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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Nonfictionary

Swimming in a Sea of Ideas

Aimee Bissonette

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. Is there a way to add mystery or intrigue? Is there a little known fact beyond that’s not commonly known?

Yes, nonfiction topics are limitless. Truth be told, though, it can be hard for nonfiction writers to settle on a particular idea even when they’re swimming in a sea of them. This is particularly true for young writers who are trying their hand at writing nonfiction for the first time. Young writers not only have to come up with engaging ideas, but they have to master a bevy of other skills in their early writing assignments: how to write a rough draft, choose rich words and phrases, order events, use proper punctuation, and more.  Choosing a topic sometimes only adds to the anguish.

So how can we help young writers see that good nonfiction ideas are all around them? How can we help them discover a topic that excites them and makes their writing more enjoyable? We need to teach them to do what other nonfiction writers do: dive deep!

Here are some suggestions—tried and true—from someone who swims in that sea and is on the hunt for new ideas every day:

Expand your social network. Befriend people of different ages, backgrounds, regions of the country or professions. Talk to them about what interests them and what is happening where they live. Friends and family members often have great suggestions for nonfiction topics based on things they’ve experienced that you have not.

Miss Colfax's LightRead broadly. Read regional newspapers with stories that have not broken nationally or specialized publications for people with specific interests (e.g. dog magazines, travel magazines). Read about current and historical events, other countries, music, books, food, culture, and traditions.  I got the idea for Miss Colfax’s Light from a small excerpt I read in another book about women of the Great Lakes.  I wrote Aim for the Skies after reading Jerrie Mock’s obituary in an Ohio newspaper.

North Woods GirlSpend time in nature. Do you know there are scientific studies that prove that our creativity is boosted when we spend time outdoors? It’s true. And when we get outdoors, we also see that nature provides an endless supply of things to write about—like the animals, plants, and changing seasons depicted in my book North Woods Girl.  I have several works in progress that focus on the natural world—all of which are the result of hiking, canoeing, and taking photographs in the great outdoors. When I am stumped for ideas, I put on my walking shoes and head out.

Talk with experts. Experts are chock-full of information and most of them love to share it. Just ask! And if you are thinking you don’t know any real experts, keep in mind there are “everyday experts” all around us who know about all sorts of things. Have you ever toured a fire station with a firefighter? I have. And I learned lots of cool stuff when I did. For instance, did you know that firefighters have to use special washers and dryers to clean their gear to remove carcinogens? Or that they have to hang their fire hoses after fighting fires so the hoses can dry out? (Which—fun fact—also means they need more than one set of hoses for their trucks!) Talking to an expert helps you learn uncommon and interesting facts you can share in your nonfiction work.

Visit websites that report on fun facts and oddities. There are a number of websites that specialize in investigating and reporting all sorts of fun facts—facts that make great nonfiction topics. Here are a few of my favorites:

Now I Know

Now I Know email newsletter (and website with archives) by Dan Lewis 

Curiosity website    

Eurekalert! The Global Source for Science News 

When reading material on these sites, I try to keep an eye out for “tip of the iceberg” fragments or “unturned stones.” There are always bits of unmined material there—ideas that lie buried or hidden under other information. That information is perfect for a nonfiction piece.

an idea you love

illustration: bbtreesubmission |

Be sure to choose an idea you love.  Once you settle on an idea, the research and writing begins. That takes time and energy—so don’t choose a topic you’re only mildly interested in or your work might start to feel like just another assignment. You want the excitement you feel for your topic to show in your work. You want your readers to feel that excitement, too. The best way to do this is to choose a topic you truly enjoy—perhaps one you always wished someone else had written about so you could read it.

In her lesson plan “Calling all Nonfiction Writers,” Maggie Knutson suggests a number of questions teachers can ask students when selecting nonfiction topics for their writing. I’ve included a few of her proposed questions below. You can find her whole lesson plan here.  Questions like these help guide writers, young and old, in their search for good nonfiction ideas. They help writers choose ideas they care about—and that contributes to writing success.

Calling All Nonfiction Writers

So tell your young writers to put on their flippers, snorkels, and masks and dive in! Tell them to swim around in a big sea of ideas—one they’ve generated themselves using some of the suggestions above. They are sure to find one that is a good fit. Then, let the writing begin.

Questions for Students

Brainstorm a list of all the possible topics about which you might write. Don’t judge them or exclude anything that pops into your mind.

  1. Think about each topic with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel. Does the topic excite you? Does your body get warm, cold, or feel something else, such as energized, heavy, sad, happy, or excited? Do ideas begin to come to mind?
  2. Do a two-minute quick write on your topics—use notes, keywords, or bullet points, not full sentences.
  3. Based on your quick write, choose the topic that most appeals to you.

