In 1987, when John Javna was on the verge of a mid-life crisis that would become a publishing phenomenon, Sandra Hornung was looking for a way to motivate a class of fourth-graders at Ocean City Elementary School.
"I tried to find out what the kids were really interested in, and it was the ocean because of our location," she said. "We decided to make ocean ecology our project. It was before all the hoopla about the environment."
Her class handed out information at a booth at a local boat show and learned their civic lessons by writing to government officials to find out what was being done about environmental issues dealing with the sea.
It was the next year that the California-based Mr. Javna decided that, as he was closing in on the age of 40, he should try to do something else with his life other than write the pop culture television books that had been his mainstay.
He came up with the idea for a populist educational book on the environment and, when he couldn't interest any publishers, founded the EarthWorks group and put out "50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save the Earth" himself.
"I was hoping we could sell 11,000 copies and break even," he said. "So far, it's sold 3.5 million."
A follow-up book, "50 Simple Things Kids Can do to Save the Earth," inspired a CBS television special that will air tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. on WBAL (Channel 11). It leads off with a segment on the continuing efforts of Mrs. Hornung and the students at Ocean City Elementary.
"We've had a different project every year," Mrs. Hornung said, as her students have moved on to such things as production of public service announcements for a television station, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day and extensive beach cleanup efforts.
The beach cleanup and a special yearlong project for the Center for Marine Conservation are the focus of the segment on the TV show.
Every four weeks since last June, Mrs. Hornung's students and members of their families have been going over a 1,500-meter section of the beach on Assateague Island, looking for what she called "floatables," trash such as plastic foam cups, glass bottles, aluminum cans and the like that has washed ashore.
In the 500 meters on the north and south ends of the segment, the objects are marked, their position is plotted on a map, and they are left in place. The middle 500 meters are cleaned. The data are sent to the Center for Marine Conservation's offices in Hampton, Va. The idea is to track the movement of trash along the beach.
Mr. Javna said the idea of the special was not just to pass along environmental tips, but to show examples of what children can do. He has used Mrs. Hornung's efforts in another book, "50 Simple Things Kids Have Done to Save the Environment."
"The first '50 Simple Things' book was written to get the information out there," he said. "But the second book really had another purpose, to let kids know that they really do have the power to do something, to empower them, using the currently popular word. We don't treat kids that way very often. Usually adults tell them that they have to learn a lot before they can do anything. This book was about things they could do right now to make a difference."
Mrs. Hornung said that is exactly what her beach cleanup projects have done for her students. "When they pick up a piece of trash that could hurt an animal and they know that because they did that, a fish or bird won't get entangled in it, it makes them feel that they've really accomplished something," she said.
Though she began her efforts before Mr. Javna's books came out, she cited the books as being very helpful to her work. "It used to be when people asked us what they could do, we didn't always know what to tell them," she said. "Now we just pick up the '50 Simple Things' books and point to them."
Compiling information in a useful way is what Mr. Javna set out to do with the "50 Simple Things" books.
"I am no expert on the environment," he said. "I just went to Washington and went around to all the agencies and environmental groups, picked up their pamphlets and booklets and such. All the research had already been done."
"I didn't write the book any differently than I wrote the pop culture books," he said of his previous oeuvre, which included titles like "Cult TV," "The Best of TV Sitcoms" and "The TV Theme Song Sing-Along Book."
"I think you can see in the popularity of a lot of books -- the ones that reduce history or culture to a list -- that people know that there is plenty of information out there, they just need a way to get to it. These might be the books of the future."
Mr. Javna said he was stunned by the success of the books.
At one point, the original "50 Simple Things" book and follow-up for kids were Nos. 1 and 2 on the New York Times best seller list.