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Notes from a Reluctant Researcher

Loah Lon­don­der­ry, hero of my new mid­dle grade nov­el, The Most Per­fect Thing in the Uni­verse, is the daugh­ter of a not­ed ornithol­o­gist ded­i­cat­ed to sav­ing endan­gered birds of the Arc­tic tundra. That sen­tence con­tains four words that, when I start­ed writ­ing, I knew lit­tle about: ornithol­o­gist, endan­gered, and Arc­tic tundra. Uh oh. I’ve nev­er been a fan of research.
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What Do They Do With All That Poo?

Ideas and Details

When I was doing lots and lots of author vis­its, many schools were focus­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment — and writ­ing instruc­tion — on Six Traits: Voice, Ideas, Pre­sen­ta­tion, Con­ven­tions, Orga­ni­za­tion, Word Choice, and Sen­tence Flu­en­cy. I liked to show ways that I, a pro­fes­sion­al writer, also dance and wres­tle with those traits. In par­tic­u­lar, I liked to focus on ideas and details.
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Author Candice Ransom

Science + History = Whole Picture”

On my “final” draft of Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mam­moth, I drew a line of lit­tle mastodons troop­ing across the bot­tom of the man­u­script pages. Each ani­mal bore a date that matched a side­bar fact or ref­er­enced the main text. I thought this was a clever way to remind read­ers of the march of time.  The first lit­tle mastodon (or “mam­moth,” as the crea­ture was called in Jefferson’s day) was labeled “700 mil­lion years ago,” the sec­ond “13,000 years ago,” the third “11,000 years ago,” inch­ing along like an Ice Age glac­i­er to the time peri­od of the sto­ry. … more
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Susan Latta

Dead Ends on the Long Road of Nonfiction Research

Researching in nonfiction isn’t much different. You run into many dead ends. But the key may be in knowing when to find a different route and when to change up your purpose. Is the story important and viable? Then I believe there are ways to work around those dead ends and get the car moving again.
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Jen Bryant

What Gets Left Out

In my three decades as a pro­fes­sion­al author, I’ve writ­ten about many intrigu­ing, accom­plished peo­ple: the Wyeth fam­i­ly of artists, painter Geor­gia O’Keeffe, abo­li­tion­ist Lucre­tia Mott, author Peter Mark Roget, poets William Car­los Williams and Mar­i­anne Moore, self-taught artist Horace Pip­pin, inven­tor Louis Braille, and most recent­ly Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright August Wil­son. In every case, I’ve focused my research on the words and the work of the sub­ject them­selves and have cre­at­ed what I hope are poet­ic and acces­si­ble books about these impor­tant men and women for young readers.… more
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Melissa Stewart

What is Research, Really?

From an ELA point of view, “research” is some­thing you do to gath­er infor­ma­tion for a report or project. But if you’re a sci­en­tist, research has a whole dif­fer­ent mean­ing. It’s a way of devel­op­ing a new under­stand­ing of the world and how it works. Every once in a while, my hus­band and I have a con­ver­sa­tion about why two seem­ing­ly dif­fer­ent pur­suits have the same name.… more
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Elizabeth Verdick

Aging Down, Aging Up

Back when my kids were lit­tle, I start­ed work on a non­fic­tion SEL (Social and Emo­tion­al Learn­ing) series called the “Best Behav­ior” series. More than a decade lat­er, these board books and paper­backs are still going strong, I’m hap­py to say. Titles in the series include Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing, Voic­es Are Not for Yelling, and Wor­ries Are Not For­ev­er.… more
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Sarah Aronson

Five Things I Learned
Writing My First Picture Book Biography

You would think that being friends with Tanya Lee Stone would mean I wrote lots of non­fic­tion. But the truth is, until I decid­ed to try and write a biog­ra­phy of Rube Gold­berg, I stayed far away from this genre. As a read­er, I loved it. As a friend, I learned so much read­ing Tanya’s work — not just about the facts — but about the foun­da­tions of sto­ry­telling.… more
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Melissa Stewart

