Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How Understanding Text Structures Has Helped My Writing

Recently, I wrote an article for Bookology about the writing process as a living story. And that got me thinking about this blog. I began posting, three days a week, in 2009. That’s 10 years ago!

In many ways, it’s a living story too. It’s ongoing, and I have no plans to stop posting anytime soon. If anyone was crazy enough to read it all the way through, they’d see how my thinking about nonfiction for children, especially nonfiction science writing, has evolved over time.

A quick search of the archive shows that one of the topics I’ve discussed most on this blog is text structure. Those posts date back all the way to 2009. Back then, I was just shooting in the dark. I knew structure was a critical element in nonfiction writing, but I didn’t really know how to think about it or talk about it in a meaningful way.

My first meaty posts on the topic were in Fall 2013, and they were explorations of the grade 3 and 4 Common Core ELA standards about text structure. To say that Common Core changed and expanded my thinking about nonfiction craft would be an understatement. Suddenly, it gave me terminology to discuss the challenges I was facing in my writing. It also gave me a cadre of tools for my writer’s tool box.

So while I’m certainly no fan of standardized testing, I LOVE the standards themselves. They’ve taught me so much about what makes a nonfiction manuscript outstanding.

And while I was sorry to see Common Core go the way of the dinosaurs, I’m delighted that—just like modern birds—something important remains. As we return to a system in which each state designs and follows its own set of standards, I’m thrilled to see most states holding onto many of the ideas from Common Core, especially those related to nonfiction reading and writing.

Thanks to Common Core, whenever I start thinking about a new book, I have five text structures to try on for size, and if none of them seems quite right, I’m now more confident about inventing a new text structure that’s a perfect fit for the information I want to share and the way I want to present it.

Because I’m no longer shooting in the dark, my writing process is so, so, SO much more efficient than it was in the past. While it took me 6 years to figure out how to write No Monkeys, No Chocolate in a way that would engage young readers, I recently sold a manuscript that took less than a year to write. I also have other manuscripts that are coming along nicely, so I know the less-than-a-year manuscript wasn’t a total fluke.

I think that if upper elementary and middle school students are encouraged to explore and experiment with various text structures, as I discuss here, by the time they reach high school, they can reap the same kind of benefits that I have.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Laura Purdie Salas

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by Laura Purdie Salas. Thank you, Laura.

I'm excited to be back sharing how my own personality and experiences have influenced my nonfiction writing. I love this growing awareness among educators, writers, and readers that nonfiction writing is creative and grows out of the person who writes it.

This spring, I have three new picture books. All three are poetry (and thus, nonfiction). Two have informational foundations, and one includes nonfiction prose writing. All three come straight from my heart.

In the Middle of the Night
I grew up in a house with a basement (a rarity in Florida). A dark, spooky, creaky-stairs basement with constant noises from pipes and furnaces and other mysterious things. I spent a lot of time alone in that house, and it never felt comforting, especially at night. So, writing a collection of cheerful poems about what happens in our home while we’re asleep comforted me.

Here’s a sample poem from the book:

Overdue-Book Hide-and-Seek

I’m not in your backpack.
Or under your bed.
And you HAVE to find me—
Ms. Teabottom said!

I creep to your closet—
I burrow. I sneak.
I LOVE to play overdue-book

I love the idea of inanimate objects having their own hidden lives. I am not the center of the universe, and I think that’s a good lesson for all kids to learn. If we and our readers can inhabit the “minds” of inanimate objects, surely we will can feel empathy and respect for other humans and for our world, right?

Snowman-Cold=Puddle: Spring Equations and Riddle-Ku have a lot in common. One shows spring transformations in the form of equations, and the other features haiku riddles about all four seasons. Writing both of these books indulged my love of mysteries and riddles.
Though I was born and raised in Florida, all my sisters and my parents were Indiana-born. I was always jealous! While growing up, I longed for seasons. Real seasons that transformed your daily life. Florida didn’t have that.

My adopted state of Minnesota shows off seasons as varied as anyone could hope for! I find myself writing about seasons again and again—drawn to celebrating their beauty and unlocking their mysteries.

In Snowman-Cold=Puddle: Spring Equations, I focus on spring and all the changes it brings. I loved homing in on this season’s transformations and exploring them in both poetry equations and prose sidebars.

Here’s a sample from the book:
bushes x blooms = perfume    
Lilac blooms are spring’s perfume. The sweet scent invites insects and birds to visit. These important visitors track pollen from flower to flower, like tracking mud from room to room. Humans just enjoy the wonderful smells.

