Monday, May 20, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Donna Janell Bowman

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Donna Janell Bowman. Thank you, Donna.

Reading through this inspiring series has me as fascinated by other writers as I am by people in general. It is remarkable that we are each drawn to some ideas but not to others. What compels us to spend often years of our lives distilling research into books for kids? How does a singular subject cast such a spell on us? Why nonfiction? Why us? Why me?

I’m especially intrigued by the challenges of writing narrative picture book biographies. I like to joke that I write about dead people. (Apologies to the living subjects in my queue and to the loud fictional characters nagging for page space.) It took many years to realize that the answer to my why question goes deeper than the go-ahead-and-dare-me challenge of resurrecting a dead person on the page. And it all began in my childhood.

I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch surrounded by a myriad of pets and farm animals, including a pet skunk. And horses. Did I mention the horses? I was a horse-crazy girl and a lucky beneficiary of the human-animal bond. But, far away from friends and family, I often felt isolated. Lonely. I became a writer in those wide-open spaces where a deep curiosity took root.

People fascinated me. I became naturally nosy.

When my mother shared childhood stories about the rag man, the armory, or her Italian-speaking grandmother in the upstairs flat of her inner-city Chicago neighborhood, I was mesmerized. During rare trips to visit her family, I was a sponge for my grandmother’s stories. Understanding my mother’s background and her people, helped me understand her.

But my father was a contradiction. To the rest of the world, he was a charming, handsome, funny, successful man. But at home, he was a closed book. He never spoke about his earlier life and never introduced us to his people. He died while I was in my twenties, taking with him all details about his WWII experiences, family lore, his own early quirks, hobbies, traumas, passions. I was left with unanswered questions about what made my complicated father tick. The omission felt like a void in my own identity.

It seems obvious now that my fascination with people is rooted in my attempt to understand my father, my people, myself.

The nonfiction story ideas that find me likewise tug at my heart strings. Most often, they begin with a simple curiosity—something I read, hear, watch, dream. I tend to be drawn to underdog stories and obscure bits of history that have been veiled by the cobwebs and dust of time.

The initial spark for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness was the “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key. But it was learning about the tenacious spirit of formerly-enslaved William “Doc” Key, and the indelible impact he and Jim had on the emerging humane movement, that kept me motivated throughout the book’s ten-year journey.

See, during my early years of horse shows and then working for a veterinarian as a teenager, I witnessed many cases of animal abuse. The heartbreak and helplessness never left me. Sharing Doc and Jim’s story was my way of speaking up. My heart is so embedded in the story that I had my late father’s stallion “sign” my publishing contract with his hoofprint. Step Right Up is a call to action to be kinder to animals and to each other. I’m there on every page.
For Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, the initial spark came from the shock of learning that Honest Abe, the man who wrote some of the most powerful, inspiring, important words in our country’s history, once wrote something so mean and offensive that he was challenged to a duel. (Spoiler alert: Lincoln survived!) Lincoln owed James Shields an apology.

My manuscript had already been acquired when I realized where my heart connects to the story. First, it was the realization that how we respond to our mistakes defines our character. And words have the power to harm or to inspire, which brings me to an epiphany.

When Step Right Up was nearing print time, I was mulling over my final dedication for that book while walking my dog. Then, wham! That inner voice interrupted my thoughts with a premature dedication for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words: To my brother, because we owe each other an apology.

Whoa! Had I written an apology book? I didn’t ultimately use that dedication in the book, but it’s whispering there in the ether.

Yes, my heart is woven into everything I write, even when I don’t realize it. After researching the dickens out of my subjects, my inner storyteller frames a narrative through the lens of my own life experiences.

During every project, I learn a little more about myself, my people, and about the human condition. Hopefully, young readers will learn a bit more about themselves, too.

Donna Janell Bowman is the Texas author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. In 2019, her STEAM-infused book King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers.

Friday, May 17, 2019

How Young Nonfiction Writers Can Dig Deep, Part 2

In last week’s post, I provided a list of six questions that you can ask students as they think about enriching their nonfiction writing by making personal connections to the content. You can scroll down to read them all, but today, I’m going to take a closer look at this question:

How can you find your own personal meaning in the information you gather during the research process? 

Students may struggle to answer this question, but all it takes is a little bit of time to stop and think. Encourage your students to review their notes, digest the information, and think about what it means to them.

