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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: nonfiction writing, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 54
1. Expository Leads + Giveaways!

Challenging students to push past their safe zones of writing has been a challenge all year. We all reaped some great rewards as the year came to a close.

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2. Exploratory Notebooks

Beginning to think about Exploratory Notebooks and easing into a research writing unit.

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3. Exploratory Notebooks

Beginning to think about Exploratory Notebooks and easing into a research writing unit.

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4. Putting Into Practice What I Learned about Authentic Information Writing From Ralph Fletcher

The Monday morning after Ralph Fletcher’s presentation on Authentic Information Writing at Vassar College, I gathered my sixth graders at our reading area and shared what I had heard and learned....

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5. Launching a Year of Meaningful Note-Taking

With some set-up, modeling, and direction instruction, your students can go from okay to great note-takers.

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6. Writing Information Books with Voice and Beauty: Diving Into Information Writing Blog Series

When I was a kid, our town library had a whole special room filled with children’s books. It was one of my favorite places in the world. That was where I fell in love with Corduroy,… Continue reading

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7. New Mentor Texts for Information Writing + Book Giveaways

The books featured in this post, all of which were published in 2015, represent a variety of information writing. All of these are texts that can pull double- and even triple-duty in your classroom, thereby allowing you to use a text during read-aloud time so you can revisit it during a writing workshop minlesson and/or in a content area.

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8. Quality Reading Instruction Leads to Better Writing: A Review of Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment 

When I tested Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment (Scholastic), I was an immediate believer. Finally, here is a reading assessment that gives rich, clear information about upper grade readers, using an authentic reading… Continue reading

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9. Putting the Exploratory Notebook into practice…with thanks to Ralph Fletcher

Putting the Exploratory Notebook into practice...

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10. What is this thing we call Creative Nonfiction?

I teach, therefore, I question. Introduction to Writing Creative Nonfiction. Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:00-12:15. I teach, therefore, I question.

I question, and encourage my students to question—everything about the process of writing. Why we do it, how we do it, what it is we do when we do it.

We are making a list, as they learn, of what creative nonfiction actually means. It is simpler to make a list of what it is not.

It is creative writing in which nothing is made up.
It is creative writing in which NOTHING is made up.
It is creative writing in which NOTHING is MADE UP.

Can there be dialogue? Yes—but only if it is not made up.
Can there be metaphor? Simile? Yes, and yes.
Can we employ fiction techniques. Yes. Please.

Just don’t make stuff up. If there is something in quotation marks, know where it came from. Don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. If you did that to me, I would be ticked off. Wouldn’t you?

Do you disagree with any of this? PLEASE: discuss.

13 Comments on What is this thing we call Creative Nonfiction?, last added: 9/23/2012
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11. Honor Thy Reader: The Making of a Nonfiction Picture Book

After the longest hiatus in my career, I have a book coming out early next year called This Place Is Cold.  Actually, it’s not a new book.  It is a revised version of a book originally published in 1989 that never went out-of-print.  But after a 24-year run (not bad!) I was asked to take a look at it and cut it so it wouldn’t look so “text heavy.”  (Subtext: today’s kids have shorter attention spans; it must look less wordy.)  I was also to update the relevant information, especially about global warming. The designer would give it a fresh new look but the fabulous art, by my dear friend Barbara Lavallee, still makes this a book anyone would want to pick up.
After spending the past three years writing more than ever for blogs, and emails, and other business related projects, the various stages of This Place Is Cold that required my review suddenly made me aware of how much attention goes into the making of a book product for children. It was in stark contrast to my current writing, which is read only by my eyes before it is published.  (Of course, we all know that online publications are only for the moment.  No one expects them to be perfect.)   

First, there was the editing—queries from my editor who worked on the revisions script.  Next came the copy-edited manuscript, where I had to respond to tiny details that I thought I had already answered.  For example, I wrote:
“It's no big deal to have a pilot's license in Alaska. One person in every sixty-one has one.”   (The original version said “One person in every seventy-six has one.”) I had to check on those figures twice for two different passes.
I was struck by the care that was taken and the sheer number of times this small book had been read by so many different people.  So I asked one of my editors, Mary Kate Castellani, if she could fill me in on the process.  How many times is a book read and corrected before it is released to the world?  Here’s her summation (my comments in black):

