the dynamics of whale propulsion is explained fully, including a description of the downward recovery stroke.

Children's books can't be expected to go into as many details as an adult text because they need to provide concise, simple descriptions for young readers. One children's book on whales does, while not misleading the reader. It clearly states in easily understood language that "the upward stroke of the tail pushes the whale through the water." 5 And in my book, readers will find in the glossary, "The upstroke is the power stroke that propels the whale forward - the downstroke is the resting stroke." 6 Ironically, the two books with misleading statements received favorable reviews - a review of the second book went so far as to say, "the text is excellent." 7

When I work on a nonfiction book for children, I've found that there is no such thing as overdoing the research. After I've completed my first draft, I have the text checked by scientists familiar with the subject. For example, when researching a nature/ environmental book about the Least Tern," 8 I thought I had the correct information regarding the northernmost range for this bird. During my limited research at libraries in Maine, I found journals that stated that these terns had been sighted in eastern Canada. Though the sightings were few in number, they were dated, reputable sightings, and it seemed logical to state in my book that the northernmost range for the terns is eastern Canada. However, I didn't because I hadn't completed my research. When I discovered that the two best ornithological libraries in the east are at Yale and Cornell, I decided that I had some traveling to do. So, to quench my thirst for learning all I could about the Least Tern, I traveled to New Haven and went through all of the books, research papers, and journal articles at Yale about the subject. I was aided by their avian reference librarian, whom I thanked in my book. Buried in one journal was a reference to a study that had correlated the Canadian sightings dating back to the 1800s with weather patterns. The terns hadn't actually flown to Canada. They were blown by severe storms from Maine to Canada, across the Bay of Fundy. Maine continues to be the northernmost boundary, and that's what my first draft stated. When one of my science checkers, a wildlife biologist, questioned my listing of Maine and not Canada in the book's text, I was able to cite updated research.

Value statements don't belong in nonfiction and are easier to spot. They are most likely to occur when a writer lacks a background in science. Value statements in books are fine when writers are expressing a personal viewpoint and when they clearly point them out as such. However, their place in science books as factual information is questionable. For example, a weather book by an author with a background in graphic arts that got favorable reviews states "Low pressure often brings bad weather." 9 The art accompanying the text is a drawing of rain falling from clouds. What's the problem? "Bad" is a value-laden word. Would you tell a farmer during a drought that rain is "bad?"

Writers need to be prepared to offer reputable references to substantiate their facts. To write a book about baby animals I had to compile a reference list of names of baby animals like calf, cub, kitten, and so forth. When conducting research for this book, I was astounded to find that no comprehensive list of baby animal names existed in any English language publication. So, to create the list that appears in The Baby Zoo, I had to do extensive research and locate three reputable sources for each animal before I could include the baby animal's name in my list. Prior to publication, my listing of baby koalas as "joeys" 10 was called into question by Scholastic New Zealand, my publisher's overseas affiliate. They said, "A baby koala isn't called a joey. It's called a baby koala." I faxed them my reference sources, and subsequently they called the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. Fortunately, I hadn't relied on another children's book that says koalas are called "bears" and their babies are called "cubs."11 Koalas are not mammalian bears, they are marsupials and their babies are joeys. It would be nice if authors and publishers made it their practice to comprehensively check their facts. Unfortunately, they don't.

Errors of omission in children's science books can be just as misleading as factual errors. Errors of omission lead to half-truths. For example, in another book of baby animals the heading of each section lists the baby animal's name, "Kitten," "Duckling," "Fawn," 12 and so on. Based on this pattern, young readers are expecting each section to begin with the baby animal's name. Inexplicably, the established pattern changes, and one of the headings reads, "Wallaby." Wallaby, a member of the kangaroo family, is the name for that species in general and is correct factual information. However, it is not the name for a baby wallaby that, like all members of the kangaroo family, is called a joey. Not only does the author neglect to state so in the heading, but the ensuing text only refers to "a baby wallaby." This is correct but incomplete, leading to a half-truth.