Ask them to circle or highlight facts and ideas that they think are 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 currently writing:

“Female flesh fly lays about twelve eggs at a time
When they hatch, female places maggots on a harlequin toad’s skin

The larvae burrow into the toad and feed on its body. They  kill the toad in just a few days."

As I read them over, 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 could have a double meaning. Then I noticed the words “the end” and thought that perhaps I could use a narrative writing style.

This kind of thinking is critical to my nonfiction writing process, and it helps to make the piece I write different from what someone else might write. 

What’s next? I need to add a little bit of myself to the writing. I’ll talk more about that next week.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Lesa Cline-Ransome. Thank you, Lesa.

Much of my life has been shaped by stories. From my earliest days, as a visitor to the Malden Public Library in Massachusetts, I was transformed by the stories I read. 

As a young girl, so shy and nervous I was often too afraid to speak, I devoured the fictional stories of fearless girls and rabble rousers. In them, I saw a seedling of myself, waiting to take root. 
Yet, while I read stories by Astrid Lindgren and Judy Blume, I avoided biographies. The often bland, didactic narratives of seemingly perfect people with perfect lives failed to resonate with me in the way that fictional characters could. 
Instead of seeing inspiration and potential, I saw a failure in myself to reach the level of perfectionism required to be successful.  Where was the grit, and perseverance and fierce independence of a girl like Pippi Longstocking, orphaned, living alone, fending off all manner of danger? The divide between fiction and non-fiction was vast in my eyes, that is, until I read the story Harriet Tubman.
As the only black student in a classroom of all whites, I dreaded the time of year when slavery was discussed. The room would grow uncomfortably quiet as my classmates stole glances in my direction because they felt that somehow, those inaccurate and incomplete descriptions of enslaved persons portrayed the complete sum of my African American ancestry. In my history, they saw people too weak, too afraid, too incapable of resisting bondage. 
But then, one year, we read about Harriet Tubman. Her story was like one of an action adventure hero, complete with danger, disguise, late night plots and daring escape. Because her story was also true, it was even better than Pippi Longstocking.
Harriet suffered at the hands of slave masters, was unschooled, and endured persistent health problems. She was rejected by her husband when she returned to rescue him. Yet despite these impediments, she kept right on striving. 
Now this, I thought, was a real life hero. 
I realized then that it wasn’t that I disliked biographies. What I disliked were the biographies I’d been handed in the past. I needed to read stories about people who looked like me. People who had persevered despite racism, loss, and adversity.
When I began writing for children, I wrote the kind of biographies I longed for as a child. My earliest books included Satchel Paige, Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star, and Major Taylor:  Champion Cyclist. You won’t find these athlete’s names in social studies textbooks, alongside names like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Their stories of struggling to reach their potential against all odds drew me in.  Their stories are human stories of how small ripples can cause big waves in the fight for dignity and equal access. 

Books like Just a Lucky So and So:  The Story of Louis Armstrong, My Story, My Dance:  Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey and Before There was Mozart:  The Story of Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint George seek to highlight the role of the African American influence on the arts.
Diving further into history with the biography of Frederick Douglass in Words Set Me Free, helped me discover one young boy’s quest for dignity and freedom in the form of education. 
And most recently, as I told the story of Harriet Tubman in Before She was Harriet, I remembered how all those years ago, her story of courage, gave me hope that I too could one day be fearless. 
These true stories reveal the crucial role of African Americans in the building of this country and how the lessons from a troubled history can provide a roadmap for a better future. They give young readers a broader understanding of our shared history, our culture, and our strengths.
I still love Pippi Longstocking, but in each of the figures I’ve written about, I found the real life stories of fearlessness I sought as a young girl. And ultimately, both off and on the page, I found my voice. 
Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of nearly twenty books for children including Friends and Foes, Light in the Darkness:  A Story of How Slaves Learned in Secret, and Freedom’s School. Before She Was Harriet received a Christopher Award, Jane Addams Award, and a Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustration. Lesa’s debut middle grade novel, Finding Langston, received the  Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King author Honor Award. She lives with her husband and frequent collaborator, illustrator James Ransome.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Karen Romano Young

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Karen Romano Young. Thank you, Karen.

Being included—being told you can do this, you can be here, you should be here—is what gets kids engaged and involved in science for now, and for life. When it comes to science, I don’t believe enough people of any age are hearing this message.
In my science writing my goal is to make kids feel invited, included, involved, and validated, no matter how inexperienced they may be.