  • ·         Author and editor work on manuscript [Who knows how many readings that involves!]
  • ·         MS is copyedited and if a work of nonfiction, all the facts are checked against trusted sources. Any information that can’t be confirmed independently of the author will need to be sourced by the author. [copy editors read a manuscript several times]
  • ·         Copy edited manuscript is sent to author for corrections. Then returned and checked [a couple of more readings]
  • ·         Artwork is also turned in and checked for errors, inconsistencies and any other problems.  Once the art is corrected, it is sent to a printer in Far East to make hi-resolution scans for the book design.
  • ·         MS is sent, along with cover copy and any additional information to the designer. [Designer reads ms.]
  • ·         Designer creates design samples to share with editor to preview font choices, and general design elements.
  • ·         Editor shares design samples with the author.
  • ·         Once design samples are approved, designer sets entire book from start to finish using hi-res scans from printer.
  • ·         A first pass set of mechanicals (initial layouts) is then routed in-house where editor, production editor, publisher, school and library marketing director, and art director all review. [Five more readings!]
  • ·         Sets of mechs are simultaneously sent to author and illustrator to review for errors or any issues with layout. [2 more readings.]
  • ·         All queries and comments are resolved, and mechs are sent back to designer to input all changes and make any design adjustments.  The designer then routes the second pass mechs to route in house again, this time only to the editor, productions editor and managing editor.  Any major changes may be shown to the author/illustrator once more. [another five readings]
  • ·         Book closes for proofing and is sent to printers in Far East.
  • ·         F&Gs (folded and gathered sheets) are pulled from the proofing stage.
  • ·         Proofs are sent to New York office to be reviewed in house for any errors. Sets of proofs are sent to author and illustrator for one last review. At this point any changes cost money at the printer, so should be reserved for major changes/errors.
  • ·         Art director and designer check proofs against original art to make sure the color is as it should be.  
  • ·         Proofs are returned to printer for final printing.
  • ·         Printer sends one last set of plotters to check for any last errors.
  • ·         Plotters are approved and books are printed. 

With so many opportunities for the author/illustrator and the in-house editors to check the pages, the book is printed without mistakes.  While an error certainly does happen every once in a while, we always correct any mistakes if and when the book is reprinted.   In my time at Walker, there have been only a handful of errors—usually reported by readers, who do very careful reads of their own!

By my calculations, a thirty-two page picture book of 3,000 words (5 typewritten pages single spaced) is reviewed by at least seven people, each reading it an average of four times—25+ readings before it becomes a book.  Talk about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s!  This much investment is a statement about honor and pride of workmanship but mostly it is a tribute to the ultimate user—children.  In the writer’s jargon of “show, don’t tell” my book shows them, “We’re giving you our very best.  It’s what you deserve.”   It is also designed to last and to be treasured.

2 Comments on Honor Thy Reader: The Making of a Nonfiction Picture Book, last added: 10/3/2012
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12. It's All Personal

1:  If you are fortunate enough to get a book published it will be reviewed.

2: It might be reviewed by a 'major' reviewer (you know, the folks who sprinkle stars around), or by a national, regional, or local newspaper or magazine, by bloggers, or by family and friends around the kitchen table.

3: Sooner or later, someone will say something about your book that doesn't sit well with you.

Number 3 happened to me a few weeks ago.

I was feeling a little anxious and aimless, so I decided to visit children's literature blogland.  I generally do this by visiting Betsy Bird's Fuse #8 blog at the SLJ site.  She has a list of favorite bloggers (including our own INK) and I roam around to see what people are chatting about.  So there I was visiting and reading this blog and that blog and another, when...pow...there was a blogger reviewing my newest baby THE GIANT and How He Humbugged America, which is about the 1869 Cardiff Giant hoax.

Now if I remember correctly the blogger had very nice things to say about the book (I would provide a link but I can't recall who the blogger was, a situation I blame on the very wonderful pain killers I was taking at the time).  But toward the end of her thoughtful review she hesitated a beat and said that she couldn't see any young reader caring about the book's subject.

What! I kind of sputtered.  But, but, but...why wouldn't kids be interested?!?  There was more, but you get the idea.  I take reviews personally.  But why wouldn't I?  I take the research and writing very personally.  It always takes a few minutes for me to calm down, but eventually I do.  Which is when I begin to blame myself for whatever a reviewer has criticized and I think back on the decisions I made about the book in question.  I this case, I began thinking about why I decided to do THE GIANT in the first place. 

Way back a few years ago, I began wondering if it would be possible to do something for young readers about Bernie Madoff and his fifty billion dollar ponzi scheme.  I quickly rejected the idea, mainly because all of the details of his fraud weren't in (and still aren't).  I'm leery of "ripped from the headlines" ideas.  Yes, they have an instant recognition factor, but usually only part of the story has been unearthed, so the result wouldn't be a truly satisfying or complete book.  It would be more of a glorified magazine article (and probably not worth the price of a book).  I then thought about doing something on Charles Pozi himself, but realized that neither he nor Madoff were very interesting guys and their schemes involved a lot of paper shuffling and ledger entries and not much that was either active or visual.  Then I remembered the Cardiff Giant.

Here was a story filled with unusual, colorful characters.  George Hull, who conceived the idea of carving a giant, lifelike human, was a serial fraudster (he not only came up with a second 'discovered' ancient human years after the Cardiff Giant, but he hired a man to write his biography, took that text and gave it to another person to clean up, and took that version and gave it to a third person, never bothering to pay anyone for their work).  P.T. Barnum tries to buy the Giant, fails in his bid, then has his own immitation Giant made and exhibited (and actually outdrew the original CD in NYC); Barnum was sued by the original CG owners, but the case was heard by a drunken judge who refused to rule against Barnum's Giant unless the original appeared in court to testify.  It don't get much better than that.

