Saturday, April 16, 2011


Coming Soon to an Online Bookstore Near You -- My newest collaboration with my mother and children's book author Margery Facklam.  Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children. Here is an excerpt from Chapter One:


Nonfiction writers come from all walks of life. Hope Marston was an elementary school librarian before she turned to writing. The idea for her first book, Big Rigs, came to her because the boys at her school were always looking for easy-to-read books about big trucks. Timothy Burke was a tugboat captain operating in Lake Erie’s Buffalo Harbor. After hundreds of students visited the tug, he wrote Tugboats in Action. Carol Johmann was a research biologist before she wrote her first how-to science book for children; Steve Swinburne was a professional photographer; and Russell Freedman was a journalist.

No matter what our backgrounds, nonfiction writers have one characteristic in common: We love to learn. Author Annie Dillard once described herself in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I am no scientist,” she said. “I am a wanderer with a penchant for quirky facts.” That pretty much sums up most nonfiction writers too. We are perpetual students of the world soaking up the odd, unusual, bizarre, and fascinating fact. We relish hearing about heroic deeds of the past or the recent discovery of a new drug from the Amazon. But we also love to shine a light on the ordinary things of life so that they gleam in a way no one noticed before. James Cross Giblin, author and former children’s book editor, wrote a fascinating book on the history of silverware. Common as this subject may seem, it would be hard to resist reading his book, Hand to Mouth: Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, Chopsticks, and the Table Manners to Go With Them.

As nonfiction writers, we do all the things that everyone else does: We walk the dog, cook breakfast, and go on vacation, but we do these things with a built-in sense of wonder. Between the dog’s piddle stops, we might contemplate the bricks, cobblestones, or logs that lie under the asphalt. While cracking an egg, we might ponder the daily routine on an egg farm or how the gelatinous goo morphs into a chicken. We tend to plan our family vacations around research and interview trips.

While nonfiction writers are perpetual students, we are also eager teachers. It is no surprise that many nonfiction writers once taught or still teach in a classroom, including Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Seymour Simon, James Deem, and Jean Fritz, to name a few.

Many people have the perception that children’s nonfiction is unbiased or neutral, but it is not. Good nonfiction doesn’t just list cold facts, like a bedraggled witness interrogated by Dragnet’s Joe Friday, who was famous for the line, “Just the facts, ma’am.” What that witness said was filtered through her eyes, her past experiences, and her personal beliefs. So, too, is everything a nonfiction writer collects, reads, and writes. Nonfiction writers are biased. We can’t help it any more than anyone else can.

Our bias is to present the facts through a hopeful lens. We portray a world where everything may not be perfect, but with hope that someday it will be better. As naturalists, we could not write about the deforestation of the rainforest without talking about the efforts of coffee companies attempting to grow coffee beans in an environmentally sound manner. We need to give hope to the next generation, and perhaps inspire them into action.

Milton Meltzer, author of more than 80 biographies and histories, claimed that, “Almost everything I write has to do with social change—how it comes about, the forces that advance it and the forces that resist it, the moral issues that beset men and women seeking to realize their humanity… I have not been neutral; I see nothing wrong in the historian who feels a commitment to humane concerns—to the ending of war, of poverty, of racism.”

Through our writing we show that there are difficulties to overcome, whether that means learning how to be a better baseball player or saving wild manatees. We provide hope and motivation by telling true stories of others who have struggled. In that respect nonfiction writers are like classroom teachers, librarians, and parents. We are committed to shaping a better world for children.

Does this description of a constant learner and hopeful teacher sound familiar? Then you may be just right for this fascinating profession of nonfiction writing. 

Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children, published by Writer's Institute Publications, 2011.

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