Archive | Nonfictionary

Science + History = Whole Picture”

Bones in the White HouseOn 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.  I did not include the mastodon time­line on man­u­script I sub­mit­ted to my agent, but the side­bars remained. How else would kids know that the shell Jef­fer­son found on a Blue Ridge moun­tain­top had once been cov­ered by an ancient ocean? Or that huge mastodons roamed North Amer­i­ca, only to dis­ap­pear a mere 2,000 years later?

Revise,” said my agent, mean­ing keep my sto­ry focused and sim­ple. With a sigh I ban­ished the mastodon parade and axed the side­bars. How would I con­vey to read­ers that my book was as much about his­to­ry as it was about the sci­ence of dis­cov­er­ing a new ani­mal in the New World, and vice ver­sa? With the empha­sis on STEM in today’s class­rooms, I wor­ry that stu­dents won’t see the entire pic­ture, won’t know that sci­en­tif­ic advances are based in history. 


When I began research­ing Bones, work­ing back­wards from one sen­tence in a non­fic­tion book that stat­ed Thomas Jef­fer­son unpacked three crates of fos­sils in the East Room of the White House, I was keen on the sci­ence aspect. What kind of fos­sils? Where did they come from? Soon, how­ev­er, I found myself grab­bing every his­to­ry book I could find to learn more about how sci­ence was per­ceived in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.  It was new!  It was tan­gled up with reli­gion!  It was being sort­ed out by brave and curi­ous people!

I loved read­ing about nat­ur­al philoso­phers (the term “sci­en­tist” was not yet coined) work­ing in France, Ger­many, Great Britain, North and South Amer­i­ca so much that when my book was fin­ished, acquired, and at the press­es, I kept on read­ing. I’m still read­ing. It’s a huge pic­ture and I want to see all of it.

Much has been made of the viral video, “Tik­Tok Math Girl,” who asked how we know if math is real and why do we need it. Her ques­tion was defend­ed by var­i­ous experts and answered in depth by math­e­mati­cian Euge­nia Cheng. I asked my hus­band, who has a degree in math­e­mat­ics, if he stud­ied Euclid’s life or Thales of Mile­tus? He said they didn’t have much time to go into math his­to­ry as they had to con­cen­trate on prac­ti­cal applications. 

Albert Einstein E=MC2Not much has changed. Stu­dents today know Ein­stein as a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry fig­ure famous for his the­o­ry, but on whose shoul­ders did Ein­stein stand? (Coper­ni­cus, New­ton, Michael Fara­day, among oth­ers.) Einstein’s e = mcdidn’t spring from his fore­head but was devel­oped from his stud­ies and his back­ground. These facts lend con­text and per­spec­tive to his achieve­ments, and show bud­ding physi­cists that it took years — and some mis­steps — to devel­op his theory. 

I includ­ed four pages of back mat­ter with my final man­u­script. Only two were used, due to space con­straints. I so want­ed read­ers to know where the dinosaur dis­cov­er­ies were at the time of my sto­ry. And how the con­ti­nents formed and changed. And how Dar­win set peo­ple straight — and the world on its ear — with his the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion, all part of the whole pic­ture of which my sto­ry is just a small part. But maybe that pic­ture is too big for one children’s book. I can always write another.


Dead Ends on the Long Road of Nonfiction Research

New Zealand is a beau­ti­ful coun­try filled with dead ends, wind­ing roads, and one-way bridges. Trav­el is slow. Back in 2013 my hus­band and I took a trip to vis­it our son who was in New Zealand study­ing abroad.

The Latta Family

One day as we looked at the map, we thought we spot­ted a short cut and liked the idea of trav­el­ing a road less trav­eled. We wound around and around, up and down, left and right, not know­ing where we’d come out. This road split sev­er­al times and the map was not that good. Some­times the road end­ed in someone’s dri­ve­way. Some­times, it end­ed in breath­tak­ing cliff views over­look­ing the ocean.

dead end signAs tempt­ing as it might have been to stay there, we knew we had to go on and find the right route. 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.

Define your goal(s). What specif­i­cal­ly do you want to know? Devel­op ques­tions that will lead you there. Know­ing what’s at stake in your non­fic­tion sto­ry can point you to dif­fer­ent research roads. For exam­ple, in one of my man­u­scripts the sub­ject works to treat a dis­ease. Research­ing her treat­ments led me to the trou­bles she met. I was able to focus my man­u­script on the bat­tle she faced with the male doc­tors who believed their way was the only way. Anoth­er more recent man­u­script led me to many dead ends until I fig­ured out the heart of the sto­ry was nev­er doubt­ing your­self and how you can sur­prise oth­ers. After that, the research dead ends dis­ap­peared and the sto­ry came together.

Some­times the sto­ry begs for a dif­fer­ent entry point. For me, that’s the hard­est part of writ­ing non­fic­tion. I just don’t know where to begin. Try list­ing sev­er­al dif­fer­ent begin­nings. Fol­low one research thread and if that doesn’t pan out, fol­low the next begin­ning. And so on. Some­times it takes awhile.

Change up your ques­tions. Even alter­ing one small aspect of what you’re look­ing for can uncov­er dif­fer­ent results and/or a dif­fer­ent focus for your story.

Who else can show you a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of your sub­ject? Research­ing the peo­ple sur­round­ing your sub­ject such as par­ents, friends, and sib­lings may help fill in the miss­ing details.

If you are research­ing an event, look at oth­er events that hap­pened in the same time peri­od. For exam­ple, if research­ing Pearl Har­bor, look­ing at events hap­pen­ing in Europe at the same time may help change your per­spec­tive and pro­vide anoth­er research road with­out a dead end.

