How Young Nonfiction Writers Can Dig Deep by Melissa Stewart
If your students’ nonfiction writing seems dull and lifeless, it’s probably because they aren’t personally invested.
If your students copy their research sources even though they know plagiarism is wrong and can have severe consequences, it’s probably because they haven’t taken the time to assimilate and synthesize their research, so they can make their own meaning.
Simply put, to create finely-crafted nonfiction, writers need to have some skin in the game. They need to dig deep and find a personal connection to their topic and their approach. Professional writers know this, but most young writers don’t. It’s something we must help them understand.
To get a better sense of how a nonfiction writer’s passions, fears, vulnerabilities, and experiences in the world can determine the topics they take on and the way they frame their prose, take a look what some of my nonfiction-writing colleagues have to say:
“. . . there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out. The reality is very different. I think my personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I end up writing.”
—Laura Purdie Salas, author of the National Council for Teachers of English Notable Children’s Book A Leaf Can Be
“Most teachers and students assume I have some ‘file of famous folks’ in a desk drawer. But I don’t typically start with a person at all. I begin with an idea or a memory or an experience that has personal meaning to me.”
—Barb Rosenstock, author of the American Library Association Caldecott Honor title The Noisy Paint Box: the Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art
“Writing nonfiction is a highly personal experience for me—a journey. And the adventure begins with a strong connection to my topic. While the connection could be rooted in passion, it might also stem from intense curiosity . . . or fear.”
—Heather Lang, author of the National Science Teachers Association Best STEM Book Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine
“Just as fiction authors write about themes that resonate with them, so too do nonfiction authors. My themes first have to light my fire with a personal connection.”
—Patricia Newman, author of the American Library Association Sibert Honor title Sea Otter Heroes
These quotations are excerpted from essays written by more than forty award-winning children’s book authors for my blog, Celebrate Science, during the 2018-2019 school year. I encourage you to read them and choose one or two to share with your students. After reading the nonfiction book(s) mentioned in the essays you select, lead a class discussion by asking the following questions:
What surprises you about the authors’ personal connections to their books?
Do you see hints of these connections as you read the books?
These questions will help students begin to see nonfiction with new eyes and prepare them to dig deeper into their own writing process as they consider four more questions:
- How can you find your own personal meaning in the information you gather during the research process?
- How can you add a little bit of yourself to the nonfiction you write?
- How could these strategies make your writing more interesting?
- How could they help you avoid plagiarism?
At first, students will probably struggle to answer these questions. After all, they ask young writers to stretch their thinking in new directions.
Let’s look at the first question more closely.
How can you find your own personal meaning in the information you gather during the research process?
This is a critical question because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the secret to crafting engaging nonfiction. And the good news is that it’s easier than it might seem. All it takes is a little bit of time to stop and think.
The next time your students do research, encourage them to review their notes, digest the information, and think about what it means to them. Ask them to circle or highlight facts and ideas they consider especially important or interesting. Then invite them to choose one of the following prompts and jot some thoughts in their writer’s notebook:
—The idea this gives me . . .
—I was surprised to learn . . .
—This makes me think . . .
—This is important to me because . . .
For example, here are some notes I took for a book I’m just finishing up now:
Female flesh fly lays about twelve eggs at a time
When eggs hatch, female places maggots (larvae) on harlequin toad’s skin
Larvae burrow into toad and feed on its body
Larvae kill toad in just a few days
As I reviewed these notes, I jotted the following in my writer’s notebook:
I started thinking about some fun or interesting ways to share this information with my readers. Then I made a few more notes:
First, I realized that it might be possible to use a humorous voice and somehow incorporate the word “croak,” which has a double meaning. Then I noticed the words “the end” and thought that perhaps I could use a narrative writing style.
Why is this kind of thinking so important to my nonfiction writing process? It helps to make the piece I write unique. It becomes a product of my mind and my imagination, and that makes it different from what someone else might write. Students can do the same thing.
But before they start writing, they should think about question 2.
How can you add a little bit of yourself to the nonfiction you write?
Professional nonfiction writers often add a gigantic piece of themselves to their prose. For example, the opening lines of my book Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (illus. Stephanie Laberis, Peachtree, 2018) popped into my mind as I was lying in bed on a chilly December morning, waiting for the alarm to go off:
Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.
But this book isn’t about them. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone paid attention to them?
I jumped out of bed, ran to my desk, and scrawled those lines in my writer’s notebook. I couldn’t believe it. In one flash of inspiration, I had the book’s introduction and its hook and its voice. It felt like a gift from the universe, and it was. But it came with a catch.
As I typed the words into a computer file later that morning, I realized that a dark part of my subconscious was rearing its ugly head. That creative hook, that unique perspective hadn’t just come out of nowhere. They were born out of the severe bullying I’d endured as a child. Writing this book would mean revisiting some painful memories, and that scared me.
So I shut the computer file, and I didn’t open it again for 6 months. By that time, I’d made peace with the part of my past that would drive the creation of this book. And I got to work . . . because that’s what writers do.
In the end, my personal connection made Pipsqueaks a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the oftentimes underappreciated traits that make us different and unique. It’s my way of offering hope to children who are being bullied right now.
Luckily, nonfiction writers don’t always have to plunge into their past vulnerabilities whole hog. Any kind of connection can supply the creative spark that brings nonfiction writing to life. For example, for one section of the book I’m just finishing up, I added a much smaller piece of myself, making it a manageable model for young writers.
You can see the personal connections I made in my writer’s notebook:
My notes about possibly sharing the information as a story made me think about helping my niece write a fractured fairytale for school. Maybe I could write a sort of twisted tale about the flesh fly.
When I spotted the word “surprised” in my notebook, it made me think of the surprise party I had recently planned for my husband. Maybe I could include the idea of the information being surprising in my piece.
Because I’d come up with two different ways to approach the text, and I liked them both, I decided to create two different pieces and then figure out which one I liked the better.
Version 1: A Toad-al Surprise
Think you know what happens when a fly and a toad cross paths? Then get ready for a BIG surprise!
When a female flesh fly encounters a harlequin toad, she doesn’t become lunch. Instead, she darts down and deposits her newly-hatched maggots on the toad’s skin.
What happens next? The white, wormy youngsters get to work, burrowing into the toad’s body. Then the maggots devour their victim from the inside out.
That’s right. In this scenario, it’s the toad that croaks.
Version 2: The Fly and the Toad
Once upon a time, there was a fly and a toad. Think you know how this story ends? Think again.
In this twisted tale, a female flesh fly deposits her newly-hatched larvae on a harlequin toad’s skin. The white, wormy youngsters wriggle and squirm as they burrow into the toad’s body. Then the maggots devour their victim from the inside out.
Actually, it’s the end for the toad, but not for the larvae. With their bellies full, the maggots turn into pupae. And a few weeks after that, they emerge as adults.
If you look closely at these two versions, you can see how they connect to the ideas I explored in my writer’s notebook. You’ll also notice that some phrases appear in both pieces. This is the critical information that came from my research.
Because I took the time to dig deep—to think creatively about my research and add a little bit of myself—I was able to create two pieces that are different from each other and different from anything another writer might craft to describe the relationship between flesh flies and harlequin toads. Not only does this method of evaluating and integrating research make the writing more vibrant and more interesting, it also helps professional writers as well as student writers avoid any chance of plagiarizing.
So which version did I end up using in my upcoming book, Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses? You’ll just have to wait until June 2020 to find out.
Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, including Seashells: More than a Home and Feathers: Not Just for Flying, both illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. She co-authored the upcoming title 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books. Melissa maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Science and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.