You Write Books with … Messages?

Elizabeth Verdick

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. Nonfiction books can fit that purpose. Especially if they’re created with certain age groups in mind.

Let’s talk toddlers. This is one of my favorite groups of people—and readers (even though they can’t yet read). Toddlers are energetic, curious, effervescent. They soak up the sights, sounds, and textures of the world—everything’s new. Toddlers have big emotions, ones they often can’t fully understand or explain because they don’t yet have the words. My toddler books aim to give them these words—simple, straightforward phrases that help their days go more smoothly. I have a series of board books called “Best Behavior,” in which the titles are the basis for recurrent phrases in the text: Teeth Are Not for Biting, Words Are Not for Hurting, Germs Are Not for Sharing, Pacifiers Are Not Forever. You can see the message loud and clear—no guessing here!

The simplicity has its purpose—the phrases are a cue. You see a child start to bite a friend, and the phrase “Teeth Are Not for Biting” is a simple reminder. And it’s a more positive use of language than “No biting” or “Don’t bite” or “Stop!” I’m happy that the books steer clear of “Nos” and “Don’ts.” Parents and educators using the series have found that the words in their own homes and classrooms shift in a more positive direction, just as the behavior eventually does. Educators keep sending me topic suggestions, including the recent Voices Are Not for Yelling and Noses Are Not for Picking. (Thank you, teachers, you’re amazing brain-stormers!)

I also write “message” books for older kids, including a series called “Laugh and Learn,” for children ages 8-13. In the books, advice and humor go hand in hand. It’s lots of fun titling these books: Dude, That’s Rude, Get Some Manners! or Stress Can Really Get on Your Nerves! Anytime I talk to teachers about this series, I suggest they write a book for it. Who knows kids better than teachers? Educators care so much and see what kids need. When writing nonfiction that has a message, the “way in” can be humor. No one wants a message-heavy or preachy book. But one that’s informative and entertaining—while helping a student grow social/emotional skills—serves an important need. Children may not always want to open up about personal challenges they face. But opening a book that covers the topic? That’s easier.

I’m no special expert. I’m a mom who loves kids, books, and writing. When I write nonfiction that aims to help children understand their emotions or the social world, I think about a voice that can reach and teach without making a child slam the book shut in boredom. I want kids to feel heard. I want them to feel strong. I want them to know they’re not alone. Just like you do. When you stand in front of a classroom or do a presentation in the library, you find creative ways to get kids’ attention and sustain it. You sense their needs and questions. You invite them in.

Want to try your hand at nonfiction that addresses children’s social and emotional needs?

  1. Know your age group: There are board books for babies and toddlers, illustrated books for PreK and early elementary, books for upper elementary and middle school, and more comprehensive ones for teens. The length and use of language reflects the age of readers.
  1. Explore educational publishing: Many publishers specifically serve the education market, with books designed mainly for classroom or school library use. Find books you like, and look for the publisher information located on the Library of Congress (LOC) page, which usually appears before the Dedication and Table of Contents. Educational publishers may also list the age/grade, interest, and reading levels there. Once you know the publisher, seek out its guidelines for writing and submission (usually available online).
  1. Don’t worry about the illustrations: Writers don’t have to become artists—and don’t have to bring in an illustrator. A potential publisher is mainly interested in your words.
  1. Go to the source: If you’ve got kids of your own or you work in a school, you’re able to observe how children grow, change, and interact. What books might serve their needs? What types of books are their parents looking for? 
  1. Find your voice: Are you funny? Warm and wise? A researcher/fact finder? Do you like to create fun sidebars? Do you enjoy interviewing people? Do you want to use quotes from kids? Do you have an idea for a whole series? There are many “ways in.” Experiment to find what works for you.

Becoming a children’s writer is often a long process of self-discovery, and patience is key (just as in teaching). Your love of kids is a great start. I’m rooting for you!



Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie

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. What I love about my job as a children’s adventure writer is research. I tell students, “to research is to explore.”

Recently I traveled to the very top of Norway, near Russia, to learn what a 19th-century polar explorer felt when he returned from a harrowing three-year Arctic sojourn. I’ve been writing a new adventure biography for Henry Holt, my second in a series, after Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush.  It’s a Shackleton-sort of story before Shackleton, a story few in this country know anything about.

The Fram

Fridtjof Nansen’s ship The Fram with which he explored in the Arctic and Antarctic
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1893 the Norwegian zoologist and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a special ship he had built called the Fram (meaning “forward” in Norwegian). His object was to collect valuable scientific data on the unknown Arctic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unaccomplished in 400 years of trying. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right proportions to withstand the forces of crushing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arctic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Traveling on an Arctic current at one or two miles a day (Arctic ice is in constant motion), he’d “float” for a number of years (he had provisions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the other side near Greenland. 

