Ramblings from the mind of a writer of nonfiction for children.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Nonfiction that Inspired Me
Most people think that exciting nonfiction is a recent invention, but there were authors making compelling reads when I was a kid. Gladys Conklin (1903 – 1983), author of dozens of nonfiction books inspired young naturalists like me for decades. When Gladys started her writing career she was a librarian at the Hayward Public Library in California. Every spring and summer children would come in carrying cocoons and chrysalides and wanted to know what they were, how the insect created them, and what was going to happen next. To answer them, Gladys initiated the Bug Club. She helped children learn about insects by providing them with the tools of an entomologist – jars, cotton balls soaked in alcohol, pins and mounting boards. In her quest to educate her bug collectors, she realized that there was a lack of books that explained basic concepts to children in a clear and direct way -- So she wrote them.
Writing natural history did not come out of the blue. When she was about ten years old, Gladys wrote short nature essays for the Washington Farmer magazine. Years later, learning side by side with her Bug Club members she wrote her first book, I Like Caterpillars (1958). Rather than recite boring natural history facts, Gladys wrote from the point of view of a girl (not a boy) who loves all caterpillars, fat ones and skinny ones. Lucky Ladybugs (1968) was structured around the Mother Goose nursery rhyme that every child at that time knew.
Like today’s authors of nonfiction, Gladys researched her subjects first hand, first with her Bug Club and later traveling to Europe, Mexico, and Africa. Unlike most authors today, she was lucky enough to work with one dedicated publisher. Gladys thought she might only be able to write 3 or 4 nature titles, but she eventually wrote 25 books for Holiday House.
I was not part of her Bug Club, although I would have loved that, but I did learn about insects because her passion shined through. Bugs were not icky. They were interesting. Insects were not something to run screaming from. They were guests to invite into your home for a day, to be observed and appreciated, and then released.
Today, as a nonfiction writer, I am still being inspired by Gladys’s body of work. She followed the advice to “write what you know,” and created a career that lasted well past her retirement as librarian. But what makes her books timeless is her voice. Gladys wrote as if she were talking to her bug club; a casual voice that rings clear and true even for children today.
-- Gladys Conklin is remembered today. For more information and a bit of reminiscing on a great librarian and author, listen to Bruce Roberts on YouTube at