How did the event you are research­ing depend or not depend on oth­er events hap­pen­ing at the same time? No life or event hap­pens in a vac­u­um. One per­son is depen­dent on anoth­er, one event leads to the next in some fashion.

Remain flex­i­ble and be patient. Hit­ting dead ends is inevitable and you may not have to give up. If you even­tu­al­ly find that your idea leads to that dread­ed dead end road sign, know when to turn around and focus else­where. New infor­ma­tion you uncov­er may push you in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion but usu­al­ly moves this or a new sto­ry forward.

seal among the rocks

Note the seal among the rocks … an unplanned stop along our “short­cut.”

On that long dri­ve in New Zealand, we found new roads. And even­tu­al­ly those new roads led us to our des­ti­na­tion. Lat­er that night, study­ing oth­er maps we real­ized that the “short cut” we thought we could take was real­ly a bumpy three-hour detour. C’est la vie. The orig­i­nal road would’ve been much faster, but prob­a­bly much less inter­est­ing. And with our “short­cut” we were blessed with (most­ly) incred­i­ble views and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives of a beau­ti­ful country.


What Gets Left Out

Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant

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.

When I choose a bio­graph­i­cal top­ic (or rather, when the top­ic choos­es ME, as it more often seems to do!) it’s because I’m fas­ci­nat­ed about the details of the person’s life, their strug­gles, tri­umphs, dis­cov­er­ies, and, yes, their fail­ures. Fas­ci­nat­ed to the point of obses­sion, which is a GOOD thing, because all of these peo­ple have BIG lives which require months and months of research to com­pre­hend. They have friends, fam­i­lies, pets, col­leagues, jobs, and schools. Many of them excel in mul­ti­ple fields. The The­saurus author Peter Mark Roget, for exam­ple, was a physi­cian, a pub­lic health advo­cate, a math­e­mati­cian (he invent­ed a slide rule and a portable chess set), an expert in optics and botany. The blind inven­tor Louis Braille was a gift­ed organ­ist who was hired by some of the largest church­es in Paris. Geor­gia O’Keeffe held teach­ing posi­tions in var­i­ous schools before she found her spir­i­tu­al home in the desert of New Mexico.

But you won’t find most of those details in the books I wrote. In research­ing every life sto­ry, there are inevitably dozens of peo­ple, events, and achieve­ments that must be left out. That is hard! When an author uncov­ers an inter­est­ing tid­bit or an as-of-yet-unknown aspect of her subject’s life, her impulse is to write it all down and dis­play it like a shiny object on the long shelf of the book’s narrative.

How­ev­er … part of being a pic­ture book biog­ra­ph­er is zero­ing in on just one or two threads of the subject’s life, and twist­ing them togeth­er in a lyri­cal way so that young read­ers get a clear, sharp sense of the per­son. Too many details mud­dy the waters, and there­fore it’s not uncom­mon for chunks of care­ful­ly researched and writ­ten text to be left out of the final man­u­script (but often these CAN be includ­ed, albeit in a less lyri­cal way, in the back mat­ter of the book.)

The Right WordOne good exam­ple is a scene I wrote into the nar­ra­tive of The Right Word: Roget and his The­saurus (Eerd­mans, 2014, illus­trat­ed by Melis­sa Sweet). When Peter Roget grad­u­at­ed med­ical school, he was only 17 years old — too young to become a pro­fes­sion­al doc­tor. He need­ed to fill a few years with oth­er activ­i­ties while he matured. So he took a posi­tion as a lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture tutor to two teenage sons of a wealthy Scot­tish busi­ness­man. Roget’s job was to trav­el with them through France and Switzer­land, help­ing them to learn the cus­toms, lan­guages, geog­ra­phy, etc.

This sounds like a lot of fun, but it was also the time of the Napoleon­ic Wars between France and Eng­land, and Roget’s age and nation­al­i­ty made him vul­ner­a­ble to cap­ture and con­scrip­tion. At one point, Roget and his young charges were trapped in a man­sion in Switzer­land, with no appar­ent way to escape. With the help of a flir­ta­tious and well-con­nect­ed Swiss count­ess, Roget and the boys were able to trav­el at night, dis­guised, through the city where they were stay­ing and on into Ger­many, where they caught a ship and sailed safe­ly back to the U.K.

Fun stuff to research and to write about — and it cer­tain­ly would have been a LOT of fun for Melis­sa Sweet to illus­trate! The prob­lem was that it just didn’t move the cen­ter of the sto­ry for­ward in any help­ful way, a fact that was point­ed out to me by EBYR edi­tor Kath­leen Merz. She was absolute­ly right. The threads of the Roget nar­ra­tive were all about LANGUAGE — how it could be col­lect­ed, savored, shared and used by any­one every­where, and how a shy, obses­sive young man made it his mis­sion to try and cat­a­logue lan­guage and ideas in a sin­gle, prac­ti­cal book. This scene was a side adven­ture, and despite its dra­mat­ic details, was an unnec­es­sary part of the text. We took it out (but it is not­ed in the time­line in the back mat­ter) and that deci­sion made the final book bet­ter than it would have been otherwise.

Feed Your MindWith my lat­est book, I want kids to learn about, and to love, August Wil­son. That’s my goal.

There is so much that gets left out, and yet all of that oth­er research informs the book some­how and makes it rich­er: he had old­er sis­ters and younger broth­ers, and friends and room­mates, he joined the Army for a while, he had a deep father-son-like friend­ship with direc­tor Lloyd Richards, he was mar­ried three times and had two daugh­tersall of that will be includ­ed, I’m sure, in a com­pre­hen­sive adult biog­ra­phy of August Wil­son. I believe a the­ater crit­ic is work­ing on one to be pub­lished in the future.

