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Writing nonfiction for children is a site for writers and readers who have an interest in children's books, especially nonfiction. We'll talk about how to write, how to research, and the many great books and writers out there.
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I always start the new year off by cleaning my office. It isn't a nod to feng shui and good karma for the next 12 months. It's to put away the wrapping paper, receipts, shopping bags, and boxes of Christmas decorations that end up in the one room in the house no one needed to sleep in over the holidays. It's reclaiming my space.
And this year it gives me a place to start now that I am in that odd freelance place between contracts. What should I work on next? Which idea has percolated in my brain enough that it's ready to dive into. There are so many options, because like most writers I have several ideas brewing at once. I wish I could work on more than one project at a time, but I'm not a very good multi-tasker, so I have to choose carefully. Is there a project that is time sensitive? Is a pertinent anniversary coming up? That is a good selling point for an editor. Have newer books on the same subject come on the market while I've been percolating? If so, is my idea different enough to compete successfully, or should I shuffle that idea lower in the deck and wait a few years?
How do you decide what your next project is going to be? What are you working on now?
PW announced that the sale of juvenile NF increased 15.6% from 2013 (at least among the outlets that report to BookScan). 48,882,000 in 2014, up from 42,283,000 in 2013. Hooray for us! It doesn't even dampen my enthusiasm that the top 4 books in the category were handbooks for the Minecraft game.
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.
I discovered this poem on The Black Board and thought I’d share it with you. It spoke to me because my notebook has also remained blank for months – I did not feel the urge to write while my husband had 5 IVs sticking out of his chest, and I got used to him looking like the boy in the movie Powder. It was an anxious time. Unsettling. But I was also more aware of how much I loved, and how much I was loved. Even without eyebrows Francis can shine a pretty bright light. I was happy in the little cocoon we created so Fran could get well. Wrapped in miles of car rides, foil-covered casseroles, our children’s hugs, get well cards, and prayers. I didn't write because I did not want the fear to overtake me, instead I lived in the love.
Okay, reading that back it sounds hippy dippy. But it’s true. And it’s okay not to write. I’m not Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg (whom I adore and admire, and I would give all my Christmas presents for just a pinch of their writing magic) who search, question, and find themselves on the page. For me writing isn't therapy. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe I'm still learning. Or maybe I’m just another kind of writer. And that’s okay.
For me, Ha Jin’s poem kicked another leg out from under the stigma that writers put on not writing and being “storyless.” Perhaps he just meant that he didn’t need to craft a fiction because he was living reality? Sounds pretty good to me. And I particularly appreciate his confession that he did not write because he was happy. Way to go!
If you are temporarily stagnant, storyless, not writing, take heart. Be happy, or be sad, or be whatever it is you need to be right now. Above all, take inspiration. I did. I intend to live now, and write later (for me later is now) -- that way everyone will know how happy I was.
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Several years ago when I was writing Bacteria and Viruses for Lerner, I came across a small mention of a doctor who fooled the Nazis with a fake typhus epidemic. I filed that slip of paper away and when I was finished with the book, I looked for more information. I found the doctor's name - Eugene Lazowski, and where the event took place -- Rozwadow, Poland, and that the man had died three years before. Dead end? No.
Lazowski had written a book -- Private War -- I located a copy at a Chicago bookstore that specialized in Polish culture. The book was written in Polish, but I bought it anyway. At least I could look at the pictures. Dead end? No.
Using Babel Fish and other online translating sites I managed to decipher a few key bits, enough to know that I wanted to pursue this story. But I needed a better way to translate it. Luckily for me, Buffalo is filled with people of Polish ancestry. However, professional translators cost a lot, and worried about copyright issues.
I tried a different approach. I located his daughter and gave her a call. Did she know of an English translation? Would she answer a few questions? No. She was guarded and mentioned that she was talking to someone about a movie deal. That felt like a big dead end.
So, I let Eugene sit while I pursued another project that had a contract attached to it. But I never forgot about Rozwadow and the fake epidemic.