The Writing Process as a Living Story

In some ways, it’s too bad that the cur­ricu­lum in most schools calls for writ­ing per­son­al nar­ra­tives at the begin­ning of the school year because I think stu­dents could learn a lot by craft­ing a per­son­al nar­ra­tive about the process of research­ing, writ­ing, and revis­ing an infor­ma­tion­al writ­ing assignment. What do I mean by that? Well, late­ly, I’ve been think­ing about my non­fic­tion book-mak­ing process as a liv­ing sto­ry.… more
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Carla Killough McClafferty

Putting Emotion into Nonfiction Books

Many peo­ple think writ­ing non­fic­tion is just string­ing togeth­er a bunch of ran­dom facts. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. While writ­ing non­fic­tion, I use every sin­gle fic­tion tech­nique a nov­el­ist uses. I feel strong­ly that I need to write my text in a way that will lead my read­ers to invest emo­tion­al­ly with my non­fic­tion text. Real. Raw. Emo­tion. But I don’t tell read­ers what to feel.… more
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Pamela S. Turner

Pairing Nonfiction and Fiction

Non­fic­tion and fic­tion are like peanut but­ter and choco­late. Each excel­lent on its own, but when combined…so sublime. INVITE A DISCUSSION My non­fic­tion account Samu­rai Ris­ing: The Epic Life of Minamo­to Yoshit­sune (2016, grade 6 and up) describes the dra­mat­ic rise and fall of a 12th-cen­tu­ry samu­rai. One of the joys of research­ing the life of this Japan­ese hero was learn­ing about the under­ly­ing polit­i­cal, social and eco­nom­ic cur­rents that result­ed in the 700-year-long rule of the samu­rai.… more
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Susan Latta

Nonfiction Setting and My Comfy Chair

I’m fussy when it comes to choos­ing where to sit. The com­fy chair or the well-worn red sofa? Lights on high or nice­ly dimmed? Soft throw blan­ket? Some­times even in a restau­rant, I ask to sit at a dif­fer­ent table than the one the host choos­es because it doesn’t feel right. My hus­band rolls his eyes. Set­ting whether in fic­tion, non­fic­tion, or my own fam­i­ly room, holds a spe­cial place in my heart.… more
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Melissa Stewart

Elements of a Nonfiction Booktalk

Not long ago, I saw this list of rec­om­mend­ed com­po­nents for a booktalk: Title Author Genre Main char­ac­ter Plot bit And boy, did it frost my britches. Why? Because the per­son who wrote it assumed the book­talk­er was rec­om­mend­ing a fic­tion title. What about non­fic­tion? It’s impor­tant to book­talk these titles too because many kids pre­fer nonfiction. So here’s my list of sug­gest­ed com­po­nents for a non­fic­tion booktalk: Title Author Audi­ence Cat­e­go­ry Text struc­ture Writ­ing style Voice choice Con­tent bit And here are a cou­ple of examples: The Great Mon­key Res­cue: Sav­ing the Gold­en Lion Tamarins by San­dra Markle is a spe­cial­ized non­fic­tion title per­fect­ly suit­ed for stu­dents in grades 4 – 7.… more
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Aimee Bissonette

Swimming in a Sea of Ideas

Where do suc­cess­ful non­fic­tion writ­ers get their ideas? So many places! The top­ics a non­fic­tion writer can write about are lim­it­less. Sure, some ideas have been writ­ten about before, but non­fic­tion writ­ers take that as a chal­lenge. They ask what unusu­al angle they might take or if there is a dif­fer­ent (or bet­ter) for­mat in which to deliv­er the infor­ma­tion.… more
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Elizabeth Verdick

You Write Books with … Messages?

Yes. Yes I do. Sure, I know there’s a whole school of thought that says “shar­ing a mes­sage” in a children’s book is some­thing to avoid. That chil­dren will learn more, feel more, by read­ing books—sto­ries—that evoke an emo­tion­al response and increase empa­thy through strong char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and vivid lan­guage. Yes. Yes that’s true. But.… Some­times chil­dren, and the adults rais­ing and teach­ing them, need straight­for­ward tools that address social and emo­tion­al chal­lenges and mile­stones.… more
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Peter Lourie