There's also action (making the giant, transporting him secretly from Chicago to NY State, burying and digging him up, exhibiting him and moving him around in his retirement years until he winds up in a leaky shed), and some decent visuals as well, both photos and drawings.

And themes and story lines.  Why the Giant captured so many people's imaginations that it literally knocked the upcoming 1869 November elections from the front pages of the newspapers, how people clamored to buy shares in the giant, how shareholders continued to insist the Giant was real even after they knew it was a fake, how educated individuals and scientists were fooled into believing the Giant was authentic, to name just a few.  Oh, yes, and how men put a 'fig' leaf over the Giant's private parts to shield women from naughty thoughts and how women were the one's to insist that was nonsence and insisted it be removed.  A lot is going on in this relatively short-lived piece of US history, some of it downright silly and some very serious. 

Still, I had to admit that the blog-reviewer had a point.  THE GIANT probably doesn't have instant and obvious curb appeal.  It will need strong reviews (and, happily, has gotten a number already) and skillful selling by teachers and librarians.  When I finally sat back and thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do the Cardiff Giant's story (and in fact wrote it without a contract or publisher lined-up) because it grabbed my attention, made me chuckle as well as think, and seemed like a complex story that kids could understand and follow and get involved in.  I guess in the end it was personal.  


8 Comments on It's All Personal, last added: 10/11/2012
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I write a lot of books about history because history’s cup runneth over with the best stories of all time.  So with an ocean of great tales to choose from, picking something fabulous and delicious and unusual should be as easy as pie, right?  Well, guess what.  It ain’t.  Why not?  Some Restrictions Apply.

Restriction # 1:

Since publishers want to make a buck, they strongly encourage children’s nonfiction authors to write about famous heroes and events from American history, especially when these topics are covered in the school curriculum.  That’s because the vast majority of nonfiction books for kids are sold to schools. The heroes and events in history books have already been covered a gazillion times, but (in my experience, at least) whenever we authors suggest new topics that are off the beaten path, our publishers Just Say No and we have to file for unemployment.

Possible solution that keeps us in business and (we hope) keeps us from selling our souls at the same time: 

Uncover something entirely new about the same old same old.  Do we have to focus only upon heroes and heroines?  Who says that all stories from history have to be uplifting?  They are not.  So sometimes I cover a period in history by sidetracking the good guys and writing about the bad guys instead.  (Surprise—kids actually love that.)  Sometimes I focus on just one small part of a famous person’s story, especially if it has been overlookedSometimes--lots of times, actually--I use humor.  Sometimes I tell both sides of a story. And sometimes I tell the entire story via my artwork or use the art to set a mood in ways that words alone can never do.

Restriction # 2:  


In nonfiction, you can never EVER embellish the truth or make anything up, so every single detail in every single book has to be accurate and every single word your protagonists utter has to come straight from the horse’s mouth.  Them’s the rules, period.  The problem is that this is a hard row to hoe. It can take months or even years to ferret out the accurate material. 

Possible Solution that speeds up all that research and helps us retain our sanity:

Guess what.  There isno solution.  I have written books of fiction in two weeks or less, and they have sold as many or more copies than my nonfiction books.  You just have to love being the detective who ferrets out the juicy details nobody else has found.  You just have to get a kick out of traveling around the world to find new material.  You just have to be the spy who gets a kick out of reading dead people’s private letters and diaries. You just have to be a glutton for punishment.  I highly recommend it.

5 Comments on MAKING HISTORY BOOKS THAT SHINE, last added: 2/12/2013
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14. Masterful Writing: Nonfiction Pieces That Rock

I write nonfiction nearly every day. I'm a journalism teacher, after all, and I freelance for regional publications. When I grab a book, I usually read fiction because, well, I am not exactly sure why. Maybe I want a break from reality. Maybe I want to sink my teeth into a juicy mystery. Maybe I need a break from what I write.

But lately, I catch myself reading more and more nonfiction, studying stories and what does or does not make each article click.

My research (scientific it isn't) finds that the best nonfiction storytelling (no, that is not an oxymoron) weaves traditional storytelling devices with facts and figures, evidence and experts. It takes readers on a journey. It breaks boundaries.

It leaves readers thirsting for more.

I'm also partial to multiple pieces on this list featured on Byliner. It features rich examples of what's hot in nonfiction writing craft. I've been known to read one of these gems for pleasure and then reread it, dissect it, and find adaptable qualities to bring to my writing repertoire.

What elements of nonfiction capture your attention?

by LuAnn Schindler. Read more of her work at her website.

3 Comments on Masterful Writing: Nonfiction Pieces That Rock, last added: 2/7/2013
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15. Sources and Sensibility: Those Pesky Notes

It's my pleasure to share this space with Karen Blumenthal. Her guest post adds to recent discussions about the documentation that accompanies a published work of nonfiction.