Then recently after finishing the revisions on my Thomas Jefferson book, and needing something completely different to focus on, I again Googled Eugene. Maybe with the movie deal an English translation had been written. Through WorldCat, the largest online library catalog, I found that an English translation had appeared. There was a single copy written by the daughter and housed at the University of Chicago. But it was in special collections marked "non-circulating," and I had no pending plans to be in the Windy City any time soon. Dead end? No.
I called the director of special collections and explained my needs. With the stipulation that I use the book at the local library, I could get the book for one month. Hurray! I confused the staff at my little local public library with the interloan request, but they managed to get the book to me within two weeks. Over several days, I sat in the corner and poured over the neatly typed manuscript bound in a flimsy black plastic.
Although each bump in the road delayed me from pursuing the story earlier, I didn't let potential dead ends stop me entirely. I don't know what form this story will take, but I do know I have a lot more information to find, and probably more dead ends to push pass.
I have the pleasure of being the nonfiction editor for the Oak Orchard Review, an online regional literary magazine. Saturday, we hosted a reading and open mic night when local writers, young and old, shared poetry, flash nonfiction, and visual art. The theme was gratitude.
For each issue, I give myself an assignment. This time I wanted to explore the physicality of emotion. Like many writers I rely on sad tears, a confused shoulder shrug, and happy smiles to show how a character is feeling. It's hard to be original.
If your writing feels too cliche when it comes to emotion, give this exercise a try: Choose a highly emotional moment in your life. Replay the scene in your mind. Let the emotions roll over you again. What sensations do you feel? Weave some of those details into a narrative of the same event.
Below is my NF piece on gratitude:
Jump start your writing career with nonfiction!
Sign up for Nonfiction for New Folks conference in Fredericksburg, TX on October 9-12th. What else are you doing on Columbus day weekend?
I will be there to talk about writing biographies, research, and voice in nonfiction. The enthusiastic Steve Swinburne will show us how to write lively science, and Kristi Holl, will help us break into the educational market. Pat Miller, the brain child of this unique event, will give us the librarian's perspective, while Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House will show us the editor's point of view. And that's just the beginning.
We promise lots of information, lots of fun, and a head start on your new career as a nonfiction writer.
Hope to see you there!
Get on the ground floor of the next big thing in nonfiction! THE NONFICTION MINUTE is a website where teachers will find a new short nonfiction article written by one of dozens of award-winning nonfiction authors including Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (winner of the 2014 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award For Exemplary Advocation of Biodiversity Through the Authorship of Children's Science Literature), Jim Murphy, whose books have earned two Newbery honors, history writer/illustrator Cheryl Harness (and even me).
The NF Minute is the easy and accessible way teachers and students can incorporate nonfiction in the classroom. Passages are only 400 words long, and feature fun facts and true stories that can spark a discussion, illustrate a writing technique, or inspire a reluctant reader to investigate on his own.
If you like what you see, become part of the movement to bring quality NF to students everywhere. Visit the NF Minutes Indiegogo page and donate today.
Just in case anyone out there wondered why I haven't written anything since April 1st, it is because my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Double-Hit Lymphoma, which threw us into a new reality -- one where writing took a backseat. Actually writing blew out the window as we raced through 6 rounds of in-hospital chemos, and clung by its fingertips to the rear bumper hoping we'd hit a stop light soon. And we did. For the last couple of weeks, we have been preparing for Fran's bone marrow transplant, which he'll have at the end of the month. Honestly, I still feel like I'm inside a centrifuge where the force of cancer in our lives is pressing me against the walls of sanity, but that is another blog entirely.
HOWEVER - I thought I'd try to scrape the shredded remnants of my writing life off the undercarriage, and see if I could find a better safer place for it to sit among my bulging baggage. Basically, I need to find a better balance between Writing and Life. Throwing writing out the window was my way of staying afloat when I thought I was sinking. And I'm lucky I can do that. Millions of writers depend on the sale of their words to buy groceries and pay medical bills. My husband's teacher's salary does that. But, I'm a writer. And when I stopped writing, part of me stopped functioning.
So-- here is my new game plan. I will write at least one blog a week. Even if it is to tell you how I'm doing. I will attempt to keep it nonfiction focused so that you learn something as well. I will start to do some Natalie-Goldberg-style-free-writing, ten minutes a day, to work the kinks out of my brain. Don't know about Natalie Goldberg? Well, then you are about to learn something. She is a wonderful author and teacher who wrote Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning, as well as other books on the writing life.