For Lion of the Sky: Haiku for All Seasons, I thought about some of my favorite (dandelions, autumn leaves, snow!) and least favorite (mosquitos!) icons of the four seasons. Then I combined my love of facts and details and mysteries and riddles to write riddle haiku (riddle-ku) about them. I asked myself, what are the essential elements of this particular thing? What clues can I give the reader? This book was such a blast to write!

Here’s an example:
shhh! here’s my secret:
soft petals hide inside me
coming soon—a bloom

You know, I have two distinct sides to my personality. On the one hand, I love facts and flow charts and to-do lists and graphs. I adore analyzing pros and cons, reverse-engineering processes, and trying to solve mysteries and problems. On the other hand, I am a poet. I love to use metaphors and surprising language. Our world fills me with awe, and I find science every bit as wondrous as magic. These two titles capture both sides of my personality.

As always, I feel like a reader who learns about the world through my books also learns about me. And I think that’s pretty cool!

Laura Purdie Salas thought books appeared by magic when she was little. She read non-stop, but the library had a bottomless supply of books to feed her hunger. As a children’s author, she knows there’s a lot of work involved in bringing books to the world—and still plenty of magic, too!

Laura is a former 8th-grade English teacher, a former copyeditor (who has nightmares about errors on menus and signs), and a former magazine editor. She will never be a former reader. Laura is the author of many poetry and nonfiction books, including Meet My Family, Water Can Be…, and BookSpeak! You can meet Laura at her website,, where you can also access her blog and her e-letter for educators or learn where to connect with her on social media.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Me and the Magic of Three by Heather L. Montgomery

Today, author Heather L. Montgomery discusses three critical elements of writing nonfiction for kids. Thanks for your contribution, Heather.

Every writer knows a “Rule of Three.”

Fiction writers plan three acts; protagonists go up against three conflicts; essays include three supporting ideas. But in writing nonfiction that’s good enough for kids, I’ve found a different three:

(1) A subject full of “Wait, what!?!” facts

(2) A theme that resonates deeply within me

(3) A structure that carries the theme
When considering a project, those magical three give me the green light to dive in.
A “Wait, what!?!” Subject
Did you ever read a book like Sarah Albee’s Poison and find yourself spouting facts about murder and medicine for weeks? That’s the crazy, contagious energy I need before committing years to a project.
When selecting a subject, I’m tempted to use curriculum or market trends as a guide, but I can’t afford to. I have to be selfish. To be a genuine inquiry, a subject has to hyper-excite me.
Sometimes I have a strong theme but finding the “Wait, what!?!” subject takes a while. Thinking about how tough growing up was, I wondered if metamorphosis could be a strong theme. But insect metamorphosis has been done till it’s worn thin.
One day, out in a boat, we hauled up a net of bizarre creatures. They were juvenilesmarine invertebrates on the verge of a monstrous morphing of their bodies. Wait, what?!? Starfish kids don’t look like starfish? Junior jellyfish look like plants! And one marine kid surfs on top of jellyfish! This I couldn’t stop telling people about.
So I applied the “growing up” theme to the “marine animals” subject. Fortunately, that all played well with a structure I’d been dying to try: an inquiry about scientific inquiry. Suddenly I had the magic three. Out popped Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis Under the Waves.
Universal Theme
From studying books like Melissa Stewart’s Feathers: Not Just For Flying, I’d learned that a universal theme touches readers at a deeper level than straight facts. So I cast about for a way to marry facts with a universal theme. And that’s when my six-legged friends jumped in to help.
Finding insect fun facts is easy, but my passion for insects runs deeper than that. Insects challenge me to think about generosity (a mother shield bug “shops” till she dropsliterallyfor the perfect food for her young), devotion (burying beetles toil endlessly to prepare spit soup for their kids), and family (tortoise beetles protect their siblings by waving poo in the air).
Family. That was a universal if surprising connection we have with some insects and with one another. Next, I found a structure that worked (thru-the-day) and a book was born: Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids.

Supporting Structure

Finding a structure to support my theme and subject is always a challenge. This is the deep craft of nonfiction. The kind of thing that, if I think about it directly, slips away like a fish between my fingers. The kind of thing my subconscious wrestles with for months, often for years, until I find what works.
I don’t know when I started looking at roadkill instead of turning away, but one day I realized there could be a book there.
When animals are killed, everyone’s heart hurts, so nailing a universal theme should be easy. I discovered mind-blowing research (contagious cancerthat’s right contagiouswas discovered thanks to roadkill), so the “Wait, what!?!” was covered. 
But, how could I ever, ever approach a topic this tragic in a book for young people? I was stalled out in fear of my topic.
For years it thrashed about in my mind. Then I found myself telling stories about my research journey. Each discovery turned me a few degrees away from tragedy toward awe. Drawn in by people saving animal lives. That is when I realized I could take my reader with me. The research journey was the structure I needed to share the hope in Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill.