Veteran Arctic travelers thought he was crazy, that he would jeopardize his and his crew’s lives. It was obviously a fool’s mission. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his daring. In 1888 he was the first to cross Greenland on skis. Unlike Admiral Peary and others who attempted the trek, Nansen traveled from the uninhabited eastern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, later saying, “I demolish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move forward.” After his Greenland success he set his compass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on previous expeditions were inevitably crushed, all hands diving for lifeboats or trudging on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.

Vardø, the northernmost fishing port in Norway (photo credit: Peter Lourie)

Nevertheless, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the country to Vardø, the last little fishing port in Norway, and then hunted for the pack ice above the Siberian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-worthiness.  When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scraping against the hull sent shivers of horror into the men’s hearts.  But the Fram did what its shipwright designed it to do.  With a super wide, thick hull, it was lifted right up on top of that deadly frozen mass, slipping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was carried creaking and moaning toward its goal.

After nearly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen realized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fellow crewmember Hjalmar Johansen prepared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small canvas-covered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and supplies, and headed into the white world knowing they’d never find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and failing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pressure ridges and jumbled blocks of ice.  They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they finally found land after five months, they survived the long polar winter on walrus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hardly wide enough to sleep stretched out. 

When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, fragile kayaks about to paddle hundreds of miles of open water to Spitsbergen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog somewhere on the edge of the ice. He scrambled to investigate. Amazingly he saw the figure of a man, who turned out to be another polar explorer, a Brit named Frederick Jackson, whom Nansen had actually met in London years ago. 

Jackson took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s supply ship returned the Norwegians to Vardø almost three years after leaving the small fishing village. A year later Nansen penned a bestseller called Farthest North, an account of one of the greatest polar adventure tales ever told. 

I needed to go to Vardø to understand Nansen’s feelings when he left Norway, and when he returned to Norway. So I rented a car in Tromsø, a beautiful city above the Arctic Circle and drove across the top of the country, a region called Finnmark, practically to Siberia. I drove through bounding reindeer, around massive fjords and past mountains aflame with yellow birch trees to reach that town where the famous Norwegian explorer had bought his last supplies in July 1893, wondering if he’d ever return.

When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fishing village, with Russian signage in the harbor. Fisherman in small boats sorted through their night’s catch. The autumn Arctic Sea wind on my face helped me imagine Nansen and his small crew heading out to sea in 1893. I pictured the famous Norwegian on the Fram gazing back at the sleepy town, feeling this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved country, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been feted for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Norway.) Now everything was silent.

“The masts in the harbor, the house-roofs, and chimneys stood out against the cool morning sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore—rugged, bare, and weather-worn in the hazy morning, but still lovely—dotted here and there with tiny houses and boats, and all Norway lay behind it….”

Boats in the peaceful harbor at Vardø (photo credit: Peter Lourie)

I strolled around the village for a few hours to imagine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that early June morning in 1896, no one spotted Jackson’s sloop gliding into the peaceful harbor at Vardø. The two survivors jumped ashore and raced to the telegraph station. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laughing and smiling. A fisherman walked by them staring at Johansen’s odd jacket he’d made from a blanket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine winter months they had lived like cavemen.

A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would discover they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “summery.”

Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to understand what Nansen meant by the word “summery.”


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!

What if we do a little research, find the most interesting facts about honeybees and use them in a story about one honeybee? Here is something I learned while researching honeybees. They dance. Like really dance.

Bee Dance illustration by Rick Chrustowski

Bee Dance, illustration © Rick Chrustowski

Okay now we have something to work with. Why do bees dance? Where do they dance? Which bees dance? We can answer all those questions in the story.

When I work with kids on writing their own narrative nonfiction stories about animals, I send them a list of questions to research and answer before I get to school. My favorite question on the list? What is the coolest most interesting fact you learned about your animal?

Daddy Longlegs

Photo: Alexander Bondar |

One boy learned that Daddy Longlegs are the most poisonous spiders on earth, but their mouths are too small to ever bite a human. Awesome! A story started forming in my mind as I learned that.

One girl learned that a whale can hold its breathe underwater for 30 minutes! 30 minutes—wow! I can’t wait to read the story about that whale at the bottom of the ocean, swooshing around in the darkness looking for food.

The most interesting fact about an animal is a great fulcrum for a story.

My book Bee Dance took nine years to write. I know that sounds crazy. And it is. But I just couldn’t get the story right. First I wrote the text in rhyme. It was fine, but some of my rhymes felt forced.