And much of that is list­ed in the back mat­ter of my book, but it’s not the focus. The focus is on how did Fred­dy find his voice, and how did he teach him­self to write plays.

So — I’m com­ing from it through my own love of lan­guage, my own curios­i­ty about the cre­ative process. This is what I’ve done with sev­en oth­er pic­ture book biogra­phies (O’Keeffe, Mes­si­aen, Moore, William Car­los Williams, Pip­pin, Roget, Braille, about cre­ative peo­ple and one nov­el (Pieces of Geor­gia).


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. So recent­ly, I decid­ed to do a lit­tle, er, research to track down the ori­gin of the word and, if pos­si­ble, find a connection.


It turns out that our mod­ern word “research” traces back to the Old French term recercher, which means “seek out, search close­ly.” This could apply to both types of research, so I start­ed look­ing at all kinds of con­tem­po­rary def­i­n­i­tions. Even­tu­al­ly, I came across this one, which I like a lot:

cre­ative and sys­temic work under­tak­en to increase knowledge”

Here’s a way of think­ing about research that encom­pass­es both kinds of research. From the ELA point of view, an indi­vid­ual increas­es his or her per­son­al knowl­edge about a par­tic­u­lar top­ic. From a sci­en­tif­ic point of view, we are increas­ing our over­all body of knowl­edge about life, space, Earth, and the phys­i­cal laws that explain how every­thing works.

Anoth­er rea­son I like this def­i­n­i­tion so much is that it includes the word “cre­ative.” In fact, it puts that word right up front.

Why is that so impor­tant to me? Because that’s what makes research excit­ing. To me, gath­er­ing research for a book is like a trea­sure hunt — a quest for tan­ta­liz­ing tid­bits of knowl­edge. It’s an active, self-dri­ven process that requires a whole lot of cre­ative thinking.

drone research

Ide­al­ly, I want my every one of my books to fea­ture fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion that no one else has ever includ­ed in a book on the top­ic. To find that infor­ma­tion, I think cre­ative­ly about sources.

  • Who can I ask?
  • Where can I go?
  • How can I search in a new or unex­pect­ed way?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, kids often don’t bring that same kind of cre­ative spir­it to their research, and that’s why they often find it boring.

research with the five senses

Ide­al­ly, research should employ as many of the five sense as possible.

  • We can use our eyes to watch doc­u­men­tary films, observe ani­mals first­hand in the wild or on web­cams, and search archival pho­tographs for clues about the past.
  • We can use our ears to lis­ten to pod­casts, radio inter­views, or experts we inter­view our­selves.
  • We can use our hands to feel arti­facts and get a sense of what it would have been like to hold them and use them long ago.
  • It may be a bit hard­er to use our mouths and noses to expe­ri­ence smells and tastes relat­ed to a top­ic, but it’s cer­tain­ly a goal to keep in mind.

Can you think of some more cre­ative ways of con­duct­ing research?


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. The books are about shap­ing behav­ior, but in a deep­er sense, they’re designed to help young chil­dren express their feel­ings, get their needs met, and bet­ter under­stand their grow­ing inde­pen­dence. I think of my books as tools in an SEL toolk­it. They can help you bring out the best in chil­dren dur­ing the tod­dler years, all the way through ear­ly ele­men­tary school, and beyond.

My goal from the begin­ning of the series was to use sim­ple words to teach, encour­age, and reas­sure young chil­dren. But I real­ized that my tod­dler board books — lim­it­ed to 11 spreads, with one full spread devot­ed to tips for par­ents and edu­ca­tors — were too short to ful­ly cov­er the top­ics for a wider audi­ence. What a tod­dler can under­stand from a book called Germs Are Not for Shar­ing is much dif­fer­ent from what a preschool­er or kinder­gart­ner can grasp. So, I’ve cre­at­ed more in-depth paper­backs for old­er chil­dren, using the same titles as the board books. I have var­i­ous ver­sions of, for exam­ple, Words Are Not for Hurt­ing: the board book, the expand­ed paper­back, and Spanish/English ver­sions of both. It’s been a joy­ful chal­lenge for me to adapt my words to the dif­fer­ent ages and stages chil­dren go through. I love aging down and aging up! The process is great prac­tice for any writer, new or expe­ri­enced, espe­cial­ly if you want to write for children.

How do you age down your text? First, know that aging down is very dif­fer­ent from “writ­ing down to chil­dren.” Our goal as children’s writ­ers is not to write to chil­dren in baby­ish lan­guage or to lec­ture our read­ers, even in books that aim to guide a child’s behav­ior. Whether you’re aging your text down or up, respect young read­ers’ intel­li­gence; know that they feel fierce­ly and they care deeply. E. B. White said it this way:

Chil­dren are … the most atten­tive, curi­ous, eager, obser­vant, sen­si­tive, quick, and gen­er­al­ly con­ge­nial read­ers on earth.”

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford PaulSome children’s writ­ers take the approach of get­ting all their ideas and best lines on the page first, so they don’t get caught up in edit­ing them­selves too much, too ear­ly. In oth­er words, they write long before writ­ing short. This method feels expan­sive and free­ing; it lets you use the page to explore and brain­storm. Yet, there are some tips to keep in mind so you’ll be on your way to cre­at­ing work that’s age appro­pri­ate. Expert pic­ture-book writer Anne Whit­ford Paul in her man­u­al Writ­ing Pic­ture Books says there are char­ac­ter­is­tics of chil­dren to keep in mind as you write for them, including:

  1. Chil­dren have had few experiences.
  2. Chil­dren have strong emotions.
  3. Some­times child­hood is not happy.
  4. Chil­dren long to be independent.
  5. Chil­dren are complicated.