Summery

A well-known jour­nal­ist in a local bagel joint, after not see­ing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Wel­come back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I trav­eled a lot to write my children’s adven­ture books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d prob­a­bly been out climb­ing Aztec or Mayan tem­ples, pad­dling a riv­er, accom­pa­ny­ing biol­o­gists study­ing polar bears, whales, or man­a­tees.… more
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The Coolest Fact

Reports about animals are boring, and they usually go like this: Honeybees are insects. Honeybees eat nectar. Honeybees live in a hive. See? BORING!
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Susan Latta

Sorry — I Mean Structure—Seems To Be the Hardest Word

There’s an old Elton John song titled, Sor­ry Seems to be the Hard­est Word. Well, I won­der if he’d mind if I changed the title to, Struc­ture Seems to be the Hard­est Word. Struc­ture is a lot like voice; it needs to be present, yet it must be invis­i­ble and unforced. With­out it, the writ­ing may fall down just like a kindergartner’s block tow­er.… more
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Karen Blumenthal

Re-claiming Women’s History — Still

At a meet­ing at the Dal­las Pub­lic Library one day, a retired chief exec­u­tive explained to me his vision for a per­ma­nent dis­play on a soon-to-be-ren­o­vat­ed floor hon­or­ing the men who built up the city’s down­town after World War II. I looked at him skep­ti­cal­ly. “What about the women?” There aren’t any,” he snapped back. Of course there were! But because a group of white men con­trolled pol­i­tics in the city for decades, few peo­ple know them.… more
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Melissa Stewart

How Infographics Can Help Students Avoid Plagiarism

My book Pinoc­chio Rex and Oth­er Tyran­nosaurs, is chock­ful of text fea­tures, includ­ing this fun infographic: The process of design­ing it began with a VERY rough sketch by me. Let’s face the facts. My draw­ing skills leave a lot of be desired, but this sketch was enough to give the tal­ent­ed folks in the Harper­Collins art depart­ment an idea of what I had in mind — a group­ing of visu­al ele­ments that work togeth­er to show that the tyran­nosaur fam­i­ly lived on Earth for 100 mil­lion years, and while it’s final mem­bers were gigan­tic, fear­some preda­tors, they’re ear­li­est ances­tors were about the same size as us.… more
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In Her Own Words:
The Impact of Personal Accounts on Biography

I admit it. I am a his­to­ry nerd. Like all biog­ra­phers, I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the past. I love learn­ing about the world of long ago: what peo­ple wore, what they ate, the jobs they had, the wars they fought.  And noth­ing thrills me more when I am research­ing than to dis­cov­er a first­hand account, a per­son­al writ­ing … a pri­ma­ry source. How do first­hand accounts help biog­ra­phers?… more
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Jen Bryant

Working with an Editor

What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a ques­tion I often get from teach­ers, stu­dents, and aspir­ing authors and it’s one that takes some time to ful­ly answer. In the best sit­u­a­tions, an editor’s rela­tion­ship to her author is like a coach’s rela­tion­ship to an ath­lete: know­ing her author’s per­son­al­i­ty, tal­ent, and poten­tial, she encour­ages her strengths, while tact­ful­ly push­ing her toward improv­ing on her weak­ness­es.… more
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Karen Blumenthal

The Good Thing about Bad Words

It’s mid-Jan­u­ary, I have this Non­fic­tionary dead­line, and all I can think about is Pres­i­dent Trump’s lat­est vulgarity. His recent word choice about cer­tain coun­tries jumped from my phone like an elec­tri­cal charge, lit­er­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly jolt­ing me back­wards. For the rest of the day and beyond, my soul hurt and my spir­it sagged. But it was just a word.more
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Susan Latta

A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative When
You Know Next to Nothing about Science

Enter the fresh­man chem­istry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flan­nel shirt. His job? To get me through entry lev­el chem­istry at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. My first col­lege plan was to major in Hotel and Restau­rant Man­age­ment because my father owned a com­pa­ny that did busi­ness with these types of insti­tu­tions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.… more
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Susan Latta

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.… more
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Karen Blumenthal

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. … more
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Melissa Stewart

Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

For 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?… more
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Pamela S. Turner

Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Don’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.… more
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Melissa Stewart

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

By 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.… more
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