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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Nonfictionary

Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north country, so lately my thoughts have turned to creating a steaming pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the highlights; the chicken, onions, a carrot or two. If you toss in too many ingredients, nothing will stand out and the result will be a muddled mess. You must also have a special ingredient. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nutmeg? A spoonful of caraway seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short profiles in Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, I realized they required a similar focus. I needed the highlights; birth, family, education. The profiles also needed that special something to stand out.

Other than biographical assignments in school, I hadn’t written many biographies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (looking for a home) picture book biography Step by Step: The Story of Elizabeth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fascinated by Sister Kenny ever since my father’s stay at the Sister Kenny Institute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had founded the institute famous in Minneapolis? Not just Minneapolis, for in fact, she was once voted the most influential woman in America, beating out Eleanor Roosevelt.

Researching and writing the life of someone famous can be daunting. I didn’t have the space to write about everything in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young readers with uninteresting facts.

The Minnesota Historical Center’s Gale Family Library held her secrets in the form of letters, cards, and photographs packed into boxes. Seeing Sister Kenny’s handwriting helped me to imagine her sitting at a desk composing a letter. The photographs let me look into her simultaneously kind and determined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, coming to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and legacy) than she did.

Sister Kenny eventually became the sample chapter I included in my proposal for Bold Women of Medicine. The Chicago Review Press Women of Action Series introduces young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction.

As I sifted through these lives I wondered, what spurred these women on to a life in medicine?

Within the framework of the women’s lives (birth, education, career, and family), I began to see patterns leading them to medicine. My goal was to keep the story moving forward.

Sister Kenny (photo: State Library of Queensland)

For example, Sister Kenny realized success with one patient inflicted with cerebral palsy, causing paralysis. She said, “Although my special life’s work had not yet really begun, I always think of this period as my starting point.” Discovering each woman’s motivation helped me to create a tighter focus. In other words, I limited the ingredients I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that special something.

What factors influenced Sister Kenny to practice medicine? Was it an event, a person, or a need to be helpful? I am a linear thinker (sometimes a hindrance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Sometimes I had to backtrack much like you do when following a hiking trail, and often when I backtracked I discovered another, more intriguing part of her story.

Research is a tricky beast no matter what the subject is, and the most difficult part of research is knowing when to quit. Not everything from your fridge must be a part of your dinner.

I searched for anecdotes that would interest a young reader. What happened in Sister Kenny’s childhood that shaped her interest in science? What character traits did she possess that led to success or failure? What impact did she have on history? Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough says, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the story and pattern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cutting of some of their life events I strengthened the flavors, highlighting their powers of hope, education, and perseverance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and figure out the best ingredients for my soup!

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and editor for decades, I often heard people accuse my colleagues and me of “bias,” of having a particular slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser disputed. It was a common charge, especially if the issue was controversial.

But in truth, reporters are no different than anyone else. Everyone comes to a subject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a certain beach is like, then you are likely to associate other beaches with that experience; if you’ve never been to the beach, then you can only imagine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-candy, you will read about candy differently than someone who doesn’t like it.

When you write nonfiction, these different reader perspectives matter. If we want to be thoughtful about a subject or apply those all-important critical thinking skills, it helps to acknowledge our natural biases—not to judge, but simply to understand that our experiences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high students, I often hold up a copy of my book Tommy: The Gun that Changed America and ask them what they think it is about.

“Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, especially, for young people?” Then I might show them the paperback version, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cover.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actually start talking about guns—what role they play in our society, what makes them interesting to readers and how they generate strong feelings—without having to debate the Second Amendment.

Because we live in such a visual world, I spend hours tracking down the right photos, cartoons, and documents to help tell a story. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influence my writing by reminding me what the world looked like and how people felt in that time period.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s experience, challenging the biases they bring to the story.

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Parker (photo: Missouri State Highway Patrol)

Consider this photo of Bonnie Parker, a key image in my next book, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend, due out in August 2018. It’s a crucial picture, the first time she became known to the public. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now compare it to the glamour shot below, taken just a few years before. Does it change your perspective at all?

Maybe one way to make student research and nonfiction more engaging is to consider our assumptions and biases by bringing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bonnie Parker (from the collections
of the Dallas History and Archives Division
of the Dallas Public Library)

  • Ask students to make assumptions about a book from the cover. Then compare to what the story is inside. Did their perspective change?
  • Pull out a single image and try to guess what it means to the story. Then, read that chapter (or picture book) and test it.
  • Ask students to search for a photo separately from their research on a subject. Did the photo enforce or change their point of view?

What other ways can you address how a reader’s experiences can impact understanding?

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

bored writerFor me, writing nonfiction is a fun adventure. A game to play. A puzzle to solve. A challenge to overcome.

But many students don’t feel the same way. According to them, research is boring. Making a writing plan is a waste of time. And revision is more than frustrating. It’s downright painful.

Why do young writers have a point of view that’s so completely different from mine? While there’s probably no single answer to this question, one thing that’s missing for young writers is an authentic audience.

When I begin writing, I know exactly who my audience is—kids, of course, but also the adults who put the books in the hands of children. I’m excited to share information with my audience, and I hope they’ll find it as fascinating as I do.

I know people are reading my books because I see reviews online and in journals. Eventually, I see sales figures. Kids respond by sending me letters, by asking probing questions at school visits and, sometimes, by dragging their parents to book signings. Teachers and librarians respond via social media and by inviting me to their schools and conferences.