Shortly before my first book was published, I attended a presentation by two very distinguished nonfiction writers.

“Here’s how you must do source notes,” I remember one of them saying. “You list the beginning of every quote and then the source where it came from.”

Her words sent my stomach churning and my hands shaking. My pre-publication copy of Six Days in October was tucked carefully in my bag--and it was all wrong. I had listed my primary sources chapter by chapter as they appeared. But I had not specifically detailed the source of each quotation, or even included specific page numbers. How could I have made such a horrible mistake?

I recently had a flashback to that painful moment reading some blogosphere discussions about nonfiction source notesand Jan Greenberg’s recent post on back matter. A decade later, the “right” way to do source notes still isn’t clear.

Sourcing nonfiction for a general audience, young or old, is a difficult and tricky business. While I don’t want to footnote every burp and grunt and dot pages with microscopic numbers, like the academics do, I do want readers to know the source, since there can be so many differing views on some subjects. But compiling them is tedious and unpleasant, and sometimes it’s tough to pin down exactly where a conclusion came from.
Some publishers leave the decision to the writer and some dictate a style, like the quotation method cited by the distinguished writer above.  Forced to use that quotation-only style once, I found it completely misrepresented where the information came from. In some cases, one sentence may draw on four different sources; other times, a paragraph reflects dozens of pages of reading. Quotations typically are a small part of a narrative.

Sometimes, ego gets involved.  In my most recent book, Steve Jobs, I wanted to share my research to avoid any perception that I had merely rewritten the best-selling adult biography.  Sometimes the process is messy, with notes getting jumbled up as sections are rewritten or cut and pages are designed. Sorting and correcting them can take days.

And sometimes publishers push back. Lots of detail takes lots of pages, which costs money.  More than once, I’ve been asked to trim the bibliography or notes.

For my second book, LetMe Play, a history of Title IX, I studied the notes of the masters—Russell Freedman, Jim Murphy, Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Candace Fleming, among others. From reviewing their work, I came to appreciate a short bibliographic essay giving an overview of the process for someone who might be new to formal research.  Besides, where else could you share the little gem that before C-SPAN televised Congress, legislators regularly rewrote their remarks for the Congressional Record?
That book involved an unusual number of interviews and primary sources, and the notes are detailed.  It felt, at times, that I might be showing off.

But then came the calls. Every year, I hear from a college student writing a senior paper or girls from junior high through high school working on a History Day projects. Over Skype and on the phone, they quiz me.  Occasionally, I have to go back to the notes to jog my memory.

The most ambitious of them surprise me. They have studied the sources and from them, found new trails for their own explorations. Their excitement and curiosity is invigorating—and enough to makethose notes feel completely worth the effort.

Karen Blumenthal is the author of five nonfiction books for young people, most recently Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different (Feiwel and Friends, 2012), which was a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award.

1 Comments on Sources and Sensibility: Those Pesky Notes, last added: 2/15/2013
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 Hey teachers!  Kids too!  Are you writing any nonfiction stories in class these days?  Lots of schools are trying out this approach to writing in general, and they’re studying the different ways good nonfiction books are written in particular, especially in light of the CCSS.  So what different kinds of writing might work nonfiction-wise?  There are plenty.


Try doing live interviews or writing a journal, for example—they both count as nonfiction. A few ideas:

Maybe your class can interview various folks who were on the scene during a great or terrible historic event, such as the Summer Olympics or even 911. Or try interviewing somebody who has an unusual job; maybe the old Santa Claus at the mall  or a fireman (naturally) or your mayor or a local musician or a TV personality or your own bus driver. 

And maybe you can pen some truly amazing journals during a field trip to a museum or a festival or an historic site. (Of course if you aren’t going on any field trips, you can always write some pretty entertaining journal entries about the food in your cafeteria.)

Or take a stab at uncovering the true story of how your own family came to America. Whether they got here last Wednesday or 300 years ago, doing the research is a hoot…and be sure to ask your parents or grandparents. You'd be surprised what they know and what you don't.

Or you can write research papers about things you’re learning in class—some examples might include compiling all sorts of comments about the frogs (living or dead) in your science lab, or researching and writing about a disterous Civil War battle for your history class, or making like a professional critic who’s writing book reviews for your English class, or examining the statistical issues behind today’s economic crisis in your math classes without putting anyone to sleep.  Now there's a challenge for you.

Yup, your writing has to shine; that’s a given.  But here’s an outstanding tool that lets you spice up everything you write, gets people interested in your stories and papers, helps you learn faster, makes sure readers remember your most complex material in a flash, and entertains your own self at the same time:

Really?  Most definitely!  After all, just think about it.  Whenever you go online or watch movies or TV or play video games or look inside certain books, they’re all about the pictures.  Lots of you are probably taking pictures yourself today by using a cell phone, or you’re adding pictures to online sites like Facebook.  So while you’re busy writing papers and journals and stories at school, why not think the way you do in the real world…whenever you write, stir plenty of artwork and photos and other visuals of your own into the mix.