I've been rereading her books while sitting at Roswell. What I love about her is that she is truly a nonfiction writer who uses all the soul and art of fiction and poetry to make her true stories come alive. Many fiction writers read her, but I think nonfiction writers can learn even more from her candor and guts.
If you would like to help me in this effort, you can bug me if I miss a week, offer suggestions for posts you'd like to see, ask me questions about nonfiction, writing, life, and share my posts with others.
And-- if you have gone through a bone marrow transplant or know someone with double-hit lymphoma and have uplifting news, I would love to hear from you.
It's that time of year again - when I'm up to my nostrils with school visits, preparing for conferences, and trying to work on a new project - when a manuscript comes back from the copy editor. My first response is always an involuntary cringe. I appreciate the copy editor because they can do what I can't - remember what a gerund is and when you capitalize president. But they inevitably make me feel stupid for the same reason. And I've never done well with having a spotlight shined on my ignorance, although I do mention it in school visits so other kids know that even bad spellers and the punctuation-impaired can be a writer.
So, I get the manuscript back, and for those of you who don't know, today's manuscripts are edited using the Track Changes on the word program. I prefer the old way - penciled-in notes in the margins and post-its flapping along the right edge of the page. Mainly because I have yet to learn the proper way to deal with Track Changes. And when I edit, I don't just rewrite a single time, I might start a new sentence, then back track and start again, and again, and the blasted things keeps track of all my back tracking so that my editor and anyone else who looks will know how indecisive I am. I don't like anyone knowing my awkward and pokey writing process. But there it is.
So, I get the manuscript back and the first thing I do is flip through every page to see how many comments I have to deal with . And this time, I didn't have very many. 49 comments spread over 17 pages. You do the math. That's not rhetorical, I'm asking, please do the math, 'cause that's another thing I don't do well. But 49 that's not bad. for me anyway. So, right away, I'm happy.
The second thing I do is get my pencil out and go over each comment. I like the easy ones that I can just say "ok" to, like adding "The U.S." in front of Congress. Or changing a the for his. OK takes care of nearly half of the comments. Great.
Then I read the other comments and put it aside until the next day when I'll have more time to pull out my research and double check things like names of organizations -- Was it the Parisian Society of Agriculture or the Society of Agriculture of Paris? Was Meriwether Lewis TJ's only secretary? If so, then add commas before and after his name.
The hardest part is to not make snarky remarks when the comments are: "South American may be considered part of the New World, but that may not be clear to readers. And AU's (author. ME!) argument is that TJ wanted people to come to the US, so holding up the superiority of a South America tapir doesn't seem logical to me." Now I know you don't know what all this is about, but basically, that's what TJ did. He bragged about a tapir being larger than European animals that this other guy had bragged about. So, I just reported it. Blame TJ, not me.
And on another page I call the moose magnificent. The comment said, "Magnificent seems subjective." I guess a moose has never wandered into the copy editor's cubby. But if one did, I'm pretty sure that, after peeing oneself, even a copy editor would be pretty impressed with a 7-foot-tall ungulate. I think they are magnificent, and i'st my book, so there!
Eventually, I hold my tongue, thank the gods above for copy editors who second guess me, question me, and always make my text better than it was before.
So -- always read through the comments carefully, then answer the easy ones first. Give yourself time to research the questions that need to be backed up with a source note, and hold your tongue when they say something that you think is silly. In the end, you have the final say..... unless your editor vetoes it.
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Washington as a Scientist
Ask students what it means to be a scientist. Make a list of the qualifications of a scientist as they understand it. They might say, “Conducting experiments, going to college, being smart…” Write them all done.
Science is a way to acquire knowledge through observation and experimentation. The classic scientific method includes Observation/Research, Hypothesis, Prediction, Experimentation, and Conclusion.
Now ask if George Washington was a scientist. Reread the passages on page 11. Make a list of the ‘sciencey’ things he did.