Paul’s list is actu­al­ly longer, and I high­ly rec­om­mend get­ting a copy of her help­ful man­u­al (recent­ly revised and updat­ed) if you want to write for young kids. Let the chil­dren in your own life inform your writ­ing, too. Spend time lis­ten­ing to them close­ly, soak­ing in their words and cre­ative turns of phrase. Ask chil­dren to read aloud to you — pay­ing close atten­tion to what cap­tures their imag­i­na­tions and res­onates with them emo­tion­al­ly. Invite fel­low writ­ers to read and com­ment on your work: What age group do you think this is for? Is this too wordy? Where might I cut some text?

Sup­pose you’ve writ­ten a man­u­script for very young chil­dren, but you’re not sure if it’s age appro­pri­ate. The eas­i­est place to start is with a word count. Gen­er­al guide­lines sug­gest that man­u­scripts should be 500 words or less. If you’re writ­ing for tod­dlers, much less. Think of it this way: Good­night Moon by Mar­garet Wise Brown is only 130 words. For fun, I just count­ed the words in my tod­dler board book Voic­es Are Not for Yelling: 131. Fic­tion pic­ture books for young chil­dren, includ­ing Good­night Moon, are often brief, poet­ic texts in which every word mat­ters—some­times described as “Per­fect words in per­fect places.” Non­fic­tion books for lit­tle ones are sim­i­lar­ly short but are often designed to give infor­ma­tion or share a mes­sage. In my SEL non­fic­tion, I don’t aim to be poet­ic but do hope to share sim­ple phras­es chil­dren can use on their own every day:

You are big­ger than your worries.”

Teeth are not for bit­ing. Ouch, bit­ing hurts.”

Warm water, lots of soap, scrub, scrub, scrub. Send those germs down the drain.”

I adore writ­ing short! It’s sat­is­fy­ing for me to pick at my own words like I pick weeds in my gar­den. I’m an edi­tor at heart, and that’s where I got my start in pub­lish­ing, help­ing oth­er writ­ers use lan­guage to the best of their abil­i­ties. When writ­ing for the very young, revise and then revise again (and again) to boil down your lan­guage to its sim­plest form. If that sounds dif­fi­cult or bor­ing, remem­ber that illus­tra­tions do half the work in books for lit­tle ones. A sim­ple tip? Get rid of your adjec­tives or over­ly descrip­tive lan­guage. Illus­tra­tions can do that job for you.

When­ev­er I’m start­ing a new book in the “Best Behav­ior” series, I tack­le the board book first. This helps me sim­pli­fy the con­cepts and lan­guage for the youngest audi­ence, while also let­ting me reach the fin­ish line faster. Once I’ve writ­ten the board book, I feel like I’ve accom­plished some­thing and want to do more. I then think of the ways in which preschool­ers, kinder­gart­ners, and old­er chil­dren expe­ri­ence behav­ior issues in school and in the com­mu­ni­ty. As they grow old­er, chil­dren spend more time out­side of the home, engag­ing with a wider vari­ety of peo­ple and places. A child’s world grad­u­al­ly expands — and so my books have to expand as well. But not by too much. I try to keep that “500 words or less” rule of thumb firm­ly in mind as I write.

Peep LeapRecent­ly, I vis­it­ed a first-grade class­room to share a cou­ple of my pic­ture books, Small Walt (about a lit­tle snow­plow) and Peep Leap (about a baby wood duck afraid to leave the nest). A theme in each of these works is “small can be mighty” and that we all need encour­age­ment, from our­selves and oth­ers. One of my favorite lines in Peep Leap is: “You are braver than you know.” To be hon­est, I feel scared every time I start a new man­u­script. It doesn’t mat­ter how many books I’ve writ­ten before — each new one feels like a chal­lenge I have no idea how to take on. I give myself lit­tle pep talks and reach out to fel­low writ­ers who often feel the same way. On that day of the first-grade vis­it, the teacher pulled me aside and con­fid­ed that she had a book idea and want­ed to write for chil­dren and hadn’t start­ed yet because it felt too “big.” Well, I hope she does start writ­ing soon, and I told her to give it a try. If you work with chil­dren or are rais­ing them, you have an insider’s view into what makes kids tick, and how much they grow and change as time rolls on. That’s a great start … now you need to put some words on the page.


Pairing Verse with Nonfiction

Why write non­fic­tion in verse? If you do, is it still non­fic­tion? Good ques­tions in a time when gen­res are expanding.

Siege by Roxane OrgillI’ve used verse in two non­fic­tion sto­ries: a pic­ture book, Jazz Day: The Mak­ing of a Famous Pho­to­graph, and a book for ages ten and up, Siege: How Wash­ing­ton Kicked the British out of Boston and Launched a Rev­o­lu­tion (Can­dlewick Press). As to why I chose poet­ry over prose, read on. And yes, to me, the sto­ry of the Siege of Boston in one hun­dred poems is non­fic­tion (although my pub­lish­er dis­agrees; more on that later.)

First, a word on my tastes as a read­er, and there­fore, writer. I like con­cise writ­ing. I pre­fer acces­si­ble over aca­d­e­m­ic and would rather read a book of man­age­able length than a heavy tome.