Here are a few tiny examples of the gazillion ways to add pictures to your writing:

When you bring your journal along on a school field trip – or even on a regular day – be sure to bring some colored markers or colored pencils or just regular lead pencils. Then draw the coolest things you see.  Try to show the real world and still use your artistic imagination at the same time.  Put pictures next to the words you just wrote or use pictures to make a rebus or spread pictures into the margins or make them into cartoons or make them extremely realistic.  Let some of the pictures fill a whole page or two or three of their own.  They can most certainly be funny. They can most certainly be serious  or scientific. Doodling is just fine.  Cartoons are just fine.  Beautiful pictures are, well, beautiful and wonderful.  And of course you can draw all kinds of fancy lettering in your topic headings along the way. 
Trust me, people will want to see what you wrote if it’s illustrated.  When explores like Lewis and Clark or scientists like Charles Darwin wrote journals, they did these exact kinds of things. Their writing was incredibly fun to read and was informative to the max at the same time.  Yours should be too.
Another idea is to take photos during the day, print them out, and tape them in later.  Or collect small stuff you find and glue that in too—for example, add brochures or cut them up and tape some of the picture into your journal. Or add small parts of the plants you see on a farm visit. Or leaves you pick up on a hike during the fall.

One idea is to draw the person you are interviewing yourself! Or take your own photos of them doing something verrry cool and then paste or tape them into your written work. Or if they have any pictures taken when they were kids, make photocopies and add them to the mix. Even if you write your interview (or any other stuff) online, you can scan in your pictures and imbed them. 

Make colorful illuminated maps of the places you’re studying and add them into the mix.  To see exactly how this works, go here and check out the pictures

Think of cool and colorful pictures you can add to your charts and graphs:
If they look great, they can offer readers a fast and entertaining way to learn a lot of boring stats in a single glance.

Try putting the quotes inside of talk balloons that point at a picture of the person who's being quoted.  Maybe this person is a new cartoon character of your own creation (kind of like the one Jeff Kinney made up for his Wimpy Kid), or maybe you can research what the people you quoted really looked like and what they really wore, and then draw them accurately.


YIKES! Art is in danger of disappearing from our schools, and that would be a DISASTER.  Help bring it back by adding artwork to your written work in school.  

Paint pictures on wood! 

Rough canvas! 

Pebble board!  

Write words on all kinds of unusual paper.  

Try playing around with paint, scraps of cloth, cut paper, or scratch board, and then add them to your written work.  

Experiment with your photographs.   

Make collages using buttons, flowers, seeds, or leaves picked up off the ground....if your essay or journal is lumpy, so what? Your writing will end up being a keeper, and you will learn to think, be creative, do research, and remember what you wrote about for a very long time.

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17. Laying a strong foundation for writing nonfiction through mentor texts

We are moving from our researching phase  into our first draft phase in writing workshop – and my sixth graders are beginning to experience the inevitable struggle of transforming their notes  into interesting,… Read More

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18. Growing from our Work

At the end of March, I’ll be flying to Michigan to receive the Mitten Award from the Michigan Library Association.  The award is for a book (“Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond”) that does a good job of communicating information to its target audience.  I work hard to achieve that goal, so I feel honored to receive this award.  At the conference I will also be giving a keynote address, which has gotten me thinking: What topic is especially appropriate for a keynote?  This question has been wandering around in my head for a while, and I’ve finally decided on the answer for me, at this time in my career.

A nonfiction writer is a person who loves learning new information and feels the urge to communicate the fascinating information she/he has learned to other people.  We go through the years finding intriguing topics, enjoying our research, and putting it all together in a form we hope will inspire and engross our readers.  We learn a lot, meet all sorts of experts, and probably visit some fascinating locales.  But I realize now that we do so much for ourselves in the process of being dedicated to looking for truth and communicating our knowledge to others.
This work helps make us be more open in a number of ways.  We learn to explore all sides of a topic, to investigate different versions of the “facts,” and to communicate the complexities of “there are no simple answers” to our audience in clear, nonjudgmental language.  I think nonjudgmental is a big part.  Years ago I wrote “Where the Wild Horses Roam,” about wild horses in the West.  There were, and still are, big controversies about these animals.  To some, they are a symbol of wildness, an integral part of the history of the American west that must be honored and protected.  To others, like ranchers who purchase grazing leases on the public lands that house the horses, these equines are not just a damn nuisance, they steal the vital and sometimes sparse food their cattle need to fatten up and provide income for the ranchers.

I did my best to express the concerns of both sides and shrugged.  “If both ranchers and horse advocates hate me after reading this, I’ll know the book is good.”  But I was wrong—both sides appreciated what I wrote because I stated each side of the story accurately and without any evaluative language.  They just wanted to be heard.  I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I write about a potentially controversial topic.  “Just the facts, ma’am” has become my mantra.