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are wild about animals. The weirder, the wackier, the better. An award-winning science educator, Heather uses yuck appeal to engage young minds. During school presentations, petrified animal parts and tree guts inspire reluctant readers and motivate reticent writers. She has published over a dozen nonfiction books. Heather lives on the border of Alabama and Tennessee. Inquiry is her life.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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.

Doing research for Seashells: More
than a Home in Hawaii. Love my job!
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.

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.

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?

Monday, March 11, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Jennifer Swanson

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Jennifer Swanson. Thank you, Jen.

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved science! Curiosity about the world has fueled my passions throughout my life.

Some of my earliest memories are examining grass and flowers under a magnifying glass and climbing trees to see things up close. It only made sense that I started a science club in my garage when I was 7 years old.

I was that kid that was always asking questions. “Why does this tree grow so tall but the one next to it doesn’t?” “Why does this flower have five petals but that one has 50?” “Why does my brother have brown eyes but my eyes are green?”

I probably drove my parents and teacher nuts with all of my questions. But the drive to understand how the world works, how everything fits together is deep inside me. It’s central to both my personal and writing life.

My quest to discover how things work led me to major in chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I also learned engineering and technology. I was hooked! It’s probably why many of the topics I write about tend toward the “-TEM” part of STEM.

As I was writing Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain, I wanted to know, “How does the brain work?”  That’s a simple question, but one with a very complicated answer. So I broke up each chapter into smaller questions.

How does your brain think?

How do memories and emotions work?

How does your brain make your body move?

For most people, science is best learned through DOING not just reading, so each chapter includes awesome activities to that SHOW the reader how their brain works.
Including activities and experiments in my books comes naturally, too. It reminds me of my many days as a kid working with the boxed chemistry labs that I got for my birthdays.

One of my most recent titles stemmed from a question I had during a conversation with my editor. We were talking about how astronauts train, and I wondered if aquanauts train the same way. After all, space and the deep ocean are sort of similar environments, aren’t they?

WOW! What a question. I had to find out.

I dove deep into research (something I love) and the result was Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact. This is one of my favorite books because it’s the culmination of my long-held curiosity about both space and the ocean.

My two childhood heroes were Jacques Cousteau, the famous oceanographer, and Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut. At certain times in my life, I wanted to be either or both of them. While writing this book, my research took me UP into space (like Sally Ride) and DOWN into the ocean (like Jacques Cousteau) as I learned the most fascinating answers to (almost) all of my questions.
Like most curious people, I don’t limit myself to certain topics. I ask questions about pretty much everything. From the emptiness of space and the vast ocean, to the tiniest of structures that provide us with brand new technology. What am I talking about? Nanotechnology!  

Nanotechnology is the science of the microscopic. It’s used to create some of the strongest materials on the planet…and almost every kind of sports equipment you can think of!
Growing up in a household of three brothers and a father who loved sports, I succumbed to the inevitable and ended up playing and loving sports myself. It’s a deep-seated love born out of many hours of sitting on bleachers watching my brothers’ baseball games, football games, and golf matches. But it’s also the result of my own experiences running track, swimming, and (trying to) play softball.

My love of sports and my desire to know how things work merged during the 2008 Olympic Games. When Michael Phelps and his teammates debuted full-body swimsuits and proceeded to break more than 125 records, I was fascinated. I wanted to know HOW they did that. Research led me to nanotechnology and the result was Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up.

If you pick up one of my books you will inevitably find that it answers a BIG question. One that I have about how the world works, one that I hope my readers have too. As I’m writing, I imagine my 7-year-old self, back with that microscope in my garage, discovering new and wondrous things. I put that same sense of accomplishment, the joy of figuring things out into each book I write.

Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of more than 35 nonfiction books for children, including Brain Games (NGKids), Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up (Charlesbridge), and Geoengineering Earth's Climate: Re-setting the Thermostat (Lerner), which received a Green Earth Book Honor Award. She is the creator of the STEM Tuesday blog and has presented at numerous NSTA conferences and the World Science Festival. Find Jennifer at

Friday, March 8, 2019

Q & A with Sara Levine: Writing Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate

In this fascinating interview, award-winning author Sara Levine shares some of the surprising strategies she used in crafting her new picture book about how plants send messages to animals.

MS: Your previous books have focused on the comparative anatomy of bones and teeth. Why did you decide to write about plants?

