Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Easter Island: Captions Add Information


Perhaps the most exotic site I’ve ever visited is Easter Island in the South Pacific, where I went to photograph and research my book, Easter Island: Giant Stone Statues Tell of a Rich and Tragic Past. Although I had read about the giant statues and the people who made them a thousand years ago, nothing prepared me for standing in the ancient quarry amid dozens of half carved statues that never made it to their seaside platforms or climbing to the top of the cliff where the birdman rituals were once performed. My personal experience on Easter Island was important for bringing a sense of immediacy to my book, but the cost of time and travel meant that I could only spend a short time there. After I got home I needed to do extensive museum and library research as well. It took me a year to collect everything I needed and when I was ready to write I had a box bursting with notes, brochures, books, tapes, and other research materials. My book was for children ages ten and up so I knew I was limited to a manuscript of about 5000 words. Several months later, after distilling the mass of material I had collected to its essential points, the manuscript was ready to turn in to my editor.

The agony of being a nonfiction writer is that the space allotted for text in the book is never enough for all that wonderful information that was discovered in the research. This is particularly true when writing for children since the text and page length of the book are relatively short. Even if I were able to include every detail, I don’t want to overwhelm the reader by providing more than he or she wants to know. But there are several ways I supplement the information included in the main text and enrich the overall impact of the book: through captions, sidebars, charts, maps, time lines, projects, list of further resources, author notes and acknowledgments.

Since most books for children are widely illustrated, there are ample opportunities to add information through captions. Minimally the caption needs to identify the illustration and show how it ties into the text, but often there is room to elaborate. For instance, in my book Easter Island, a scenic photo showing several cultivated fields has the following caption: View from the crater Puna Pau. Now, as in ancient times, much of Easter Island’s land is tilled for agriculture. (Captions are almost always written in the present tense) Throughout the book I used captions not only to add information but to tie the photos and text together to create a more unified presentation.

Note:  You can read more about Easter Island at my October 1, 2012 post on my travel blog The Intrepid Tourist.

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