These responses are different from the ones I get from my critique group and editors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appreciate and depend on their feedback, it’s far less rewarding than the reactions I get from my true audience, my authentic audience.

Students often don’t have an authentic audience. Their teacher is like my editor. And if peer critiquing or buddy editing is part of their writing process, those classmates are like my critique group.

How can we give young writers the kind of experiences professional writers have when they write for and get responses from an authentic audience? Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Share writing with younger students. Encourage the younger students to respond with writing of their own or by drawing pictures or making an audio or video recording.
  1. Create a class blog and encourage students in other classes and/or parents to read the posts and leave meaty comments.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below or via social media. I know there are lots of ways we can create an authentic audience for our students.

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Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoulishness of my title. Trying to resurrect the life of someone who turned to dust centuries ago is a challenge, especially if the person left behind no personal writings such as letters or diaries. But it can be done. In preparation for writing Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, I read all the academic and primary sources I could find about late-twelfth-century Japan. And while what-happened-when is the basis of biography, you can challenge students (or adults) to dig deeper. If you really want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvious. Try answering these questions.

What did this person believe was going to happen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might happen to their kingdom or their reputation. I mean: did they believe in an afterlife? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) color their perception of the world? Twelfth-century Japanese of Yoshitsune’s social class were Buddhists. In all likelihood, at the very end of his life Yoshitsune accepted that his fate was determined by karma (the sum of good and bad deeds during his current and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunited with his friends and family.

What assumptions did this person have about their place in society?

In other words … there was probably something about this person’s role or status that they never questioned. What was it?

We are all members of human society. Each society, in each time period, has some underlying assumptions that are rarely (if ever) questioned. Nobody in Yoshitsune’s time questioned the notion that the Emperor was semi-divine … or that some people were better than others because of their imperial descent … or that loyalty should be based on bloodlines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshitsune enthusiastically believed in his own superiority. If you insisted to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra credit if you can articulate an assumption from contemporary culture that may seem really bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this person impacted by technology (or lack of it)?

Here’s an example. The technology of warfare in twelfth-century Japan demanded that samurai leaders display personal bravery and credible martial skills. In those days you had to get up close and personal to kill your enemy—within ten yards to be really accurate in horseback archery, and much closer with spear or sword. There were no guns, no cannons, no sitting in HQ and phoning orders to your troops. To be an effective leader Yoshitsune had to be willing to risk his life.

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

Someone actually asked me this about Yoshitsune. Amusingly trivial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the question without an understanding of the material culture specific to the society and time period. So here we go.

When Yoshitsune was an apprentice monk, he would have worn a loincloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his privates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor people used as fabric in twelfth-century Japan. (Cotton wasn’t introduced until centuries later.) When Yoshitsune was older and living in Hiraizumi, Kamakura, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes benefitting his status, and high-status Japanese wore silk. However, I strongly suspect that when dressed in full armor, wearing a loincloth under his hakama (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made relieving himself quite a hassle. In that case I think Yoshitsune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun biographical research is?

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Why Students Copy Their Research Sources,
and How to Break the Habit

ResearchBy third grade, nearly all students know what plagiarism is and understand that it’s both immoral and illegal, and yet, again and again, we catch them copying their sources.

Why don’t students express ideas and information in their own words? Because they haven’t taken the time or don’t have the skills to analyze and synthesize the material they’ve collected so that they can make their own meaning. In other words, they haven’t found a personal connection to the content, and that’s a critical step in the nonfiction pre-writing process.

Here are some ideas to help students break the habit:

Nix the All-About Books

The best nonfiction writing happens when students have to dig deep and think critically, so asking them to write All-About books, which present a broad overview of a topic, is just setting them up for failure. When students choose a narrow topic that they find fascinating, they’ll have to mine their sources, collecting tiny nuggets of gold here and there. This fun quest will fuel their passion for the topic and result in engaging writing that presents ideas and information in fresh ways.

QuestionsStart with a Question

Suggest that students develop wonder questions and use them to guide their research. Not only does this guarantee that students will have some “skin in the game,” a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking and require students to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.

Dual Notetaking

Julie Harmatz, a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, California, has had great success with collaborative notetaking in a Google doc. Not only do students enjoy the technological novelty of this activity, they gain access to the thought processes of their partner(s). Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who’s struggling with this skill can be a powerful experience. After all, students often learn better from peer modeling than adult instruction.

Journaling

Encourage students to review the information they’ve gathered and journal about it. This will help many children take ownership of the material and identify what fascinates them most about what they’ve discovered. When students approach writing with a clear mission in mind, they’re more likely to present ideas through their own personal lens.

Thought PromptsUse Thought Prompts

Ryan Scala, a fifth grade teacher in East Hampton, New York, recommends inviting students to synthesize their research and make personal connections by using one of the following thought prompts:

  • The idea this gives me . . .
  • I was surprised to learn . . .
  • This makes me think . . .
  • This is important because . . . 

Can’t Copy

Encourage students to use source materials that they can’t copy, such as a documentary film or personal observations outdoors or via a webcam.

WowFocus on the “Oh, wow!”

Award-winning children’s book author Deborah Heiligman advises young writers to only write down information that makes them say, “Oh wow!” Then she suggests that they write their first draft without looking at their notes, using just what they remember. Of course, they can always go back and add details, dates, etc., later, but when kids are forced to write from their memories, they write in their own voices, and they focus on the ideas and information that interest them most.

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