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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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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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My favorite part is her description of story and communicating with an audience. She says, "The way that story gets processed through [ a nonfiction writer's] brains and comes out through their fingertips on the keyboard is where the humanity comes in, in the storytelling of the real world." She goes on to say, "It is revealed humanity -- who you are as a human being -- that is the subtext, the common denominator of all authentic communication. That's how you connect with people."
Check out more at -
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Thomas Jefferson wrote prolifically -- more than 18,000 letters, a garden book, a farm book, an account book, a weather journal, one book, and a declaration among other things. His writing was insightful, thorough, direct, and clear as long as the reader was born before skirts rose above the ankle.
After months of research and rooting around for a lead that will capture a reader's attention, set the tone, and establish the theme, I finally found it. Or at least I think I have. I won't tell you what it is because it might change. If it stays the same and appears in the published version I'll tell you then.
The best feeling in the world is finally getting it. It doesn't even compare with seeing your book finally in print, 'but it comes close to how you feel when you get that contract, although it's better. Way better for me, because now I know I can write this book. Before I found it, I was flailing around doing too much research on tangential subjects. I'm the kind of writer who needs to know where I'm starting. I find it hard to move forward without it. It not only sets the tone for the reader, but also for me as I continue on through the manuscript. What literary devices have I set up that I can play with throughout the rest of the text? What imagery can I return to? When I come full circle, where will I end up? If I know the beginning then I know the end.
So, now that I've found it, I'm feeling pretty pumped. Then what do I do? I show it to someone. Never do that. I expected him/her (For full anonymity) to be just as excited. They weren't.
But that's okay. Because it doesn't matter anyway. My brain has already moved on to the next bit and I'm on a roll.
Just thought I'd pass along this article on NPR on "How to Get Kids Hooked on Nonfiction Books this Summer. Holly Korbey interviewed founder of iNK Think Tank Vicki Cobb. She included a reading list too. Check it out.
Evelyn B. Christensen has a new online issue of Writing For Children's Magazines.
It includes an article by Savannah Hendricks - How Rejections Can Improve Your Writing
and an Overview of Clubhouse magazine by Carrie Clickard.
Check it out. Evelyn provides a great resource.
One of the big take-away tips from the 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference was -- get media savy! When Roxie Munro said she spends two hours a day dealing with her online presence I cringed. But I've challenged myself to be better about this stuff than I have been. I know it's one of my weaknesses along with procrastination, popcorn and napping.
So, today I will update my website. It really needs tear down and rebuild, but I'll start with making sure my calendar is up-to-date.
Another thing Roxie mentioned was joining things like Good Reads. And then today I read a blog by Sarah Pinneo about an Author's Complete Guide to Using Good Reads, so I thought I'd share it. It was on Query Tracker.
I now call the first meeting of Nonfiction Authors Anonymous to order.
Hi. I'm Peggy Thomas. I'm the author of 13 books written for the educational market and ... 4 (sniffle) were ... work for hire.
While speaking to a group of nonfiction writers, I got to laughing about how dysfunctional we all seem to be. We apologize for having done work for hire instead of being proud that we are capable of researching and writing a book in 3 months or less. I jokingly said that perhaps at the next conference there should be a group session with a therapist. Isn't it enough that we sometimes feel like the geeky yet genius stepchildren as we sit at book signings next to perky picture book people and the moody YA click? We shouldn't turn on each other by buying into a ranking system of nonfiction.
We have bought into the idea that a jacket-wrapped hardcover trade book is the "corner office" of children's NF. If it is, then only in a creative sense -- you get to write what you want, how you want it (sort of). But it isn't necessarily so financially. Many trade books don't pay out their advance. Some may be pulled off the shelf before their time. I have earned more money on one article -- which sold in reprints and then was bought by a testing company for a 5 year period, and renewed after that -- than I have on some books.
So get on the band wagon. Shake off the senseless shame we feel for the important work we do, the work that feeds our families, heats our homes, and guess what? Educates and entertains millions of school kids every day!!! Not many people can make that claim.
As long as you know that you did the best job you could crafting that book within the guidelines a publisher set, then hold your head up high.
Nonfiction Authors Anonymous UNITE!
Here is a link to a review on the the conference in School Library Journal -- 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference Talks Books, Apps, and More by Rocco Staino. I guess he didn't sit in on my workshops - I'll forgive him.
http://www.slj.com/2013/06/books-media/21st-century-childrens-nonfiction-conference-talks-books-apps-and-more/ Add a Comment
The conference in New Paltz was TERRIFIC!!! I can't tell you how exciting it was to be with dozens of other nonfiction writers, illustrators, editors and publishers, teachers, and librarians all discussing the art, craft and business of nonfiction for kids. It was such an unusual event - to focus only on nonfiction - that it was like letting prisoners out of solitary. I was positively giddy.
Attendee Nancy Arny Pi-Sunyer wrote about it in her blog -- http://nancyarnypi-sunyer.blogspot.com/2013/06/21st-century-childrens-non-fiction.html
For me the highlights were:
-- working with Mary Kay Carson on a three hour presentation about all the basics of the publishing process. I thought we made a great self-deprecating team. And I learned a thing or two about contracts, which I tend to be ignorant about.
-- Hearing from Melissa Stewart about a new initiative by the "Uncommon Corps" that categorizes nonfiction seven ways.
-- Learning a few ideas on how to reinvent myself for new markets from author-illustrator Roxie Munro.
-- Meeting Laura Purdie Salas and hearing about her experiences with an agent.
-- Seeing pictures of Vicki Cobb as a kid and realizing that she is just as energetic and enthusiastic (perhaps more so) now.
-- Laughing a lot discussing the ups and downs of this business with everyone. I loved meeting the four writers I critiqued, and those I sat with at meal time. 3 whole days of NF talk!!
-- Meeting author Carolyn DeCristofano and editor Alyssa Mito Pusey and hearing how they created two books together. I soooo appreciated Carolyn's willingness to share moments of angst and frustration, because we have all been there. I don't know if I could be so brave. And Alyssa was wonderful explaining her process and giving us a glimpse of what her job entails. Loved the photo of all the revisions, emails, galleys, etc. that is kept in the archives.
Many thanks go to Lionel Bender, and Sally and Mike Isaacs for inviting me to this awesome, one-of-a-kind conference. I can't wait till next year.
SAVE THE DATE -- June 20-22, 2014
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