Try This! and Try This! Extreme are intended to help kids get more
comfortable making mistakes—and finding the value in them.
When I was a child, my life was full of adults who let me tag along, no matter what they were doing. I followed my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends around, watching them do things. I learned how to grow rhubarb, hang bookshelves, shop for fabric/screws/used cars/tomatoes, change the oil on a lawnmower, shuffle cards, dress a wound, cut off the circulation to a skin mole, body surf, tell if the tide was coming in or going out, plant bulbs, take off and land an airplane, build a tree house, train a dog, curl hair, scramble eggs, kill mildew, care for a stunned bird, fix my glasses, hunt for fiddlehead ferns, find secrets in a painting, saw a bottle in half, wire a lamp, and much, much, much more.   
Sometimes it was boring, especially at first. I think boredom is a lack of engagement. Why wouldn’t I be engaged? Well, sometimes I felt too shaky—dumb, unskilled, or inexperienced—to try something, and the fact is, I screwed up continually. But the experts in my life (merely people who were a few steps ahead of me) helped me through my most vulnerable moments. They made being shaky okay. 
An image from my forthcoming book DIVING FOR DEEP-SEA DRAGONS shows
the famous explorer Dr. Robert Ballard examining an animal nobody had ever
seen before. Scientists don’t know everything!
Through my research, participation in lab work and field work, writing and drawing, I’ve learned that my ability to mirror kids’ feelings of being dumb, disengaged/bored, or excluded—and flip them to simply being shaky because they’re new to something—is my most valuable offering.

My science comic #AntarcticLog frequently references shaky feelings.
It’s the degree to which people are willing to plow past these shaky feelings that makes the difference in their success as learners—whether that person is a kid, a Ph.D. scientist, or a middle-aged author heading off to Antarctica. If the question is, “Do I belong here?” then the answer must be, “The likes of you is welcome here. Come on in.”

The answer lies in the invitation, and in the way it’s given. If I could, I’d invite every reader to personally accompany me on a science adventure. We’d talk along the way, and if we made enough mistakes, we’d find the right way.

Last March, I climbed aboard an icy boat in Antarctica to assist Pete Countway, a Bigelow Laboratory for Marine Sciences molecular biologist. Pete had offered to bring me along for two months as his lab assistant in exchange for my creating science comics about his work.

Before the trip, I must have told him six times that I didn’t know how to do lab work, had only helped with field work before, and shouldn’t be put in charge of anything important. . .

This brilliant scientist said. “It’ll be okay.”
And it was, until I turned on the water pump and flooded the lab. Sure enough, I’d screwed up. Who doesn’t know the shaky feeling I had in my stomach? 

I ran to find Pete, and he apologized: it wasn’t my fault, he said; he hadn’t shown me how to empty “the pig”, a big jar into which waste water ran, so the pig (not I) had made the mess.

I was nervous all over again when we went to sea to capture water samples. I had to learn a whole new process, one involving heavy lifting, deft maneuvering, and quick thinking, aboard a pitching, freezing boat, in the snow.

But then I watched Pete learn to do something that made him feel shakyoperating

the boat’s winch, which involved a sticky knob, adjustments for the height of waves, and a sharp eye on the angle of the A-frame used to lift our instruments into the Southern Ocean.
This #AntarcticLog shows Andrew, Pete, and me at work in Antarctica.
“You’re going to have to allow me a little learning curve here,” he told Andrew, who was running the boat.

Andrew laughed and shrugged. He had only just recently learned his way around the winch himself. It’s great when people can articulate their inexperience and need for a little leeway, but then jump in and try anyway.

Writing about science for children is full of moments when I think they could get the shakes—feel intimidated or uninvited—just when I most want them to be engaged, excited, and to think, “This is for me.” I want them to see their role in the science story. 

When I say that feeling dumb is my superpower, that’s what I’m talking about. I try to channel my own sense of inadequacy or ignorance and to share what’s useful and essential about those feelings, to set an example of how to deal with them, for kids.

I believe that kids are born curious, born wanting to see and know and do. When they read about smart scientists or foolish artists having adventures, it’s the same as watching a parent or friend do a task: they want to learn how and to be involved.

They must not be shooed away by feeling dumb or shaky because they don’t see how to get where they want to go. The message must always be: you are fine, you are wanted, I’ll show you the way.

Karen Romano Young is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children, and the creator of #AntarcticLog, a science comic about exploration and research. Her most recent books are the acclaimed WHALE QUEST and SHARK QUEST (Twenty-First Century Books, 2017 and 2018). Coming next is a graphic nonfiction book, DIVING FOR DEEP-SEA DRAGONS (Chronicle, 2020). For more science comics, visit or follow AntarcticLog on Instagram.