That's just one example of the unexpected bonuses I've received from this work. Now, after more than 40 years in this business, I realize how much of value I’ve learned, not just the facts and theories, the interactions and exceptions, but also the variety of it all—so many cultures, so many ways of seeing the world and of being in the world, so much glorious variety in Nature.  So, as you can imagine, I’m nowhere near finished yet.  I want to continue learning and communicating as I keep finding more and more intriguing stories available for exploration.

0 Comments on Growing from our Work as of 2/27/2014 9:52:00 PM
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19. Puzzling

“How many hours a day do you write?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter when I speak at schools. That’s a tricky one to answer when you write nonfiction. The truth is, because research is such a major part of the process of creating nonfiction, nonfiction authors may go weeks or months without writing, and yet we’re working all the time. That’s the case for me, at least. My writing months are the treasured few in a given year that follow the sometimes interminable phase of research.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of emptying and solving our family’s wooden tray puzzles. Some were easy. Some were not. I learned as a child which ones I could do quickly and which ones were more difficult. As my puzzling skills improved—and I began to memorize the layout of each puzzle—I took the logical next step to increase the challenge and dumped all the puzzles out together and proceeded to sort the jumble of pieces into their respective frames. That was fun. It took time, but it was so satisfying to turn the chaotic pile of colored wooden shapes into familiar scenes.

I still puzzle: here's my 2012 holiday diversion.
In my teen years, I returned to puzzling, but this time they were the 500-piece cardboard variety. My father and I worked on puzzles recreationally, perhaps with a football game or TV show playing in the background. We loved the work—the incremental progress that could be measured by locking each piece into place, the strategy required to best solve a particular design, the satisfaction of placing the final piece into place.

Many years later, after I became an author, I realized I could not have found a better way to prepare my mind for a life of research and writing. Every project I undertake is a new puzzle. Each fact collected adds an element of understanding to the project. The more I collect, the clearer the picture becomes of what I am trying to create.

The Big Sort--organizing note cards before writing.
But the picture—that’s the one difference between puzzling and authoring. We know exactly what a jigsaw puzzle should look like by the image portrayed on its carton. A book is another matter. Authors start with topics and a basic knowledge of a subject, but the details and nuance that follow add a dimension of creativity to our work that eclipses the jigsaw puzzling experience.
My office--the epicenter of puzzling and writing.

I’m in the puzzling phase of a project right now. Completing the reading. Converting the facts I’ve found into notes. Drawing connections in my mind. Those interconnected steps will empower the words that begin to flow in a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my childhood passion for and practice of puzzling helped to make me the writer I am today. Patient. Persistent. A puzzler.

How many hours a day do I write? Throw in the puzzling and it’s more than a full-time job. On any given day you'll find me, metaphorically at least, spilling the pieces of the project onto the floor to see what picture emerges.

Posted by Ann Bausum

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Hello and goodbye everybody—
Thanks for tuning in all this time. As part of my 70th and final post for I.N.K., I thought you might like to visit a few great folks who made a bow on these pages at one time or another.  And as an extra added bonus, a wondrous going away gift awaits you at the bottom of the page.  It should take you straight to the most high-tech source of nonfiction on Planet Earth, and I promise you'll like it.  So let’s begin with……


Before he was saved by a bald 10 or 12 year old Indian girl named Pocahontas, Captain John Smith had already won a Turkish fortress by stuffing a bunch of explosives into metal pots and catapulting them into the Turks’ camp while they slept. He was also great at making fireworks, but that didn't keep him from being captured and enslaved by Turks or being kidnapped by pirates.

When the California Gold Rush was in full swing, a single piece of paper cost $150 but you could get 12 shirts washed and ironed at the Chinese Laundry for $3. One time a chicken gizzard panned out at $12.80.

Here's what a couple of guys said on board the sailing ships headed for the gold fields:
“The water is becoming bad. I don’t mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them.” Anonymous

The journey by land wasn't much better: “Hail exceeded anything I ever saw, being as large as pigeon eggs. There may be fun in camping, but we haven’t discovered any.” Elisha Douglass Perkins

During the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis wrote that: "the musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist; for my own part I am confined to my bier at least 3/4ths of my time. my dog even howls with the torture and we frequently get them in our thr[o]ats as we breath."

Lewis also included a couple of fashion statements showing how the Chinook Indians flattened their infants' heads so much that they measured only 2 inches from front to back and were even thinner at the top. (Head flattening didn't lower the babies' IQ’s one bit....but don't try this at home.) Their moms wanted to look good too. They made their legs fashionably fat by tying cords so tightly around their ankles that the circulation was cut off and their legs swelled right up.