It was 1776, by David McCul­lough, that start­ed me on the Rev­o­lu­tion thing. Four hun­dred pages, and it reads like a sto­ry. I’d nev­er heard of the ten-month stand­off between George Washington’s mili­tia-turned-army in Cam­bridge and the British in Boston. It seemed to me that the rev­o­lu­tion start­ed there, rather than with the bat­tles in Lex­ing­ton and Concord.

Curi­ous, I dove into Washington’s Papers, which, dur­ing the years I spent research­ing Siege, became increas­ing­ly avail­able online, and are now, thanks to an agree­ment between the Nation­al Archives and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia Press, ful­ly acces­si­ble at founders.archives.gov. What a trove! I got into the Gen­er­al Orders, issued as Wash­ing­ton was putting togeth­er the first Amer­i­can army, and I couldn’t pull myself out. The Orders are sur­pris­ing­ly read­able, loaded with detail and even, if you read close­ly, feel­ing, includ­ing the Commander’s despair over the unruli­ness of his fledg­ling out­fit. “Fill up old nec­es­saries” (out­door toi­lets)… exe­cute prop­er­ly the reveille upon the drum… no fir­ing of guns to start a fire for cooking….”

Won­der­ful, pre­cise, con­cise lan­guage. Washington’s words prompt­ed me to con­sid­er how I might take a dif­fer­ent tack. I have long been attract­ed to alter­na­tive meth­ods of telling a true sto­ry: graph­ic nov­els like Perse­po­lis, verse nov­els like Allan Wolf’s The Watch that Ends the Night, about the Titan­ic, and the musi­cal Hamil­ton. Impressed as I am by Wolf (the ice­berg is a char­ac­ter! Bril­liant!), I want­ed to stay clos­er to the truth.

Persepolis, The Watch That Ends the Night, Hamilton

Then I hap­pened upon a review of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary-war book for adults which used the phrase “cacoph­o­ny of voic­es.” An “ah-ha” moment. I would give an account of the siege from many points of view: major fig­ures such as Wash­ing­ton, his wife, Martha, and the book­seller-turned-artillery­man Hen­ry Knox, but also less­er knowns: The Commander’s favorite aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, his ser­vant-slave, William, a pri­vate; a lieu­tenant… while draw­ing on as many pri­ma­ry sources as I could. Rich mate­r­i­al, irre­sistible. Con­sid­er Reed’s plain­tive, telling com­ment in a let­ter to his wife: “Events here are very uncer­tain; don’t think of me too much or too little!”

Poet­ry brought imme­di­a­cy, and the inten­si­ty of wartime. Verse’s loose­ness allowed me choic­es over char­ac­ters and events. I didn’t have to find every pri­vate, just one who suit­ed my lit­er­ary pur­pose, like Samuel, whose diary told me of the mun­dan­i­ty of war as he penned, day after day, “noth­ing much hap­pened.” I wouldn’t need to cov­er every skir­mish, and there were a great many, just the whop­per on Ploughed Hill where they tried to stop a can­non­ball with their feet. I could do the unex­pect­ed, like use an alpha­bet poem to con­vey how much stuff the British Army left behind when it fled.

Orgill OrganizationVerse freed me to write my story.

But I was not entire­ly free; I was restrict­ed by the rules of non­fic­tion. It’s impor­tant for read­ers to know if a book is true, so I was care­ful to note the sources of every poem. I used quotes where pos­si­ble and where they didn’t dis­rupt the poet­ry. Every event, set­ting, num­ber, and char­ac­ter in Siege is real — except one. In a book for chil­dren about adults, I want­ed to include a child. Although I locat­ed sev­er­al accounts of boys who served in the war, none of the them was active in this peri­od. I took a leap across the non­fic­tion divide and cre­at­ed a boy ser­vant who was a com­pos­ite of sev­er­al real boys.

Per­haps that’s why my pub­lish­er chose to call the book a nov­el, I don’t know. To me it’s well-researched non­fic­tion in verse. For­tu­nate­ly for writ­ers and read­ers there is a place called children’s books in which writ­ing and pub­lish­ing such a thing — by what­ev­er name — is possible.



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. But I was hes­i­tant to dive in. Maybe it was the research she had to do. Maybe I lacked con­fi­dence. But when I began my chal­lenge to “write what I didn’t think I was good at,” (a chal­lenge made to decrease my own per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies and expec­ta­tions), I found myself enjoy­ing every aspect of this craft.

If you are also inter­est­ed in writ­ing some­thing true — as in non­fic­tion true — here are some things I learned writ­ing Just Like Rube Gold­berg, my first pic­ture book biography!

  1. You need to read care­ful­ly. This may seem obvi­ous, but as a fic­tion read­er, I was used to infer­ring from the text. When you are read­ing to dis­cov­er your true sto­ry, don’t skim! Don’t infer! Take care­ful notes. It’s not like read­ing a nov­el. It’s like going deep sea div­ing for some­thing pre­cious. As you read sources, you are look­ing for TRUTH. Don’t for­get to keep a list of your sources. And every fact needs to be con­firmed in mul­ti­ple places. When I think about it, it’s not that dif­fer­ent from cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter in a nov­el. I have to get to the heart of the per­son — the ele­ment that will con­nect that per­son to the read­er. But in this case, it has to be true!
  2. Just like in fic­tion, your theme or through-line will appear. The more you get to know your sub­ject, the clear­er THE WHY will become. If you have a hunch about a per­son, time, or place, fol­low that hunch! Keep read­ing! Look for the glim­mer that offers a foun­da­tion and struc­ture to tell the story.
  3. It’s fun. This was per­haps the biggest sur­prise! I actu­al­ly like research a lot. I loved going to the library. I loved talk­ing to peo­ple about Rube. I also find myself look­ing for sto­ries with new enthu­si­asm. True sto­ries are inspir­ing! They are some­times whack­i­er than fiction!
  4. Edi­tors and copy edi­tors are your best friends! (Well, I actu­al­ly knew that already, but I can’t leave them out of this post!) When you start find­ing your voice, you need your team to tell you when you have tak­en a lib­er­ty. For me, writ­ing this book almost became a Rube Gold­berg machine! But as my edi­tor pushed me, I also found new facts that made the sto­ry even stronger!
  5. Your voice is the glim­mer! Your voice is what will invite read­ers into your true sto­ry. Your point of view will offer your read­ers the truth in a way that engages them and makes them want to read and learn more!