Then I tried to make the topic more visually interesting. The illustrations started out in black and white, then moved to color after the scout bee tasted the nectar of a flower. It made it seem like the bee was tripping on psychedelic drugs! AND it completely stepped on the cool fact of the bee dance itself. Feeling defeated, I put the book in a drawer.

After working on several other books, I pulled out my old Bee Dance script and realized that it needed to be a straightforward read about how the bee dance works. The fact that bees dance specific directions to a food source, so all the other bees know exactly where to find it, is such a cool fact on its own. It was enough to hold the whole story together.

So now, when writing stories with kids I tell them, focus on the coolest fact you learned. Let that guide your story.


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. My current nonfiction project has great material with plenty of primary and secondary sources for me to search, but that’s not enough. It needs a solid structure to support it, or it will tip over.

There are a few basic questions I am asking myself to uncover a structure:

  • What is the story I want to tell?
  • How does this story move along chronologically?
  • What are the themes in the story?
  • Why does this story matter?

Bold Women of MedicineWith Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, Chicago Review Press, 2017, the structure and theme were inherently in place. Themes of perseverance and education as well as having a good mentor aided the medical women in their successful careers. The narrative made sense to me, probably because I was writing individual chronological stories about lives well-lived.

Recently I dove into Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee. He says, “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”[1] One structure he writes about is the ABC/D structure, where he pits the stories of three similar people against someone dissimilar. And that fourth element the “D” appears throughout the whole story. By profiling people in this way, he adds a new dimension or conflict to the piece. And according to McPhee, theme plays a larger role. Hmmm, okay so there’s one way to go.

One of my favorite works of adult nonfiction is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. If you’re not familiar with it, pick it up and read it soon. In this book Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman stricken with cervical cancer. As Lacks was being treated in 1951, her cells were taken without her consent. Ultimately, HeLa cells, as they have become known, have transformed medicine as we know it today.

In structuring her book, Skloot uses a braided story structure—a different approach from McPhee’s. During her research, she discovered countless moving parts to Henrietta’s story, and the question was how best to unify them into a single narrative. What she figured out was to take all the important narratives and weave them through like a braid, jumping back and forth in time. Similar to the structure of the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. And because Skloot’s research was embedded in the story, she included her story with Deborah, (Henrietta’s daughter) as one of the strands. That central narrative carries through the whole book.

Skloot used three different colored index cards, one for each of the three central narratives. She arranged them on a large table and moved them around in time. She introduced all three strands in the beginning, so the readers knew what to expect. What she figured out was that she was spending too much time on each narrative and not jumping around in time fast enough, thus bogging down the story. As soon as she moved more quickly from narrative to narrative, the book began to take shape.

My nonfiction story takes place within several months, so I don’t have the luxury of jumping back and forth between decades as Skloot was able to do. But, there are multiple characters: steamboat captains, Native Americans, explorers, naturalists and botanists, and of course settlers and farmers all telling their own stories. So perhaps I can braid these narratives together.

Since only a few interacted during the historical event and cannot be pitted against each other directly, I need a way to connect them. So back I go to John McPhee’s ABC/D structure, and it dawns on me that all of my characters confront the Mississippi River. Perhaps I should pit the story around the river. A central narrative to carry the reader through the book. A eureka moment? I hope.

Finally, in rereading You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind, I found an additional way to look at structure.

Gutkind writes about the Creative Nonfiction Dance where you create a rhythm for the story:

So here’s the dance that is diagrammed. The scene gets the reader interested, (okay I have many good scenes) and involved, so you can then provide information, nonfiction, to the reader. (I have good information as well.) But sooner or later, a reader will get distracted or overloaded with information, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to happen you go back to the scene—or introduce a new scene—and reengage.[2]

It’s even better, he says, if you can embed information in the scene then you can travel from scene to scene without stopping.

I may need a combination of these structure ideas, or maybe a different structure altogether, we shall see. Am I overthinking it? Probably, but structure, for sure, seems to be the hardest word.

I wonder if Elton has any words of wisdom for me.


[1] McPhee, John. Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017, p. 20.

[2] Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. Boston: DiCapo Press, 2013, p. 139.


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.

How ironic it was to have this conversation in the Dallas Public Library, which was created only after May Dickson Exall and her women friends raised money for it and convinced Andrew Carnegie to support it. That library, which opened in 1901, housed books on the first floor and a public art gallery on the second, which would later morph into the Dallas Museum of Art.

With every research project, I discover again and again little-known or misrepresented women who made important things happen. This is an old story that’s even more familiar to Native Americans and people of color. But decades after the second women’s movement began, I am still stunned when I encounter it in recent books.

This matters because denying women credit for past accomplishments makes it easier to deny them credit today. And since many readers assume nonfiction books are fact, stereotypes get repeated again and again.