He made observations and recorded them. He kept a daily diary where he noted the weather, what was happening on his farm, and what occurred in each test plot. Let the students see some of George’s original observations (see below).
Are we sure that he stated a clear hypothesis? — He asked a question - What fertilizer works best?
In a way, he predicted that the best fertilizer would be among the handful of manures and other composted material that he chose to observe.
And he experimented –Washington used ten boxes of similar size, the same number of seeds and a single variable -- the fertilizer. Locate in his diary, Monday, April 14, 1760., to read the full description of the quote I used on page 11 in FG.
What was George’s purpose in doing these experiments? And what did he do with the knowledge he learned? Why?
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Working on revisions again -- still. And I thought I'd share one technique I use to weave in specific imagery and create a particular mood for the reader. It's just a list of words, in this case, agricultural words that I might use to reflect the point I am trying to make, namely that Jefferson grew a nation. You can be fancy and call it an image system, 'cause it's the same thing - a list.
Just the other day someone asked me about writing biographies. "How do I start?" I'm always perplexed by such a question because if you know you want to write a biography, you must have already started. I can't imagine choosing the general genre before choosing a person to write about. It's like planning the wedding before you meet the guy.
But a great act doesn't always signal a great biography. I've come across a lot of acts in history that sounded like it would make a good story, but either the character wasn't there, or wasn't kid-friendly, or there wasn't enough information to go on. Further research resulted in a dead end. Don't discard those names, though. Those types of leads make a good basis for a fictional story where you can fill in the blanks.
Once you've fallen in love. Test the waters. Can you live together? Is this person interesting enough to spend months, years with? Will you begrudge him for taking over your dining room table and spilling onto the floor? How about your family? Will they withstand listening to the constant barrage of boring facts that you find fascinating? If you answered yes, then you've got yourself a new roommate.
Now ask yourself if this person is book-worthy. You might be star-struck, but would a kid find it as interesting? Will an editor? Should kids know about this person? This is always a hard question to ask. But if you want to publish through traditional channels it is something you have to look at.
Ask: Are there any books already out there? If no, ask why? Maybe your character doesn't fit neatly into a curriculum niche. Editors don't like that because it makes it harder to sell. Maybe the subject matter is inappropriate for a young age. I've had people comment that Shirley Chisholm would be hard to put in a picture book because the politics would be over the reader's heads. Or maybe you've found something truly new to offer.
If yes, then ask yourself, "What am I bringing to the table that is different than what is already out there?" This is key. A well-written biography can sit on the shelf a long time. Give the librarian a reason to buy a new title on the same subject. Are you going to include newly discovered information? Can you find a new slant on the subject. That's what I did with Farmer George Plants A Nation. GW's farming was a new take on a very overdone subject.
In order to answer all of these questions, you've had to have done a fair amount of research already, which means you have already started. So you shouldn't be asking me, "How do I start?" You should be writing!
So should I. Bye!
It's that time of year again. Time to regroup and get back on track, because if you are like me, you've fallen off the writing wagon. (enough cliches for you?) I am not very disciplined and can easily be led astray by Christmas shopping, decorating, watching old movies, eating cookies, napping.... And I'm just now trying to get back to the projects that I left behind two weeks ago, namely, revisions for a Thomas Jefferson biography.
My major job, according to my editor, is to rethink the structure and clarify the theme. She said, "You want your reader to ask, "What's he going to do next?"" A great question for anyone who is writing a biography. What she means is that each scene has to be dynamic and build to the next one. Keep the action moving. That can be difficult when TJ basically instructed everyone else into action. And a picture book would be pretty boring showing TJ at his writing desk page, after page, after page. So, I have a lot of thinking to do.
Here's to you and to writing in the New Year!
I just wanted to share a post that Vicki Cobb wrote about the CCSS. Amid the noise of educators, administrators, parents, politicians, publishers, critics, and cheerleaders, there is Vicki who sees the CCSS as an opportunity to raise awareness about the existence of children's nonfiction and how it can be used to help children achieve the standards. Check her out at Huffington Post -
I spent this last weekend at the Illinois Farm Bureau's conference in Chicago, and had a nano-taste of what a rock star must feel like. I never met so many people who had 1. heard of one of my books, and 2. wanted me to sign them. I actually had a line!!!
