Behind the Scenes: “Making the Moment of a Calculator’s Invention Relatable for Kids” by Jan Lower

How do you make a story about math and electricity comprehensible and relatable for kids? Author Jan Lower knew she needed to “show don’t tell,” but how? Finding connections for elementary aged children in the main character’s actions and processes, she crafted each sentence to build a child-friendly and engaging text. Here’s how Jan did it… and a giveaway!


And congratulations to Joyce Uglow, winner of PITCH PERFECT AND PERSISTENT! by Caitlin DeLems, illustrated by Alison Jay. 


Jan Lower photoMaking the Moment of a Calculator’s Invention Relatable by Jan Lower 

One of the challenges in writing THE BRILLIANT CALCULATOR: HOW MATHEMATICIAN EDITH CLARKE HELPED ELECTRIFY AMERICA (Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers, 2023) was to make Edith Clarke’s process for creating her amazing invention alive and understandable to elementary school readers. Her 1921 patent application for the “Clarke Calculator” consists of terminology and calculations so esoteric that only engineers versed in higher math and the technology of electrical engineering might feel at ease reading it. But since Edith invented the Calculator on her own as a result of her skills and curiosity, and since it led both to her becoming our country’s first female electrical engineer and, more importantly, to the acceleration of electric service expansion across the U.S., I knew that  showing Edith creating it was crucial to her story—it was her life’s turning point.

9781662680069As I drafted this picture book biography, I found that I could show many aspects of Edith’s life—her childhood math brilliance, her success in putting herself through college and achieving a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT, her work as a “human computor,” her determination to follow her dream as she recovered from a life-threatening illness—from details that I discovered during my research. A wide variety of written sources provided facts and some wonderful quotes. But I could find no information other than the patent application about how she imagined and constructed her tool for solving  equations necessary for the design of long-distance electric transmission lines. How could I make this pivotal moment relatable and engaging for younger-grade readers?

One way was to see electric transmission issues through the lens of Edith’s lifelong enthusiasm for complicated card games, riddles, and puzzles of all kinds—challenges that kids can relate to. Once Edith learned about the speed and power (and potential danger) of electricity, I imagined how problems with electric transmission made her feel: “Transporting electric power was her kind of riddle—one that Edith was determined to solve.”

Edith made her Calculator by hand with pen, paper, glue and cardboard, similar to  construction projects familiar to kids. I realized that if I slowed down this scene and broke it into moments, I could include familiar tactile elements.

“Edith filled a sheet of paper with lines, arcs, and grids. On another, she drew wings—one long and two short—etched with lines and numbers . . . At last, she glued the pieces on cardboard, cut them all out with scissors, and pinned the wings to the bottom of the graph.”

Since perfecting the invention was a process of trial and error, I wanted to draw out the moment. I hoped that short sentences would slow the action.

“Edith concentrated. She calculated. She paused—and began again. Edith adjusted numbers and reconstructed.”

 And I needed to include the elements she was calculating, while also keeping it simple.

“Her mind’s eye saw numbers arranged on a graph. Electric flow. Length of line in miles. Generator force pushing power into wires. All part of a transmission line’s plan.”

The Brilliant Calculator_Spr1

Finally, Edith had to be certain that her invention worked. As she checked and double-checked, I wanted to express her slowly growing excitement.

“As Edith slid the wings over the grid, lines connected and moved on, meeting number after number. She solved an equation by hand, then with her paper tool. The answers matched! Again and again, using pen and paper, then graph and wings, Edith’s invention was always correct!”

The Brilliant Calculator_Spr2

Finally, in a moment of quiet triumph, Edith shows the transmission engineers, who realize that her paper tool solves critical transmission line equations ten times faster than a human—a fact that expresses one of the key values of her invention in a manner that elementary school students can easily understand.

Using tactile elements, varied sentence length, and carefully chosen vocabulary in a pivotal scene, I tried to translate an extremely complex process of invention into one that an elementary-aged reader can relate to. The full complexity of what Edith Clarke achieved is revealed by the extraordinary illustrations and in the glossary and further materials in the Author’s Note. I hope that students are inspired to learn more, and that educators and parents are as awed by Edith Clarke’s life and career as I am!

Don’t forget to leave a comment below to be entered to win a copy of THE BRILLIANT CALCULATOR by Jan Lower, illustrated by Susan Reagan. (US addresses only, please. Winner announced April 7, 2023)

You can connect with Jan Lower here: Website  – Instagram: @janlowerwrites

15 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Making the Moment of a Calculator’s Invention Relatable for Kids” by Jan Lower

  1. Thanks for this post, Jan! For me, that’s the trickiest part of writing nonfiction for young readers. I’m finishing revisions to a chapter book bio that requires knowledge of chromosomes, genes, and DNA. Still trying to find the balance of just the right amount of info so it’s relatable (and interesting!) to kids. Looking forward to reading THE BRILLIANT CALCULATOR!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hurrah for shedding light on yet another brilliant female mathematician! As a former engineer, and mother to a budding engineer, I’m a fan! And I truly appreciate how hard it is to make complex math and science concepts relatable, engaging, and exciting. It’s brilliant when it finally comes together. Congrats, Jan!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I must admit to having few books about mathematicians in my classroom library. This would be a wonderful addition. I am anxious to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the step-by-step breakdown of how the author tackled a complex subject in a kid-friendly way. I’m looking forward to studying this picture book as a master text for my own nonfiction work.

    Liked by 1 person

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