Thursday, March 08, 2012

Process Talk: Fred Bortz on Meltdown!

Dr. Fred Bortz is the author of a timely new nonfiction book from Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner, Meltdown: The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future (a Junior Library Guild Selection). This week and beyond, Fred is on a blog tour with this book--I'm happy to host him on today's stop.

Other stops on the tour include:

Spellbinders  Monday March 5, 2012 plus giveaway Monday March 19.

Simply Science  Wednesday March 7.

USA Science and Engineering Festival Blog Wednesday  March 7.

Liz Jones  Friday March 9.

TFCB Blog Lerner Books Blog  Monday March 12.

Cynsations  Giveaway Monday March 12.


[UK] You've dedicated this book to your grandchildren. With that in mind, why is Meltdown! important, in your opinion, to the conversation of books for young readers?

[FB] Thank you for starting with that question! The first thing I do when I start a book manuscript is to write the title and the dedication. That motivates me to produce a book worthy of the people I am dedicating it to.

In this case, those people include more than just my grandchildren (twins in seventh grade and a second grader). The full dedication is "To my grandchildren, Elon, Eliana, and Alex, and all young readers whose work and votes will shape our energy future."

Few people stop to think about how important nuclear power plants are, so let me start with a few facts that are not in the book but are background for it. Nuclear power produces about 14% of the world's electricity. In the United States, it accounts for more than 20%, and in Japan nearly 30%. In most European countries, the percentage is much larger with France topping the list at 75%. China and India, countries where by far the greatest growth in electrical consumption is taking place, have ambitious plans to increase the share of nuclear power to well above the present 2-3%.

Those numbers tell us that phasing out nuclear power plants would be exceptionally difficult and probably economically destabilizing. Renewables, especially solar and wind, have great promise for the long term, but they also have technological and practical limitations. We just don't know how much we can expect from them. Furthermore, we need to replace fossil fuels with renewables before we can think about phasing out nuclear power. Otherwise, the world risks an even more serious set of problems that could arise from global warming.

As the dedication notes, today's young readers are the people whose votes and work will shape our energy future. They will have to take all those factors into account. Their energy policy decisions will be complex, requiring an understanding of how science, technology, and societal factors are intertwined. Choosing wisely in the future will require an ability to pose the right questions and to address them in the context of a very different world.

[UK]  Beyond the facts and details contained in your book, this is a story with many subplots and the history of energy development itself as its backstory. Do you see nonfiction as story? Talk about why.

[FB] When asked to characterize my writing, I usually call myself "a teller of true tales." Professional handbooks are reference books containing organized collections of facts, data, and procedures. But other forms of nonfiction serve broader human purposes. And the best way to engage the readers is by including at least a little bit of story.

I did that in first two books for young readers without realizing it. I wrote both as informational books intended to introduce particular scientific fields that the readers may never have heard about. Superstuff! was about the technologically critical field of materials science and engineering. Mind Tools was about artificial intelligence.

I looked back on them and found storytelling only after Carolyn Angus reviewed my third book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success, in School Library Journal. She closed her review with a sentence that made me see my writing in a whole new way: "This fascinating, thought-provoking book on the role of failure in successful design reads like an adventure story from the first to the last page."

That was 1995. Ever since then, I have deliberately included storytelling even when a publisher asked me to write a set of informational books about subatomic particles. The scientific history and the human history went hand-in-hand.

[UK] Why isthis book written in the present tense? It's effective, certainly, but can you shed some light on that choice?

[FB] It's not all in the present tense.

[UK] Excuse me, you're right of course. It's not. But when you are describing critical events...

[FB]  When I describe the historical background of nuclear power and the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, I write in the past tense. I use present tense in the parts of the book where I describe the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and the progression of events that culminated in the meltdowns, explosions, and other crises at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Present tense writing places my readers on the scene, viewing it as it is happening. It engages them viscerally as well as intellectually. It also suggests—correctly—that they are reading about an ongoing story. I don't want them to put down the book and think the story is over. I want them to keep following the cleanup and the news stories that I am regularly adding to my Meltdown! Links and Updates web page. I want them to follow developments as Japan, France, Germany, China, India, Canada, and the United States grapple with their own energy futures.

I want them to be aware that the cleanup in Japan is only beginning and that some people may never be able to return to their abandoned homes. I want them to read newspaper articles critically, recognizing that the technological failures at Fukushima could have been averted by a different political and regulatory approach. When the time comes for them to participate in political decisions about nuclear power, I want their present-tense engagement with the events at Fukushima to leave them haunted by this past-tense paragraph in the book's closing chapter:

Nuclear power plant technology can be safe. Yet the Fukushima Daiichi power plant suffered three meltdowns, two major explosions, and several fires that sent radioactivity into the environment. None of these failures should have happened.
[UK] I'm sure you have masses of research that you could not include in this book. Talk about the process of revision. How do you decide what to keep in the book, what to save for school talks and blogs posts, and what needs to be discarded altogether?

[FB] Revision is my favorite part of writing a book like this, especially when I have an editor who is fully engaged with both the subject matter and the book's audience. I count on the editor to tell me when I am going into too much detail, but I don't necessarily accept everything she says. Sometimes we tussle and annoy each other, but it's never personal. We both have the same aim: to make this book the best it can be for its audience.

We finally reached the point when I declared there was no more technical material to cut. I had just removed a section that went into detail on how power companies develop a mix of energy sources. I really wanted my readers to know about that.

The section discussed the difference between baseline power plants that operate steadily to make sure the customers' basic demands are met and other plants that fill in the additional demand. It noted that nuclear plants are usually part of the baseline; but solar and wind power is intermittent, sometimes producing no energy and sometimes delivering more than the power company can use. That section also discussed energy storage devices that can help smooth out the production of intermittent sources and the interconnections (the power grid) that allow power companies to buy and sell from each other.

The ideas in that deleted section will be important for any energy policy-maker to know. So rather than merely discarding it, I modified it as supplemental information that teachers could download as "eSource" material from the Meltdown! page at the publisher's website. I also worked with the publisher to create a classroom activity that challenges the class to develop two opposite nuclear energy policies for a future presidential candidate to consider.

I hope that many schools will accept that challenge. I'd be thrilled to get an invitation to come in not only to speak to the students, but also to sit in on their final deliberations. That would be a memorable day for me and, I hope, for the young readers whose work and votes will shape our energy future.

[UK] Thank you Fred! I hope the blog tour brings many new readers to your work.

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