Oh, the Places We’ll Go—Research Adventures of Six Children’s Book Authors! by Heather Lang
There are few experiences as magical as getting lost in a book. How do authors go about crafting that mesmerizing experience for their readers? For starters, the people, places, and emotional journey of a book must feel authentic. To achieve that authenticity authors often go to great lengths to research the details that will bring their stories to life. Research can be fun and exciting, but it can also be challenging, even downright scary! But without authenticity—poof—the magic vanishes.
When I began researching my new picture book biography Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, I knew I needed to dive, literally, into the research. Eugenie Clark dedicated her life to studying sharks in their natural environment and replacing fear with facts. How was I supposed to write about her underwater adventures when I had never plunged below the ocean’s surface? And what about the fact that I was terrified of sharks!
By the time I took my first scuba dive, I had already met with Genie and researched sharks extensively. As I descended into the depths, I realized that my fear of sharks had been irrational. I was no longer frightened, and I embraced the sounds, the sights, the excitement, and the incredible tranquility of the ocean. Diving immersed me in Genie’s world as nothing else could. It brought detail, energy, and authenticity to my text.
Authors sometimes travel far and wide to find the information and experiences they need. Nancy Castaldo shared with me her adventures while researching Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World:
“I traveled all over to meet sniffer dogs and watch them train. I witnessed Zuma finding human cremation remains. I laughed at Buford as he slobbered his way to finding his missing person. And I sat in the bleachers amazed watching Alan detect Zach’s blood sugar change.
“One of my favorite research experiences was getting “lost” in the North Carolina woods and having a sniffer dog find me!”
Cynthia Levinson traveled internationally to research Watch Out for Flying Kids: How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community:
“I stayed with the Arab and Jewish kids’ families in villages in northern Israel, gorging on hummus and learning how they’d literally sprung back from war. I also visited with black and white families in segregated, tense St. Louis, Missouri.”
Cynthia also literally leapt into her research for this book:
“I observed children effortlessly soar off mini-trampolines, trapezes, and each other into mid-air somersaults, back flips, and spins. If they could do it, so could I! In fact, for research purposes, I had to try.
“What happened? I fell off a trampoline, rolled off a globe, got tangled in silks, and had to be hoisted onto a lyra. I did have one success—juggling two balls! You can read the detail, both gory and glorious, and see the mortifying videos here. What did I learn? Circus is hard! But it can change the world one acrobat, contortionist, and flyer at a time.”
Authors must be bold about asking for help! Sometimes it can be intimidating to reach out to an expert, but you’d be amazed at how generous people are with their time. For her debut novel Finding Perfect, Elly Swartz had the daunting task of accurately portraying Molly, a girl struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Elly called Dr. Trainor, a senior psychologist in the Child Psychiatry Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she did not disappoint:
“Over the next four years, I worked closely with her to authenticate Molly’s manifestation, diagnosis and recovery of OCD. As I sat in Dr. Trainor’s office, we talked about Molly and all the taunting ways OCD could manifest. Licking shoes, counting, organizing, washing hands.
“Dr. Trainor read and reread numbers of drafts of Finding Perfect, Dr. Paul Cannistraro, the former director of clinical psychopharmacology at Mass. General Hospital OCD Clinic, offered input, and people in my life who have OCD graciously shared their stories.”
Research adventures often take authors down winding paths and roads with many forks. It’s easy to get “lost” or sidetracked. That’s why I paid close attention to Chris Barton’s cautionary tale about researching The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch in Louisiana:
“It was not yet a dark and stormy night, but it was getting there when the staff at the parish clerk’s office directed me toward their basement and the succession records from 1849. These included the ones detailing the estate of John Roy Lynch’s white father, whose premature death disrupted any plan to free his enslaved toddler son.
“Getting my hands on these historical artifacts was fascinating, but not so much that I forgot about the rain outside or took my eyes off the clock. Good thing, too, because when I emerged from the basement minutes before the office closed, the staff was startled. ‘We’d forgotten about you,’ one of them said. If I’d spent the night locked inside, I bet they’d have remembered.”
There’s no doubt that research is full of surprises—clues that lead to more clues that lead to treasures. But sometimes, mysterious forces are at work, and surprises come out of nowhere—really! Carole Boston Weatherford’s story is a perfect example:
“To research You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, I used reference books, films and online archives of military reports and photographs. The second-person poems are in the voice of an everyman. Or so I thought.
“After completing and titling the book, I was doing picture research and found an account of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s flight in a training plane with Tuskegee instructor Chief Anderson. Afterwards, the First Lady said, ‘You can fly.’
“Later, I read Frederick Douglass’s Civil War editorial calling for African Americans to join the U.S. Colored Troops to end slavery. He urged black men to ‘fly to arms.’ Perhaps I channeled Douglass or Mrs. Roosevelt. You can’t make this stuff up.“
Most authors agree that research is invaluable to creating an authentic narrative. When I started writing for children, I never would have guessed that research would become one of the greatest pleasures of my work. Every book is a new adventure!
Heather Lang is the author of the new picture book biography SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark. Heather loves to research and write about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. Her most recent picture book biography, FEARLESS FLYER: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine has earned two starred reviews and is a 2016 Booklist Top Ten Biographies for Youth. Visit Heather at http://www.heatherlangbooks.com and on Twitter: @hblang.