Author Darcy Pattison answers questions about writing Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle.
Why Did You Adapt “A Chemical History of a Candle”?
Question: Burn is based on an 1848 lecture by Michael Faraday, “A Chemical History of a Candle.” Why did you choose to rewrite this famous lecture?
Answer: Since it was published in 1848, Faraday’s lecture has never been out of print. When I learned this startling fact, I was intrigued. What was it about this lecture that has kept it alive for so long? In fact, the lecture is a fascinating look at a common, everyday object of 1848, a candle. The topic is deceptively simple. Yet, Faraday managed to discuss the candle burning for six hour-long lectures. In the world of science and science education, his lecture stands as a shining example of how to make a simple subject both complex and interesting. The lecture was given as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and especially designed to teach children about a scientific topic. And yet, it has never been published as a children’s picture book. It was time.
What Writing Challenges Did you Face in Writing Burn?
Question: What were the challenges in writing this picture book?
Answer: The challenge of adapting Faraday’s famous essay, “The Chemical History of a Candle,” for a picture book format was immense. The first lecture is about 6000 words, and the language used in 1848 doesn’t always translate well for 21st century students. The reading level is 1240L, which is a 9th-12th grade reading level. (See the original text on Gutenberg.org here.)
In other words, Faraday’s lecture contained complex information, complex and archaic language, and informal presentation style suitable to an oral presentation. To adapt it for a children’s book, I had to first set the scene. Peter Willis’s whimsical illustrations captured Faraday’s enthusiasm and helped to expand on the simple text on page 4.
Next, it was important to select only the most important scientific details, and to explain the concepts with simple, direct language. The constraints of a picture book meant topics had to be presented succinctly, with clarity, and be factually correct. In addition, the text had to be short, and we managed to edit it to a mere 626 words, a tenth of the original text, with a Lexile of 660L or 2nd-3rd grade reading level.
Finally, we strove to imbue the text with Faraday’s passion for the topic. As a scientist, Faraday was known for his ability to design experiments. Even in such a short book, we managed to keep the bright light experiment that shows the hot air currents around a candle. Faraday went to the heart of the scientific method with his comment, “What is the cause? Why does it occur?” We made it a prominent part of the story.
In the end, Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle is a simple text about a simple object. And yet, I hope that in the writing I was faithful to Faraday’s passions and intelligence. Faraday was a self-taught man, and learned much by attending popular science lectures. In his early days, Faraday often attended such science lectures, made careful notes, and then published a book that recreated the lecture. It was a way for him to make money, and also spread the information to others. In a way, I’ve walked in his footsteps by taking his candle lecture and making it accessible to children. I believe Faraday would be very pleased.