Writ­ers, even though I am inter­est­ed in all kinds of top­ics, I stayed away from non­fic­tion for a real­ly long time. Well, not any­more! Per­haps the best ben­e­fit to try­ing non­fic­tion is that it gave me a new way to use my brain and play with cre­ativ­i­ty. It gave me more ener­gy for my nov­el. It sparked new inspi­ra­tion for oth­er pic­ture books that had been in the draw­er for a long time. Best of all, inspi­ra­tion comes in all sorts of ways. I am get­ting ready to sub­mit a sto­ry that came from research­ing anoth­er sto­ry! Remem­ber: writ­ing and all its parts, includ­ing dis­cov­ery, is a prac­tice! Writ­ing non­fic­tion has giv­en me more sta­mi­na for all my stories!


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. Even though I write (most­ly) expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion, there is a sto­ry, a per­son­al nar­ra­tive, behind every book I create.

I doc­u­ment­ed the sto­ry of craft­ing Dead­liest Ani­mals in a series of blog posts, which I bun­dled togeth­er on this Pin­ter­est board.

Writing Nonfiction Step by Step Pinterest board

I told the sto­ry behind No Mon­keys, No Choco­late in this inter­ac­tive time­line.

No Monkeys No Chocolate timeline

Based on ques­tions and feed­back from stu­dents and teach­ers, I cre­at­ed a mod­i­fied inter­ac­tive time­line with info­graph­ic ele­ments to describe the expe­ri­ence of writ­ing Can an Aard­vark Bark?

Can an Aardvark Bark? timeline

I cre­at­ed these mate­ri­als as edu­ca­tion­al resources for teach­ers and stu­dents, so they could see and hear and under­stand a pro­fes­sion­al writer’s process. My goal was to pull back the cur­tain, so that stu­dents could see that my expe­ri­ence is very sim­i­lar to their own.

But, sur­pris­ing­ly, I prof­it­ed from the process myself. By think­ing through and reliv­ing the expe­ri­ence, I noticed things that I con­sis­tent­ly do wrong, allow­ing me to brain­storm ways to work smarter. I was able to ask oth­er writ­ers tar­get­ed ques­tions about their process, and exper­i­ment with the tech­niques and strate­gies they suggested.

I think young writ­ers could also ben­e­fit from telling their sto­ries of cre­ation. Imag­ine stu­dents using tools like Flip­grid or Padlet or audio record­ings or sto­ry­board­ing to doc­u­ment their non­fic­tion writ­ing expe­ri­ences. They could address some of the fol­low­ing questions:

  • What was my process?
  • What chal­lenges did I face?
  • How did I over­come them?
  • Who or what helped me?
  • What might I try dif­fer­ent­ly the next time?

This activ­i­ty will help to solid­i­fy the steps of the non­fic­tion writ­ing process in their minds, which as I dis­cuss in this post, can real­ly help some stu­dents. It would also offer a fun, authen­tic form of self-assess­ment and a start­ing point for dia­logue with others.

Why not give it a try?


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. I trust they will sup­ply their own emo­tions as they read my book.

Let me give you some examples.

Buried LivesMy newest book Buried Lives: The Enslaved Peo­ple of George Washington’s Mount Ver­non is about six, spe­cif­ic enslaved indi­vid­u­als. This book was chal­leng­ing to write because no writ­ten record exists from these indi­vid­u­als. There­fore as the author I had to be very care­ful not to put words, thoughts or feel­ings into their mouths, so to speak. I had to fig­ure out how to write the text that is full of emo­tion while main­tain­ing his­tor­i­cal accuracy.

To begin Buried Lives, I want­ed to pull in my read­ers emo­tion­al­ly from the start. So, the first sen­tence of the first chap­ter is:

William Lee, a six­teen-year-old African Amer­i­can boy, was for sale.”

It is straight­for­ward and his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate. But at the same time, I hope my words car­ry a lot of emo­tion­al weight.

Lat­er in the book, I give read­ers a peek into the dai­ly life of Car­o­line, the house­maid at Mount Ver­non. I wrote a sec­tion about the work she did each day. I explained how she swept, turned the feath­er beds, and dust­ed. While our mod­ern day sen­si­bil­i­ties under­stand basic house clean­ing, I inten­tion­al­ly left one detail of her clean­ing rou­tine to the end of the sen­tence. To mod­ern read­ers, this should pack an emo­tion­al punch:

She emp­tied and cleaned the cham­ber pots that had been used dur­ing the night. Then Car­o­line poured a lit­tle bit of water into the pots to cut down on the smell and mess for the next time she emp­tied them.”