Another problem authors encounter is that what is known about science is constantly being revised and expanded. Authors need up-to-date information on the science they write about. For example, when writing my forthcoming Penguins at Home: Gentoos of Antarctica, 13 I had found three good references pertaining to the fact that there appear to be a greater number of some species of penguins in Antarctica today than there were a few hundred years ago because whale hunts have reduced the competition for food. Both penguins and whales eat the same thing - krill. With fewer whales eating krill, there appeared to be more food for the penguins, leading to an increase in certain penguin populations. I included this interesting point in the first draft of my text. Subsequently, a leading penguin researcher, whom l asked to verify the information in my book, told me that this was thought to be correct and a generally accepted conclusion - until this year. She informed me about a research paper, published after I had conducted my information search, which contradicted what had been accepted up to now. The paper supports a hypothesis that a loss of sea ice due to environmental warming, and not reduced competition with whales for food, may be the cause for the increase in these penguin populations. Fortunately, I was informed of this important study when I was working on my second draft and included both the background about reduced competition for krill and the new hypothesis about global warming. Had my book been completed a year before, it would have been out of date by the time it had been published.

Occasionally, an inadvertent mistake makes its way into print. I came very close to having that happen in The Baby Zoo. I had written that a Fishing Cat's kittens "weigh about six pounds at birth." My notes read "six ounces," not "six pounds," but the typo got past numerous readings by me, my editor, a copy editor, and finally the fact checker, a librarian at the St. Louis Zoo. The book had been printed and bound, but not yet released, when a schoolteacher friend of mine said, "Six pounds, that's a big kitten." "No, it says six ounces," I replied. "See, right here... whoops!" It was an author's nightmare. However, before the book was released, Scholastic reprinted that page and had the newly printed page "tipped" in. They didn't just insert an errata slip. To their credit, Scholastic went the extra distance and expense, something not all publishers would have done. A few would have hoped that no one would notice the error before it got corrected in the second printing - assuming there was a second printing.

Publishers take varying degrees of responsibility in assuring that their books are accurate. A few choose to take little responsibility, seeing their role as providing authors with editorial and copy editing services, but not the crucial service of a thorough fact check by a science specialist. They see verification of facts as the sole responsibility of the author. They see their role ending with the selection of reputable authors, and they trust their authors. This does not appear to be the norm since most publishers have texts read by outside science consultants, and then provide the author with the consultant's queries. I'd much rather be challenged on a point at this time when I can do something about it rather than later in a review. During the writing process, I can correct an error, clarify it, or cite research to back a point that has been questioned. Though the publishers who trust their authors are showing good faith in those authors, they also are manifesting a lax attitude that, if changed, could lead to better and more accurate books. Of course, no publisher chooses to publish inaccurate books since their reputation, as well as the author's, is always on the line.

Once the book is published, someone else's reputation is on the line - the reviewer. The review is the final check that influences which books will be purchased by a library or stocked by a store. Reviews also influence the accuracy of future books by alerting publishers that accuracy and inaccuracy are noticed and thus can affect sales. Sometimes a reviewer who has received a book in unbound galley form will call the publisher to ask about a factual error that they have noticed. They don't want to call attention to an error if it already has been corrected and only appears on the uncorrected galleys. When an error appears in the published edition it's too late to correct the book, but it's not too late to alert buyers. Reviewers have the unhappy burden of warning us about poor quality and lack of accuracy in informational books, but they also have the joy of telling us about the good titles we should not miss.

Appraisal, a children's science book review publication from the Children's Book Review Committee in Boston, has a fascinating and noteworthy review system. It provides two reviews of a book, one by a children's book reviewer and the other by a specialist, a scientist who checks the facts. The reviewers give the book a quality rating from the viewpoint of their specialty, children's books or science. Their reviews don't necessarily agree.

It's an interesting review system, and there's merit to it. But one drawback to double reviews is that book buyers who depend on reviews often don't have the time to read them all. In addition, this system is not practical for widely read review publications with limited space for reviews such as Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Horn Book Magazine, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. If these journals published double reviews, only half as many science books could be reviewed, and if they depended solely on scientists' reviews they wouldn't be meeting their readers' needs. Scientists may know science, but they generally aren't knowledgeable about children and children's books. They may not be aware of reader's learning levels, nor of other comparable children's books on the subject. Put simply, good reviewers need not be scientists.

Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from the double review approach. Perhaps reviewers should pass books they are reviewing to reputable scientists for their reactions before writing the review. The reviewer could include the scientist's response to the book's treatment of the subject in question within their review. Both the reviewer's name and that of the science specialist could be included. All writers are responsible for what they write. That's the bottom line. My point is that we should demand no less of reviewers, and they of themselves, than we demand of good writers and good publishers. Clearly, reviewers have a crucial responsibility in this process of disseminating information.

It sometimes appears to me that children do a better job of identifying and assuring accuracy in children's books than we adults - authors, publishers, and reviewers. The publisher of a simple book about zoos, that received a starred review 14 and was designated "A Children's Book of the Year, Library of Congress," was sent a letter concerning factual errors in the book. The letter was written by a second-grader and was signed by 173 of her peers. The page in question has only four words: "sleek, black, swims, SEAL." 15 On the opposite page is a photo. The children's letter to the publisher provided an ironic answer to the closing, rhetorical question posed by a reviewer in an influential journal who stated: "Aesthetically satisfying, appealing, and useful - what more could one ask?" 16 The children asked that it be factually accurate. The second grader had pointed out "there is a picture of a sea lion, however the author wrote that the animal is a seal."17 The children went on to note three reasons why the animal in the book's photo obviously isn't a seal but a sea lion. Sea lions have: 1. rotating front flippers; 2. a crowned head; 3. ear flaps. And the children didn't stop at just one error. "On the last page there is a diagram that says seals come from the Arctic and Antarctica. This is misleading information because most sea lions and some other members of the seal family live in the Eastern Pacific Ocean from the tip of Argentina to Alaska and in the Western Atlantic Ocean, especially around Newfoundland and Iceland." These young writers were not only correct, but critical as well. They had begun their letter by saying that "it is TERRIBLE that children all over the nation are reading information that is not true."

When I write a nonfiction science or nature book the words of those children reverberate in my mind. It's my nature to research my subject as much as possible. Friends are amused by my drive and desire to know everything about the subject I'm studying. Like the children just quoted, who said "we know we are correct because we showed the book to a zoologist from the San Diego Zoo," I also have my text checked by reputable scientists. In the end I have to be as sure of my facts - the information that I present as objectively real - as the children were of theirs. The ultimate responsibility for accuracy in books for young readers lies with the books' authors, but publishers and reviewers also have a crucial role in assuring that the books which reach young readers are accurate.


1 Broadway, Marsha D. and Howland, Mafia. Science Books for Young People: Who Writes Them? School Library Journal May 1991. p. 35-38.
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2 Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. Humpback Whales. Holiday House. 1989. p. 11.
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3 Gibbons, Gail. Whales. Holiday House. 1991. unpaged.
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4 Martin, Dr. Anthony R., et al. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Whales and Dolphins. Portland House. 1990. p. 14.
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5 Simon, Seymour. Whales. Thomas Y. Crowell. 1989. unpaged.
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6 McMillan, Bruce. Going on a Whale Watch Scholastic Hardcover. 1992. p. 39.
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7 School Library Journal. December 1991. p. 110.
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8 McMillan, Bruce. A Beach for the Birds. Houghton Mifflin. 1993. p.5, 30.
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9 Gibbons, Gail. Weather Words and What They Mean. Holiday
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House. 1990. unpaged.

10 McMillan, Bruce. The Baby Zoo. Scholastic Hardcover. 1992. p. 1-40.
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11 A Little Book of Baby Animals. Little Simon/Simon & Schuster. 1982. unpaged.
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12 Royston, Angela. Eye Openers TM Baby Animals. Dorling/Kindersley, Aladdin Books, Macmillan Publishing. 1992. p. 14.
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13 McMillan, Bruce. Penguins at Home: Gentoos of Antarctica. Houghton Mifflin. 1993. p. 30.
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14 Booklist. Vol. 82, # 1. September 1,1985. p. 63-64.
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15 Hoban, Tana. A ChiIdren's Zoo. Greenwillow Books. 1985. unpaged.
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16 Horn Book Magazine. November/December 1985. p.750.
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17 Second Grade Students. letter. April 23, 1990. Westwood Elementary School, Poway, California. p. 1-9.
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