Consider Carry Nation, the woman best know for smashing up saloons in the turn-of-the-century run-up to prohibition. Newsmen at the time ridiculed her, questioned her sanity, and portrayed her as some kind of oversized freak.

Carry Nation, reading the Bible circa 1900, appears to be of medium height.

Carry Nation, reading the Bible circa 1900, appears to be of medium height. (courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society)

So did more recent authors. She “was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” wrote author Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010), the book that was the basis of Ken Burns’ prohibition documentary.

Edward Behr, author of Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (1996), wrote that she was “so unbalanced and out of control” that she “might well have been confined to a mental institution.”

Bootleg by Karen BlumenthalIn reality, photos (and other writers) show Nation couldn’t possibly have been six-feet tall, although and the State Historical Society of Missouri also say so. Though her actions were radical, I concluded in my book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition that they grew out of personal experience with an alcoholic first husband, ministering to people in jail with drinking problems, and a deep religious conviction. She was angry, no doubt.  But a thoughtful biography by Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life (2004), portrays her as committed, not crazy.

As Nation famously said, “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock!”

More recently, I’ve been steeped in Bonnie and Clyde lore for a nonfiction book out in August. Bonnie Parker is a complicated character and every writer struggles to define her: Was she the leader, a follower or a co-conspirator?

But there’s another temptation for male writers, familiar to every female who ever went to high school. That’s to call her a slut or even a prostitute.

The implication that she may have engaged in prostitution likely started with detective magazines of the 1930s, which embellished stories much like supermarket tabloids today. Some contemporary authors allude to it, but in Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, The Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde (2016), author John Boessenecker simply states she worked as a part-time prostitute before she met Clyde, and that Dallas police “knew Bonnie as a street-walker but never arrested her.”

His source? A 1991 local history column in the Seguin, Texas, newspaper written by a barber, who attributed the information to unnamed “old Dallas policemen.” Since Bonnie and Clyde had been dead 57 years by then, those policemen must have been very old.

Bonnie Parker during her waitressing days. (courtesy of Buddy Barrow)

Bonnie Parker during her waitressing days. (courtesy of Buddy Barrow)

To be sure, Bonnie was a married woman living on the road with a man who was not her husband. But there is no evidence that Bonnie ever worked as a prostitute.

A lot, of course, has changed. More and more children’s books are highlighting ground-breaking women. Just a few days ago, the New York Times printed a special section of women whose obituaries were previously overlooked, with a promise to keep adding names. I know for a fact that the Dallas Library director will never have an all-male display in her building.

But stereotypes persist. Here are a few things that writers, educators, and librarians might do to give women their due:

Consider the source. I love primary sources, including documents and contemporary newspapers and magazines. But they have to be put in the context of their times. Women were legally considered their husbands’ property for hundreds of years. They couldn’t borrow money or own land. They were denied entrance to law schools, medical schools, and graduate schools because of their gender. Many of these laws didn’t change until the 1970s. Don’t assume today’s standards when reading or writing about women from a different era.

Question, Question, Question! Were girls really weak? Did women really faint? Would her temper or impatience have mattered if she were a man? Is her hair, attractiveness, or body shape relevant? Do female writers tell a different story?

Include women in every unit of study. In almost every topic area these days—the Civil War, both World Wars, science, the environment, math, technology, politics, art, music and so on—there are good kids’ books about what women contributed. Share them.

Do your own research. Consider a class project to identify and research a lesser-known woman or person of color who made a difference in your community. While highways and big buildings are usually named after men, there’s probably a name on a local park, school, or nearby street to get you started. Your local library or historical or genealogical society would probably be thrilled to help.

[Ed: As this article circulated, Karen Blumenthal tweeted the Britannica encyclopedia folks about the discrepancy in fact concerning Carrie Nation’s height. Here’s what happened. You and your students can have a positive effect on factual information.]


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.

Pinocchio Rex and Other TyrannosaursBasically, the infographic summarizes one of the book’s central tenets by drawing on information presented on many different pages. The process of conceptualizing it was very similar to the process students engage in as they analyze and synthesize research notes while preparing to write a report.

In this article, I discuss the reasons students plagiarize instead of expressing ideas and information in their own words and offer some solutions. By third grade, children know that they shouldn’t copy their sources, but they struggle to evaluate the information they’ve collected and make it their own. We need to offer students a variety of ways to think carefully and critically about their research notes, and infographics is one tool we can offer them.

Here’s a terrific infographic that summarizes the information in my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate.

