Let’s Try Out Several Versions Of the Same Sentence
In my last post, and response to Tricia, I argued that there are three issues in judging non-fiction, and judgement in kids’ books tends to slant toward the first two. The three I listed were factual accuracy, Tricia stressed engagement, voice — literary qualities, and then I made the pitch for argument, logic, conceptual approach. So here’s an experiment — feel free to post your efforts — in a flash any of us could churn out an accurate sentence that is dull ("Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was signed on July 4, 1776)." Although at once that very sentence begins to fall apart — in fact Jeferson wrote it with Franklin and Adams, and the clauses were debated and approved by the delegates. It was approved on July 4, but, outside of John Hancock, it is not clear that the rest of the delegates signed it before August 2. So challenge one — write a sentence that is accurate and interesting. And, related to that challenge, what standard of accuracy would we apply to this sentence? In a picture book on the Declaration, would the book be wrong if it said Jefferson wrote it? Would that be a fatal error? Would it be OK to list the three authors, but not engage the question of the clauses that were rejected by the Second Continental Congress? Would it be OK to use the word "signed" since at least one famous signature came on that date, the iconic date kids know, and the debate over the others is too fine-tuned to matter?
In other words, is accuracy as clear cut as checking a fact, or — as I contend — isn’t accuracy itself a reflection of a set of judgments — what is important, what is the goal of the book, what conceptual approach is the author taking?
The second case is accurate, interesting, conceptually flat. ("Jefferson, the pen; Adams, the mind, Franklin, the businessman, spoke for America.") I am sure you can do better than that dashed-off effort. But it is not hard to picture a sentence that is true, that catches our ears, our eyes, as a nicely said, which makes us curious, but which fails to stretch our minds. Want to give us one?
In reverse, it is easy to think of sentences that are conceptually fascinating, but dull in expression. For example, I remember being in high school and learning about infinite numbers. While, by definition, an infinite number has no end, there are, actually, a hierarchy of infinities — in fact there are an infinite number of infinitely larger infinities. And if you are a teenager, that psychedelic vertigo of cascading infinities is, literally, mind blowing. (to make this really simple, there are an infinite number of odd numbers, there are an infinite number of even numbers, there are an infinite number of whole numbers, but, of course, there are an infinite number of fractions between any two whole numbers. So the infinity of even numbers, say, is smaller than the infinity of all numbers, even though both are infinite). So here is an idea that conceptually thrilling, that can easily be expressed in dull, accurate fashion: "there are an infinite number of infinitely larger infinities."
Want to try your hand at conceptually thrilling, accurate, dull? And then, for our grand finale: accurate, interesting, conceptually thrilling?