This adulation was all thanks to one of the best PR guys I have ever met -- Kevin Daugherty -- and his staff at Illinois Ag in the Classroom. I gave a presentation to classroom teachers and Ag in the Classroom folks, who help teachers incorporate agriculture into their lessons. I spoke about how I came to write Farmer George (a family vacation trip to Mount Vernon), how I wrote it (over many revisions) and how it almost didn't fill the requirements of an "Ag book" (depicting agriculture accurately) because I had written "pushed the plow" (you guide the plow while an oxen pulls it).
I was just the warm up act. After the break, Kevin then showed how Farmer George can start a discussion about seeds, soil, compost, and horses with simple activities and additional materials from their magazines. Kevin even got the rarely-sighted man in the audience to make a Soil Sam by filling a knee-high stocking (non-reinforced!) with grass seed and soil. Anyone interested in these activities can access a PDF of the booklet here: http://www.agintheclassroom.org/TeacherResources/Lesson%20Booklets/Farmer%20George%20Plants%20a%20Nation%20Lessons.pdf It gives directions to make Soil Sam, as well as several lessons on trees, horses, and my favorite, milling wheat.
And I've added additional lesson ideas (not ag related) on my website http://www.peggythomaswrites.com/Teacher-s-Guides.html.
Had a wonderfully busy day at the Rochester Children's Book Festival on Saturday. More than once I heard, "Oooh, nonfiction," and saw eyes go wide. Not the normal response I've had in the past. I remember one year sitting between Ellen Stoll Walsh, author/illustrator of the bright toddler books,
Although people weren't queuing up before me on Saturday, nobody discouraged a child holding one of my books by saying, "Oh, let's find a real book." (Honest- that really happened to me.)
At 1:00, I spoke to a healthy group (more than 3) of teachers and folks interested in nonfiction ( or putting their feet up for 20 minutes) about how to use nonfiction in the classroom. My main point was -- Read nonfiction not only for its subject matter, but also for its structure, voice, and style that was chosen by the author to compliment the subject. Other than librarians and book reviewers, not many people think about the whole package. Most people just focus on the facts, not how it is delivered. But a nonfiction author spends a lot of time and effort figuring out how to tell their true story, and it should be appreciated.
For example, I didn't use nearly a dozen bird analogies in For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson just 'cause I thought it'd be fun, although it was. I did it to get my point across that Roger had a close affinity to birds, real close (not like that), but he felt more at home with birds, a kinship that made him seem bird-like in many respects. Using figurative language shows that relationship, so I don't have to blurt out - he was like a bird.
I think nearly every trade nonfiction title you pick up can and should be appreciated for its form as well as content. And in the future, I'll post more examples. But now I have to go grocery shopping, 'cause I cleaned out my fridge and now it's empty.
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I must confess that my flush of ducks (that's what they're called) are rampaging across the fields, squeezing through fences, and leaping out of my arms. In other words, I stink at keeping my reference materials organized. I try, I really do. I even used index cards this time. Each little fact and quote on a card, organized chronologically, then by subject, or by larger theme, then collage-style all over the floor.
I use a notebook or two or three, sometimes a loose leaf one, I photocopy like crazy, and this time, even scanned in texts and images, so I had references on file. I especially need to have everything in my possession, which means I buy books, lots of them. So, with all of this paperwork and digital files, why is it still such a chore organizing everything to send to my editor? I've spent days shuffling through papers trying to find a specific reference that I had my hands on minutes before.
I think a lot has to do with the way I collect everything, and yet can only include a small amount of that info in a 48 page book. But if I didn't research deeply, I wouldn't know the background behind the Louisiana Purchase and not just the date it happened. I wouldn't make connections between TJ's early life and what he did later on, or find just the right detail or quote to make the idea come to life.
So, I guess I'll live with my dysfunctional organizational style as long as I get the story right.
I think I got the story right.
Did I get the story right?
That's another blog post altogether.
This week I wrote a guest blog post at Easy Read System about a few of my favorite nonfiction books for kids. Check it out. http://www.easyreadsystem.com/news/a-passion-for-the-real-thing/
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