No Monkeys, No ChocolateThis wasn’t a school assignment. The student did it in her own in her free time because she really wanted to understand the process described in the book. I especially love the bookworm dialogue she wrote. It perfectly captures the voice I used in the book. It also shows that she understands the function of these characters—to add humor and reinforce the ideas in the main text. In Common Core lingo, she understands my author intent. See how powerful infographics can be?

When students take the time to represent their notes visually as infographics (or other combinations of words and pictures) during their pre-writing process, they will find their own special way of conveying the information. Instead of being tempted to plagiarize, they’ll write a report that’s 100 percent their own.


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? Here are some examples.

Biographers put their readers “in the moment’ when they use a subject’s own words.

Bold Women of MedicineIn her book, Bold Women of Medicine, author Susan Latta describes the filthy, rat infested hospital Florence Nightingale encountered when she treated soldiers during the Crimean War. Latta details these desperate conditions for her readers, infusing her description with Florence Nightingale’s own words from letters written at the time:

“We have not a basin nor a towel nor a bit of soap nor a broom—I have ordered 300 scrubbing brushes … one half of the Barrack is so sadly out of repair that it is impossible to use a drop of water on the stone floors, which are all laid upon rotten wood, and would give our men fever in no time … I am getting a screen now for the amputations … “

When Latta includes this candid account in her writing, she makes readers sit up and take notice. There is no disputing how awful things were. Nightingale’s own words make the conditions real.

Biographers use personal writings to get a glimpse into their subject’s personality, which helps with the portrayal of the subject.

In my book, Aim for the Skies, I tell the story of an air race between two women, Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith, in the 1960’s. Because the 1960’s are fairly recent history, I was able to find a great deal of information about the race—from both primary and secondary sources—when I conducted my research. But I wanted more. I wanted to know the pilots. What were they really like? What made them tick?

Three-Eight CharlieJerrie Mock’s autobiography, Three Eight Charlie, gave me the insight I desired.  It gave me a much needed glimpse into Jerrie’s personality. Newspaper accounts portrayed Jerrie as business-like and capable, which she was, but passages from her autobiography revealed more. Not surprisingly, Jerrie had a keen competitive nature:

“I had just kept quiet about the burned-out motor, so that no one would try to stop me. And since I couldn’t maintain radio contact all of the time, I was careful to stay clear of clouds, so I wouldn’t run into another plane. I didn’t know how far back Joan Smith might be, and I didn’t intend to lose a race around the world because of a stupid burned out motor.”

But she also was vulnerable and second guessed herself at times:

“I didn’t like to admit it, but I was nervous. There must have been an overcast, because I couldn’t see any stars. There was no moon either. The soft red glow from the instrument lights was a solitary pool of light in the black night. Outside, Charlie’s three navigation lights and bright, flashing-red beacon would be burning in the empty sky. But they weren’t where I could see them. I felt terribly alone … I said a prayer. Lots of prayers.”

As I researched, I discovered articles authored by Joan Merriam Smith, too. In those writings, Joan provided her own—sometimes very different—account of the race.  Talk about interesting! It was apparent from all these personal writings that Jerrie and Joan were two smart, feisty women.

Biographers use personal writings to reveal the flavor of the times. 

Miss Colfax's LightAs a biographer, getting a sense of the era and my subject’s place in it may be my favorite thing about personal accounts. That certainly was the case with Harriet Colfax, the lighthouse keeper I wrote about in Miss Colfax’s Light.

As part of her lighthouse keeping duties, Harriet Colfax had to keep a daily log. Harriet’s log entries were a treasure trove of information about her life, her work, and the dangers of Great Lakes shipping in the late 1800’s. They were full of Harriet’s musings—and occasional complaints. I read through decades of Harriet’s log entries, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the refrain I used in the book of “I can do this,” was something Harriet definitely would have repeated over and over.

In addition to providing great facts, though, Harriet’s log entries showcased the language of the day: traditional words and phrases, and an overall formality.  A number of log entries are included in the book so young readers can get a sense of how differently people spoke in the late 1800’s.

Miss Colfax's Light

Miss Colfax's Light

Personal accounts allow biographers to add richness and authenticity to their work. They provide a true sense of a subject’s view of the world. They provide historical facts and context. All of which makes the biographer’s job easier.

And, let’s face it, personal accounts are just plain fun to read.

They are a little gift to the history nerd in all of us. 

Tips for Students

How can students learn to mine the rich territory of a firsthand account (and experience the thrill biographers get when they are lucky enough to discover such a source)? Here are some questions students and teachers can ask that will help them glean more than just the facts:

  1. What was the writer’s purpose for writing this personal account? Does this purpose make you think the writing is more or less truthful?
  2. What historical facts does the writer include in the personal account? How is the writer’s world different from today? How is it the same?
  3. What do the language, grammar, and word usage in the personal account tell us about the writer? Was the writer poor, rich, well-educated?  
  4. If the writer is describing an event from history, why is the writer’s point of view important?
  5. What else can you tell about the writer from this personal account?