SL: The idea Flower Talk came from a paragraph in a textbook I’d inherited for a college course on introductory biology. It detailed how specific colors of flowers attract specific pollinators—information that was new and fascinating to me, and, later, equally fascinating to my college students. I thought young readers would be interested too.

MS: Your previous books employ a combination of second- and third-person narration, which is quite common for expository nonfiction picture books. Why did you decide to write this book from a plant’s point of view?  

My original draft also had a third-person point of view. My editor at Millbrook Press, Carol Hinz, found the topic interesting, and she was intrigued that it covered material previously unpublished for kids. But she thought my writing lacked the playfulness and humor of my previous books.

She made a surprising suggestion. “It might be going too far to propose that a flower narrate the book,” she said, “but I’m going to throw that out as one possibility just to see if it leads you to any other interesting approaches.”

It did.

It occurred to me that a plant communicating with animals to get its needs met (i.e., its pollen moved efficiently) wouldn’t want to waste its time explaining to humans how this works. So I made my narrator cranky—“Go take a hike. I’m pretty busy in case you haven’t noticed.”—but in the best way. I modeled him after some of my favorite older relatives from Brooklyn—cantankerous, funny, slightly off-color and loving. He’s sort of like Oscar the Grouch.

MS: What were some of the advantages of having a cranky plant as a narrator?

SL: It allowed me to include a lot of humor. For example, the narrator (whom illustrator Masha d’Yans aptly chose to portray as a prickly pear cactus) tells his human readers about all the false and human-centric ideas we have about flower colors, and then comments, “What a load of fertilizer!”  That’s probably my favorite line in the book.

I hope readers learn something new about the relationship between plants and animals from this book, and I hope that they find it entertaining as well.

MS: Like your earlier books, this one has an expository writing style. It provides an explanation rather than telling a story. Do you consider it fiction or nonfiction? 

The book is nonfiction in that it contains real-life information based on research. But it is told from the point of view of a plant, and, as far as we know, plants don't talk to us--at least not this directly, or with Brooklyn accents. So, it uses a fictional device.

Some people characterize books like this, books with true information relayed by non-human narrators, as "informational fiction." I don't know that it's so important to put the book into a category. What is important to me is that readers recognize that the information given is factual. Hopefully, this will be evident by the way the book is written and presented.
Sara Levine is an educator, veterinarian, and award-winning author of seven published or upcoming science books for children. Her honors include the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize, Utah Beehive Book Award, Cook Prize finalist, Monarch Award master list, and Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year. Learn more at or follow her @saraclevine

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

What Is Voice?

For years, I’ve been trying to gain a deeper understanding of voice and reconcile how it applies to fiction vs. nonfiction writing. What’s the connection?

At every writer’s conference I’ve ever attended, editors say they’re looking for fiction manuscripts with a unique, distinct voice. Whenever attendees ask exactly what they mean by “voice”, editors shrug their shoulders and say it’s hard to explain, but they know it when they see it.

Meanwhile, educators generally describe voice as the “personality of the writing” or “how they writing makes the reader feel.” These definitions may help us gain a stronger sense of what voice is, but it doesn’t tell us how to craft it. That’s what writers really need to know.
Linda Sue Park (l) and Emma Dryden (r)
That’s why I’m so glad that I recently attended an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) writing workshop led by uber-talented Newbery Award winning author Linda Sue Park and highly-regarded editorial and publishing consultant Emma Dyrden.

Here’s Linda Sue’s astonishingly clear, simple definition of voice:

voice = word choice + rhythm

She then broke down “rhythm” in an equally clear and simple way:
rhythm = punctuation + sentence length

Not only does this brilliant explanation apply to voice in both fiction and nonfiction, it also makes a craft move that often seems so mysterious and elusive instantly manageable. All three of these text characteristics are easy to control, easy to vary, easy to play around with.

As I’ve been saying for years, nonfiction voice options span a continuum from lively to lyrical, with many choices in between. Writers choose a voice based on their topic and their purpose for writing.

I’ve also stressed the importance of word choice and the idea that different language devices are associated with different voices. For example, repetition and opposition can make writing more lyrical, whereas puns and onomatopoeia can make writing more lively.
I’ve also pointed out that longer sentences with more dependent clauses (and commas) make writing more lyrical, while sentence fragments and embedded questions are attributes of a lively voice.
But Linda Sue’s simple word equations, and the idea that voice really boils down to a trifecta of text characteristics that are easy to revise and experiment with is mind blowing. I can’t wait to share this new way of thinking with students in writing workshops.

Thank you, Linda Sue!