Nonfiction Monday is at Rasco from RIF. Check out all the great nonfiction this week.
STEM FRIDAY is at Practically Paradise.
Thank you for joining SimplyScience for my first ever guest post by Meltdown! author Fred Bortz. Check out the schedule and stop by the other blogs where he will be featured.
Spellbinders Monday 3/5/12, plus giveaway Monday 3/19/12
Words at Work Monday, 3/5/12
SimplyScience Wednesday 3/7/12
USA Science and Engineering Festival Blog (perhaps on Huff Post) Wednesday 3/7/12
Writing with a Broken Tusk March 8
Liz Jones Friday 3/9/12
TFCB Blog Lerner Books Blog 3/12/12
Cynsations Giveaway 3/12/12
A Nonfiction Writer’s Path:
Catastrophes, Meltdowns, Alien Encounters, and More
by Fred Bortz
People often ask me about my career path from working as a physicist to writing books for young readers. With my latest book, I can finally give a clever answer. If you skip ahead to the end, you’ll find it. But I hope you’ll read my story instead.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and stayed there for college, completing B.S, M.S., and Ph.D. degrees at Carnegie Tech / Carnegie Mellon University. I then began my career as an assistant professor at a branch campus of Bowling Green (OH) State University. After three years, I had an opportunity to do postdoctoral research on a topic related to my Ph.D. thesis with two renowned professors at Yeshiva University and New York University in New York City.
I loved the work there and produced a research paper that is still cited today. (Google “Bortz Kalos Lebowitz” and you will find it.) But after a year, my wife and I decided to return home to raise our two small children. Fortunately, Westinghouse Advanced Reactors Division was hiring, and my skill in advanced computation trumped my total lack of background in the nuclear field. I got a job working on the core design for an innovative nuclear reactor project.
After three years at Westinghouse, I found myself in a position that would repeat throughout my career. My employer understandably wanted me to become more expert in nuclear engineering, but I was finding other projects and other fields more enticing. I left Westinghouse, and for the next 19 years I moved from project to project at three different employers.
Meanwhile, I was beginning to sell stories and articles to children’s and regional magazines. By 1990, I had published my first book for young readers. My engineer colleagues encouraged me to write a book to explain their field to that audience. But I couldn’t find a hook until a 1992 lecture by noted engineer-author Henry Petroski, in which he discussed his noted book To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.
That was the theme I needed. I reworked it for young readers and expanded it beyond his focus on mechanical and civil engineering. The result was Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success (1995). That book was named a Selectors Choice on the National Science Teachers Association list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children.
That selection came at just the right time for me. I needed to look for another employer and another project. This time, I decided the right employer was myself. As my own boss, I was free to explore any topic that interested me and share it with those most challenging of young people, adolescents. What could be better than that?
I discovered or rediscovered planetary science, paleontology, meteorology, geology, materials science, computer science, technology, and the scientists and engineers who followed the most fascinating questions and challenges in those fields.
No matter what topic I wrote about, my books were always driven by questions. (“Is there life on other worlds?” is one of my favorites, showing up most prominently in my 2008 “Cool Science” book, Astrobiology.) And for me, the best questions were always open ones.
I love leaving loose ends for my readers to reconsider when the time is right. For instance, my favorite chapter in Catastrophe! was about nuclear reactors. Despite nuclear meltdowns in Pennsylvania and Ukraine, I knew that the nuclear industry could bounce back and that my readers would have to make difficult political choices about it as adults.
Looking ahead to that time, I laid out the arguments they would hear on both sides of the issue and concluded: “Coming to the right decision then will be no easier than it is now, nor will it be any less important.”
I was right. After the Fukushima disaster last year, the same questions about the future of nuclear power arose but with greater urgency than ever. Within weeks, I recognized that it was time to revisit that chapter of Catastrophe!, this time in book length. I wrote a proposal for my twentieth book, Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, and my editor at Twenty-First Century Books promptly accepted it and put in on the fast track.
A mere six months after the disaster, we were polishing the final text and selecting photos and diagrams to tell a story that had my favorite kind of ending: important open questions that will bring my readers back to the subject again and again. Now that book is out, and I’m happy to say that it is a Junior Library Guild Selection.
Looking back on the twenty years since that memorable lecture, I can now declare that my writing career has gone from Catastrophe to Meltdown, with some alien encounters along the way. And I couldn’t be happier about it!
Thank you, Fred, for the wonderful insight and background on your fascinating career path to children’s author. Meltdown! is truly an exceptional book that belongs in every library.
See my post on his Seven Wonders of Space Technology, too.
More websites and supplemental reading lists are also here (look to the right column).
Here is the government website on nuclear energy.
National Science Standards: nuclear processes; energy
Book provided by Lerner.