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. When the relationship is working well, the writer feels supported, yet independent, and the editor trusts that the writer is carrying out her suggestions, moving the book toward their common goal of making it the very best it can possibly be.  

When I began my writing career in 1989, things were a lot different in our industry. Submissions were made through the regular mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, monochrome-screened computer using MS-DOS. I spoke with editors in person and by phone about current and future projects. Publishers did all of the promotion for my books (self-promotion? author marketing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book contract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-digital age advantages of really knowing your editor as an individual (and vice versa) and being able to concentrate almost exclusively on writing. But some things about the author-editor experience have not changed at all: editors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very dedicated to making good literature, extremely hard-working, and serve as an author’s #1 collaborator through the production process.

But they are also individuals. Although their roles at the various publishing houses (acquiring manuscripts, offering guidance to the author as he/she shapes the story, working with the art director to choose an illustrator or cover artist, shepherding the book through the production process, helping to plan marketing strategies) may be similar, their execution of that role can be very different. Even so, the most important aspect of a successful author-editor relationship is communication. Let’s say an editor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a picture book biography manuscript I’ve written. It’s 75% done—which is to say, it’s a full story that shows good potential, but it needs some reworking and some additional back matter material. Susan will go over the draft several times, marking it up and making suggestions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her comments and do my best to address the issues she has highlighted. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the little brother more of an active character in the narrative?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line—the art will show this.”)

The manuscript bounces back and forth between us a few, several, many times—depending on how much work it needs. The clarity of communication between editor and author is paramount: I cannot make the necessary changes to the story if I have no idea what the editor is suggesting. Most editors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their training and they take this part seriously. Once the manuscript has been “accepted and delivered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into production, where it will increasingly look like a book …), there is usually a period wherein there is less communication as the text is being illustrated. Normally, there is little, if any, communication between the author and the illustrator (a fact that never fails to astound at school visits) unless the illustrator needs help finding an original source, photograph, or has an accuracy-related question.

At this point, a good editor will keep in touch periodically to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to reinforce the rhythm of their relationship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any questions from the illustrator, or just to say “everything’s on track for our publication date.” Remember: a good author and a good editor usually make an excellent book—and like all relationships, personal and professional—both partners need to invest time and attention to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than happy to look elsewhere with her next manuscript. This is not rocket science, obviously, but in my own experience—and especially now that digital communication has largely displaced in-person and phone communication—it’s the editor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am taking good care of your manuscript here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spending time thinking about how we can best position this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illustrator John Smith, and all is going really well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do something similar in yours regarding sidebars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of editor with whom the author will want to keep working.

Being an editor is a tough job—always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, juggle more deadlines and projects than we can imagine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and consistent communication that keeps the good authors coming back.

Editor reflecting


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. 

Let’s be honest.  I have a pretty good vocabulary of inappropriate words and I’m not all that careful about using them in adult company. My mother was so fond of “damn” that I didn’t know it was considered a curse word until I got to school. (Somehow, I’m still surprised that it’s verboten!)

I worked in several newsrooms where blue language was just the way we described events and chatted with each other. And my dog is definitely familiar with a few four-letter exclamations.

Oh please, they’re just words. 

Still, there’s a line. Despite the colorful banter of the workplace, newspapers have a clear standard about what goes into print: Profanity is allowed only sparingly, even today. If the offending language is in a quote, perhaps you paraphrase it into something more printable or just work around it. Any exceptions must be important and usually require special permission from the higher-ups.

In the old days, The Wall Street Journal regularly used what was called a Barney dash, after the paper’s arrow-straight keeper of standards, Barney Calame. That was a first letter, followed by a long dash. It still reserves the Barney dash for especially egregious words.

No s—, you knew what it was. But you didn’t have to actually ingest it along with your Wheaties.

If the president of the United States said something coarse, or the VP let something obscene slip out on a hot microphone, well, that was a different situation. Then, the words might actually appear in all their ugliness.

You’ve got to have some standards.

As a writer of nonfiction for young people, I’ve run into these kinds of language issues more than I expected. After all, real people do use real words. And sometimes they have real impact on a subject.

Bootleg by Karen Blumenthal“Hell,” for instance, was a big concept during the debate over liquor before, during, and after Prohibition. It was impossible to ignore it in my book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, though some people think that word doesn’t belong in a children’s book. (Apparently, the Bible is exempt.)

One reviewer called me out for using “damned” in a quotation in Mr. Sam, my biography of Sam Walton, and then questioned the appropriateness of the book because of that single word. (Thanks, Mom!)