Something Out of NothingIn my book Some­thing Out of Noth­ing: Marie Curie and Radi­um, I wrote about the death of Marie’s hus­band, Pierre, and his funer­al. Then I want­ed to pull the read­ers emo­tion­al­ly into the way Marie han­dled the loss of her beloved husband:

 “Marie could not bear to talk about Pierre, not even to men­tion his name. In the years fol­low­ing his death, she would nev­er talk to her daugh­ters about their father.

Around this time, Marie began rub­bing togeth­er her fin­ger­tips and thumbs (which had become hard from work­ing with vials of radi­um) in a ner­vous habit. Uncon­scious­ly, she would rub and rub and rub. The habit stayed with her for the rest of her life.”

In Defiance of HitlerAnoth­er of my books, In Defi­ance of Hitler: The Secret Mis­sion of Var­i­an Fry, relates how an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist saved thou­sands of refugees from falling into the hands of the Nazis by secret­ly help­ing them escape. Fry stayed in Mar­seilles for thir­teen months, and then was forced to leave France. In this pas­sage, I want read­ers to feel the emo­tions of Fry’s sad­ness and uncer­tain­ty on the day he said good­bye to the peo­ple who were part of the team who worked with him to save lives:

Rain poured from the sky on Sep­tem­ber 6, 1941, the day Var­i­an left France. The gray, drea­ry weath­er matched their mood as Var­i­an and his staff ate their last lunch togeth­er. Around the table, long moments of silence took the place of heir usu­al meal­time chat­ter. None of them knew what hard­ships lay ahead. None knew what the out­come of World War 11 would be. Would Hitler ulti­mate­ly be vic­to­ri­ous and take over all of Europe and the rest of the world? Would they ever see each oth­er again? Would the Vichy police or the Gestapo come for them in the mid­dle of the night? Would they have enough food to sur­vive the winter?”

In each of these exam­ples, I don’t tell the read­er how they should feel, yet I hope each read­er makes these emo­tion­al jumps with me.

I’ve always said, “I don’t cre­ate the facts, but I use the facts cre­ative­ly.” It is pos­si­ble to fill the pages of a non­fic­tion book with pow­er­ful emo­tions. I believe this is what read­ers will remem­ber long after they close the cover.


Pairing Nonfiction and Fiction

Non­fic­tion and fic­tion are like peanut but­ter and choco­late. Each excel­lent on its own, but when combined…so sublime.


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. In Kather­ine Paterson’s Of Nightin­gales That Weep (1989, grade 6 and up), Patterson’s pro­tag­o­nist, Takiko, serves the rival samu­rai fam­i­ly that Yoshit­sune even­tu­al­ly destroys.

A side-by-side read­ing of Samu­rai and Nightin­gales allows read­ers to pon­der how war is expe­ri­enced by those wag­ing it com­pared to those who are its victims.


Lynn Fulton’s new pic­ture book biog­ra­phy She Made a Mon­ster: How Mary Shel­ley Cre­at­ed Frankenstein (2018, grade 1 and up) is based on Shelley’s own account of the inspi­ra­tion for her icon­ic mon­ster. Pair it with an acces­si­ble ver­sion of the clas­sic such as the Step­ping Stones ver­sion of Franken­stein (1982, grade 1 and up).

Ask your young read­er: Have you ever had a strange dream that stuck in your head? We can’t con­trol our dreams, but we can turn them into sto­ries. Try writ­ing one.


A straight-up sci­ence book and a nov­el make a great duo. In my book Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Bright­est Bird (2016, grade 5 and up), I look at the extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties of the tool-mak­ing New Cale­don­ian crow. Team this one up with Kather­ine Applegate’s love­ly Wishtree (2017, grade 4 and up), which fea­tures a crow among its cast of sub­ur­ban wildlife.

Young read­ers may not be famil­iar with the term “anthro­po­mor­phism,” but this pair­ing invites a dis­cus­sion about how ani­mal char­ac­ters in books are often giv­en a mix of char­ac­ter­is­tics that are true-to-life and fan­ci­ful. Based on Crow, how real­is­tic is Applegate’s black-feath­ered character?

Oth­er Pairings

Deb­o­rah Hopkinson’s Courage and Defi­ance: Spies, Sabo­teurs, and Sur­vivors in WWII Den­mark (2015, grade 5 and up), and Eliz­a­beth Wein’s Code Name Ver­i­ty (2012, grade 7 and up).

Christy Hale’s Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World (2018, pre‑K and up), and Arthur Dorros’s bilin­gual Isla (1999, pre‑K and up).

Jeanne Walk­er Harvey’s Maya Lin: Artist-Archi­tect of Light and Lines (2017, kinder­garten and up), and Eve Bunting’s The Wall (1992, pre‑K and up).

Now that I’ve shared mine, what are YOUR favorite nonfiction/fiction pair­ings? What comparisons/discussion activ­i­ties does the pair­ing invite? Please add your sug­ges­tions in the com­ments. And then go reward your­self with some­thing involv­ing wine and cheese. Or gua­camole and chips. Or peanut but­ter and chocolate.


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. I need to expe­ri­ence the place. Its scent, light­ing, sounds, and details. Set­ting is just as much a char­ac­ter in non­fic­tion as the peo­ple or events we write about. Here are a few tips to make the most of that non­fic­tion setting.

1. Paint your set­ting with details:

Sergeant RecklessIn Sergeant Reck­less: The True Sto­ry of the Lit­tle Horse Who Became a Hero, the author Patri­cia McCormick begins the sto­ry with a prob­lem. The U.S. Marines fight­ing in Korea are worn out from haul­ing heavy ammu­ni­tion to the can­non named Reck­less up the hill. They found a small mare and set out to train her. The read­er can’t help but be smack dab in the war with the horse now named Sergeant Reckless.