When the American Revolution was heating up, Patrick Henry famously said:
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Whereupon Samuel Johnson, the greatest English writer of his day, made this response:
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

Thomas Jeffersonsecretly hired a Scottish scandal monger named James Callender to write scurrilous tales about John Adams, so Callender obligingly called Adams a repulsive, hideous, mentally deranged hermaphrodite who wanted to crown himself king.  (Later Callender got so mad at Jefferson that he printed the story of Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.) 
This time our target audience chimes in….


In one blog, I mentioned showing a bunch of fourth graders some fun ways to do interviews and write the stories they uncovered. The big idea was to tell how their own families came to America, whether they got here last Wednesday or 300 years ago. All of their stories were wonderful, but here are some excerpts from two funny ones:

“During the first year of medical school, my mom had to dissect a human body.  It was a smelly task and after they were done for the day, they would be smelly too.  Something that she thought was pretty funny was the comments that people would say and the funny faces they would make when they would smell the anatomy students.”

“dad was such a dare devil that he went car surfing with his friends. His friend tried to throw him off!, but my dad was good at staying on.  He only fell off a couple of times! ...my dad thinks cliff jumping is the most fun stunt because he loves the rush of falling through the air!”  (the author included lots more stunts his dad’s mom didn’t know about plus a photo of Christopher Reeve as Superman.)


I had a good time.  I liked your book.  Thank you for comeing.  I was not here that day I whish I was.

We really like reading your books they are geater then all of the books I’ve readed  Because it is most funny. But it is not geater then pokemon but I still like it

The ting I liked best about your books are the pictures.  I was wondering how do you paint your pictures without going out of the lines.

Thank you for letting us talk with you!  Even though I cannot pronounce your name.

I love your books.  I wish I had all of them. Truth is I do nat have any.

I wanted to order one of your books but my dad wouldn’t let me.  Por me I really wanted one.

When I grow up I might make books or be a vet I’m not sure about that yet.

If I were an author I would write about a little girl that was an orfin.  I think that idea I gave you was a good idea.  Write me back if yo use my idea. 

Well, I promise to write you back one way or another, so keep in touch.  But for now, that’s all, folks.  Many thanks to Linda Salzman for putting this blog together, and to all the rest of our amazing authors and readers as well. I've enjoyed meeting you enormously.   And now, HERE'S YOUR PRESENT (just skip the ad).www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhcPX1wVp38 (or if any of those don't work, try this:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhcPX1wVp38

Adios muchachos-


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21. Learning From Ralph Fletcher: Teaching Authentic Information Writing

Two weekends ago, thanks to Bonnie Kaplan and the Hudson Valley Writing Project, I had the great pleasure of attending Ralph Fletcher’s presentation: “Making Nonfiction from Scratch: How Can We Give Students the Time, the Tools, and the Vision They Need in Order to Create Authentic Information Writing?” I knew it would be a great morning of learning ...

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22. Field Trip/ Artist Date

This month, after spending these last few months combing through research, I felt like I needed a little break. Needed a little fresh air. Needed to stretch my legs. I needed, as Julia Cameron calls, an “Artist Date”.

In my current book, one of my “ladies” is Marion Mahony, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee. In fact, Marion was the second woman to graduate from MIT with an architectural degree and the first licensed woman architect in Illinois.  An original member of the Prairie School, she was the primary designer at Frank Lloyd Wright’s office for over 14 years.  (There is no documentation that Mr. Wright even graduated from high school. Whoops, got off topic there for a second.)

Even though I’ve lived in Chicago for over 13 years, I'd never been to Oak Park, the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. I decided that it was about time to check it out. And, who better to go with than my trusty partner in crime, Sarah, who just happened to live in Oak Park for many years until she moved way out in the suburbs with me.

In previous posts here, I’ve raved about Professor Rebecca Alms, my fabulous Design History teacher at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While writing this post, I dug out my very old notebook from that class and found five pages of Frank Lloyd Wright notes and copies of slides. But for me, the style never really sunk in. I needed to see the actual houses to really get a feel for the design style. And, that experience hit me like a ton of bricks, especially juxtaposed next to what was the design style that was the norm at the time. I was on a design high.

In preparation for our field trip, I watched the two-disc special edition DVD Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio. So, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the home and studio. But Sarah talked me into taking the tour with her, even though she’d been through it before, and I was so glad she did.
Looking at a Mahony drawing

Sarah and I 

My epiphanies were:

  • I finally got the Frank Lloyd Wright design concept. Watching a video or looking at pictures does not put you there. 
  • In my head, I now have a true image of what makes a Frank Lloyd Wright house. 
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23. Learning Through Story

As teacher friends ask for suggestions to add to their reading lists, this seems like a good time to re-post this past favorite:

In a recent thought-provoking Washington Post article, journalist and author Joy Hakim wrote the following: “As they [education historians] document the tale, it was decades ago that we gave up teaching history as an idea-centered discipline played out by a succession of characters—heroes and villains—whose actions led to results that can be analyzed. That kind of story-based history is engaging. We replaced it with litanies of facts.”