Steve Jobs, however, posed the biggest challenge. As a colorful entrepreneur, he had quite the wide-ranging adult vocabulary. Walter Isaacson’s long biography for grown-ups is peppered with four-letter saltiness. But writing for young adults required a choice.

Steve Jobs by Karen BlumenthalIt wasn’t too difficult to decide what to do in Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different. I realize that teens (and younger kids) know those words and that they use them, too. But I’m in Texas, and I also know there are school libraries that will shy away from a book just because of a profanity. If I wrote fiction, I might choose differently, since avoiding those words might make a teen character less authentic. But as a teller of true stories, I had access to plenty of words that effectively made clear what Jobs wanted to say when he was, for example, demolishing someone’s hard work.

There was one quote, however, where one of those dastardly bombs exploded. Some commenter somewhere wondered aloud why I didn’t use the obvious real word.

True story: the original source had used a long dash—and so did I.

Words matter.

Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen BlumenthalHillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History introduced me to a new kind of language. There are certain words I absolutely won’t use in any context, primarily those that I consider racist or hateful, including a couple of especially crude ones aimed at women. A few people found it necessary to share those words in describing how they felt about the presidential candidate I profiled. (Thanks, Twitter!)

In tapping on my social media, I had the same response I had to President Trump’s January word choice, a bracing, slap-in-the-face reaction.

It was painful and upsetting—and I think that’s okay. We should never lose the ability to viscerally feel the impact of language, good or bad. We should never grow so complacent that words don’t move us. They should spark horror, spur tears, convey outrage, hurt, heal, or propel us to be something better.

Words are powerful. Choose carefully.


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.

ScienceNo one told me that since these kinds of institutions serve food, I had to take courses in food and nutrition. And since food and nutrition were science based, I must take chemistry. Three quarters of chemistry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; journalism and mass communications, and forty years later the stars have aligned. Science is drawing me in now.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the proposal for Bold Women of Medicine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about science. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these courageous doctors, nurses, midwives, and physical therapists, and there wouldn’t be any science? Oh, dear. I flashed back to freshman chemistry and biology, and suspected I was in big trouble.

Along the way I discovered that not having this knowledge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a position of innocence and explain the women’s medical careers without a condescending tone to my readers: I was one of those readers.

Take for example one of the women in my book, Helen Taussig and her part in treating the blue baby syndrome. I barely knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how brilliant medical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taussig and Blalock, discovered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas practiced on hundreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose portrait hangs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

heart doctorOff to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for children. I studied the healthy heart and heart defect jargon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. Fortunately, I have medical professionals in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it correctly and without intense medical language. Did you know the normal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.

The tiny babies were not getting enough oxygen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a simple case of improved plumbing. The narrative tension was built right into the story. Specifics always work better so I wrote about the first operation on one of the babies, little Eileen Saxon, and later another operation on a six-year-old boy.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

In the profiles of Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Edna Adan Ismail, the science writing was more challenging knowing my audience was young adult (12 and up). Writing about medicine automatically lends itself to topics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and Obstetric Fistula. One young woman came to Dr. Hamlin for help by walking almost 280 miles. Ten years earlier, because of a prolonged labor, she had suffered two holes in her bladder (an obstetric fistula) and lost all control. At first Dr. Hamlin did not know how to help her, but she talked to other physicians and studied up on procedures. After the successful surgery, Dr. Hamlin presented the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Presenting the image of an optimistic woman with a new dress helps readers understand Dr. Hamlin’s important work.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nursing school graduates at Edna Adan Ismail hospital.

As I wrote about science for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:

  • Every famous surgery or discovery or treatment has a story. Find that story, find the human part of that story.
  • Character, setting, and the five senses can help science dribble into the story.
  • Keep your wonder and gross-out mindset alive. Kids possess this mindset naturally and many appreciate the guts (no pun intended) of the details.
  • There are no stupid questions when interviewing experts. Be curious, and if you can, experience the science first-hand.
  • Know that your audience is smart, just inexperienced in the subject.
  • Double (and triple) check your science writing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incorrect information.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of medicine?

Because the women of medicine were accomplished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curious and that curiosity led them to answers. Science often comes up with negative results, people just trying to understand how something works. This doesn’t always make the news. Building on these negative results leads scientists to the flashy news and the successes.

I built on my (limited) knowledge, and learned right along with my audience. I had a lot of false starts, not really knowing what I was writing about. Fortunately, for the patients, I never had to actually perform the difficult procedures and surgeries.

And to that chemistry tutor in the flannel shirt, wherever you are: thanks for the help. I probably did learn something. Next up: seismology. Know any good tutors?


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!


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?


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.


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?


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.


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.