One day, the marines spot­ted ene­my troops approach­ing; instant­ly, they went into bat­tle mode. Pvt. Mon­roe Col­man sad­dled up Reck­less and led her to the top of the hill. BOOM! Just as they were deliv­er­ing their load, the can­non went off. A blast of hot air sent dust and grav­el fly­ing toward the horse. Reck­less jumped straight in the air — even with six shells on her back…BOOM! The can­non roared again. She jumped, but not so high this time. BOOM! This time, Reck­less just snort­ed. By the next time the gun went off, Reck­less was busy eat­ing a hel­met lin­er she’d found in the grass.”

The scene got my heart rac­ing, as if I were right there. And after the dan­ger, my heart swelled with admi­ra­tion for both the marines and Sergeant Reckless.

Bold Women of MedicineIn my YA non­fic­tion book, Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin arrives in Ethiopia: “The fresh scent of euca­lyp­tus mixed with dust in every breath remind­ed them of Aus­tralia. Some­one was sup­posed to have met them. When no one arrived … they walked along the frag­ment­ed road car­ry­ing their lug­gage and see­ing noth­ing but green coun­try­side, loaded-down don­keys, and a few cars.” Details help to pro­vide the back­drop for this setting.

2. Use all five senses:

Smell brings to mind all kinds of places; a zoo, a cup of bleach in a laun­dro­mat. Sounds like; a ring­ing bell, chug­ging train, or the hum of a crowd­ed mar­ket add to the set­ting. Light; how it bright­ens a gloomy day. Touch: the soft warm blan­ket on a cold night, the silk­i­ness of your dog’s coat.

An American PlagueThe begin­ning of An Amer­i­can Plague by Jim Mur­phy uses the sense of smell com­bined with oth­er details to draw the read­er in. Sight and sound are famil­iar sens­es many writ­ers use. But smell is some­times even more effective.

Sat­ur­day, August 3, 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unre­lent­ing.  Dead fish and gooey veg­etable mat­ter were exposed and rot­ted, wild swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air.”

The book pulls us in imme­di­ate­ly with the weight of the air and forces the read­er to feel unease. And in the fol­low­ing pas­sage the sen­so­ry words he uses such as clat­tered, squawk­ing, and squeal­ing add to the uncertainty.

Horse drawn wag­ons clat­tered up and down the cob­ble­stone street, bring­ing in more fresh veg­eta­bles, squawk­ing chick­ens, and squeal­ing pigs. Peo­ple com­ment­ed on the stench from Ball’s wharf, but the market’s own ripe blend of odors — of roast­ing meats, strong cheeses, days-old sheep and cow guts, dried blood and horse manure — tend­ed to over­whelm all others.”

Sur­round­ing your char­ac­ters with as many sens­es as you can help to estab­lish a sol­id set­ting. When I read this, I want­ed to plug my nose and wipe sweat off my fore­head. If your non­fic­tion is his­tor­i­cal, of course you were not there. It helps to vis­it the loca­tion of the event or walk the streets of your subject.

3. Weath­er:

Miss Colfax's LightTake full advan­tage of the weath­er. A blind­ing bliz­zard sets the sto­ry. A humid day, we feel the slug­gish­ness of the char­ac­ters. Crisp fall weath­er gives us a chill, gets us ready to set­tle in for the win­ter. Aimée Bis­sonette writes about one tur­bu­lent night in her pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, Miss Colfax’s Light. 

One stormy night in 1886, when Har­ri­et was more than 60 years old, she set out for the west pier. The wind raged. Dri­ving sleet cov­ered her coat with ice. Sand from the dunes along the lake pelt­ed Harriet’s face, sting­ing her cheeks. She strug­gled with her lantern and her bucket…The bea­con tow­er swayed in the wind as Har­ri­et struck her match and lit the light. Teeth chat­ter­ing from the cold, she hur­ried back across the cat­walk. When she stepped off the cat­walk, a deaf­en­ing screech filled the air. Crash!”

Aimee high­lights weath­er details that incite dan­ger as we move through the scene with Miss Col­fax. We feel the ice on our face and the slip­per­i­ness under our feet. What will hap­pen, will she slip? This scene gives me both the chills and a shaky stomach.

Back here in Min­neso­ta, it’s get­ting cold. All the more rea­son for me to set­tle in my snug chair lamps dimmed, next to a toasty fire. Steam­ing cup of tea anyone?


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

Great Monkey RescueAnd 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. Sand­wiched between a nar­ra­tive begin­ning and end­ing, engag­ing expos­i­to­ry text with a prob­lem-solu­tion struc­ture describes how sci­en­tists and Brazil­ian cit­i­zens worked togeth­er to save endan­gered mon­keys from extinc­tion. Vibrant pho­tos, a dynam­ic design, and rich back mat­ter fur­ther enhance the book.

Creature FeaturesCrea­ture Fea­tures: 25 Ani­mals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenk­ins and Robin Page is an engag­ing con­cept pic­ture book writ­ten for stu­dents in grades K‑3, but old­er stu­dents will enjoy it too. Appeal­ing ani­mal por­traits, first-per­son nar­ra­tion with occa­sion­al bits of humor, a fun ques­tion-and-answer text struc­ture, and inter­view-style for­mat make this book unique. Young read­ers won’t be able to resist the cor­nu­copia of facts about how an animal’s facial fea­tures help it survive.

Why not invite your stu­dents to cre­ate a book­talk for their favorite non­fic­tion title?


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 | 123rf.com

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 | 123rf.com

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 Britannica.com 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 BlumenthalHell,” 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.