She was talking about the state of textbooks, as well as the lack of integration of standard curriculum with the stories of science and social studies that, without, leave gaping holes in education. That’s where we nonfiction writers today come in.

As depressing and infuriating as much of Hakim’s article was to me, I also felt myself saying “but we do that—those stories are being written!” And so, with the intention of offering a tiny bit of assistance to all those who teach and/or otherwise influence the education of young minds, I decided to begin compiling a recommended reading list of stories for older readers—true stories; i.e., nonfiction (or veritas, truthiness or True Dat!)—that will surely supplement and complement and enhance the experience of anyone taking social studies and science classes using textbooks.

Please—I mean this—please, add to this beginning of a list. Let’s make it grow. I will incorporate your comments and update the list accordingly. Next time, I’ll make a picture book list!

History and Science Through Story:

Armstrong, Jennifer. The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History

Aronson, Marc and Budhos, Marina. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science

Aronson, Marc. Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow

Burns, Loree Griffin. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion

Cobb, Vicki. What's the Big Idea?: Amazing Science Questions for the Curious Kid.

Colman, Penny. Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II

Deem, James. Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and Rediscovery of the Past

Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World

Freedman, Russell. Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas

Giblin, James Cross. The Many Rides of Paul Revere

Hakim, Joy. The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way

Harness, Cheryl. The Ground-Breaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America

Heiligman, Deborah. Charles & Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Jackson, Ellen and Bishop Nic. Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy and Black Holes

Jackson, Donna M. The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature

Murphy, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

Nelson, Kadir. We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary

Sis, Peter. The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain

Stone, Tanya Lee. Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream

Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 On the Moon

Walker, Sally. Written In Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her

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I just sent in the final photos, graphs, and manuscript for the second edition of The Wind at Work, due out in March 2013, and to celebrate I’m rerunning my blog on writing the book -- pre- and post-internet.

Back in 1995 I wrote my first book The Wind At Work, a history of wind energy, and sent it to Chicago Review Press.  They liked it, but replied that all their children’s books include activities. Would I be willing to write some?  Would I!

Creating activities was fun, relating windmills to science, creative writing, drawing and painting, sewing, cooking, singing, environmental research, and community action.  Who knew? 

All this took place back in the Dark Ages, aka 1990s, aka pre–internet.


To research the book I read books and more books, using public and university libraries, interlibrary loans, and used bookstores. I traveled to the Netherlands, the American Midwest, and a wind turbine factory in Tehachapi, California. To find photographs, paintings, etchings, and the like I searched through books. I visited and/or wrote to historical societies, the Library of Congress, tourist sites, and libraries. I received originals and photocopies and then sent purchase and permission letters, all by snail mail. And finally I sent off packages of photographs, slides, drawings, etc. to the publisher, all printed on paper!

I spent a small fortune on long distance telephone calls interviewing windmill people and trying to locate the addresses and phone numbers of restored windmills in small towns all around the US and Canada – this in pre-free-long-distance-phone-plan days.<

2 Comments on CHASING WINDMILLS: The Sequel, last added: 7/27/2012
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25. Making Nonfiction Interesting for Kids

Today while writing my current book, I'm reminded of my History of Design professor, Pat Allred --- who made design history come alive. And, in doing so, gave me a life long love of design history. 

So, here's a reposting of my piece from February of this year titled Making Nonfiction Interesting for Kids. 

 My 50th post!
*OK, maybe my 50th tag... about my 47th post. But, I worked so hard on that graphic that I had to leave it. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking way back to my senior year in college. That year, while fulfilling the last electives to graduate, I took the most interesting classes of my college experience – History of Design, Art and Environment and History of the Home. I just unearthed my class notebooks and those were the actual titles. Until now, I haven’t had to use what I learned in those classes, except for help in Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit*, of course.

As I think back, Pat Allred, my professor for History of Design, did a fabulous job making the information interesting and relatable. With each design time period –Victorian, Bauhaus, Moderne, etc, she first explained the historical facts of the time. Then, she went through each design discipline and related it to the time period and the other areas – Graphic, Furniture, Architecture, etc. I totally got it.

Then, as I was writing my senior paper on Doll Design, I was able to use what I learned from Professor Allred and mix the evolution of dolls within a historical timeline combining how children were perceived through the years, manufacturing processes, social and fashion trends. For the entire three hours of class time, she had slides to illustrate what she was teaching. As I said above, I found my notebook complete with extensive outline, notes, bibliography and copies of every slide – an absolute goldmine.

As I begin the research and writing on my new book, I’m aiming to make the information interesting and relatable. All that architecture and design history fodder is finally going to be of use as I research and write biographies for 22 women architects, landscape architects and engineers. I’m so inspired and passionate about these women, but how can I make the information interesting and engaging for kids? With any luck, I can incorporate what I learned in Professor Allred’s classes as I write and inspire future architects and engineers. Anyone else have a similar experience with clearing off the cobwebs and making use of material stored way back in the back of your brain?


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