Friday, May 10, 2019

How Young Nonfiction Writers Can Dig Deep, Part 1

This school year, I decided to try something new for the Monday strand of this blog. I invited 40 award-winning nonfiction authors to discuss how who they are as people—their personalities, passions, beliefs, and life experiences influence the topics they choose and the approaches they take to their writing.

Why did I think it was worthwhile to explore this idea so thoroughly? Because to me, it’s the secret of crafting engaging nonfiction.

If your students’ nonfiction writing seems dull and lifeless, it’s probably because they aren’t personally invested.

If your students copy their research resources even though they know plagiarism is wrong and can have severe consequences, it’s probably because they haven’t taken the time to synthesize their research and 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 at the wonderful, generous essays my colleagues have contributed. They’re fascinating.

Here are a few excerpts that really get to the heart of what I’m talking about:

I encourage you to share some of the Monday Digging Deeper posts with your students. Then read some books written by those authors and lead a class discussion by asking some of 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?

—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 this strategy make your writing more interesting?

—How could it help you avoid plagiarism?

I’ll be discussing how and why personal connections can enrich students’ nonfiction writing in upcoming weeks. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Michelle Markel

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Michelle Markel. Thank you, Michelle.

The picture book biographies of my youth were bloodless recitations of facts. Many years later, when I started writing for children, a new type of illustrated bio was becoming popular: expressive, artistic, poetic. I wanted to write one too!

It took a while to figure out how to do it.  I sold one biography, then suffered rejections for several years. I was having the dark night of the soul. Then I met Henri Rousseau. Preparing an art program for kids, I came across his “Sleeping Gypsy.”
I’d seen the painting before, but this time it spoke to me, the mysterious figure, the moonlit desert, the sweet plush lion that reminded me of a stuffed toy I‘d had as a child.

I read up on the artist and learned that he refused to be crushed by the snarky art critics, who publicly ridiculed him year after year. Besides painting and exhibiting, Henri gave music lessons to children in the neighborhood, wrote plays, and threw concerts in his little apartment. I felt a great sympathy and admiration for him.  I believed kids would feel the same way, and thought they’d enjoy his whimsical jungle pictures.

I studied Henri’s paintings of cavorting apes and monkeys and imaginary plants. I read his letters and the books written by his friends. And the coolest thing happened. As I worked on that manuscript, the artist’s playful, rule-breaking spirit cheered me on. He helped me free up my inhibitions, loosen up my sentences, and find my voice as a nonfiction author. Henri turned my career around. The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau won a 2013 PEN/Steven Kroll award for picture book writing. 

I’m attracted to stories of perseverance. I was drawn to Clara Lemlich, a lifelong labor activist, for a few reasons. Clara came to America from Eastern Europe, as did my grandparents, and, like my father (a former airline mechanic and president of his machinist union), Clara was an advocate of workers’ rights.
The story of Clara’s role in the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 is highly dramatic. Reading the details about the strike brought me to tears—how the immigrant garment workers, many in their teens, fought for humane conditions in the factories; how they stood up to hunger, cold, beatings, and arrests by police and company thugs. I felt an obligation to write this story, even though I had serious doubts that I’d sell it (there are few picture books about feminist labor history).

In the manuscript, I describe how Clara’s bravery empowered the other garment workers. She empowered my writing too. In one of her interviews Clara said that back then “she had fire in her veins.” That fire spread into Brave Girl.

My newest book, Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington, is about another type of rebel. Leonora’s otherworldly pictures feature mythical beasts and empowered females—a giantess, women who can grow little trees on their heads and float through ceilings. 
Illustration by Amanda Hall
Defying societal norms for her class and gender, Leonora moved to Paris to be an artist among the Surrealists. Though my background is quite different from the artist’s (she came from an upper class British family), I relate to Leonora. As a little girl, I was crazy about fairy tales too.

I loved reading about Leonora’s friendship with the Spanish artist Remedios Varo, whom she met in Mexico after fleeing the Nazi’s. The two of them were kindred spirits, cooking up stories and strange concoctions, dressing in costumes, dreaming up their own magic spells and remedies. Their sisterhood reminded me of the joy and emotional support I’ve gotten from my creative women friends.

Leonora inspired illustrator Amanda Hall and me to take our own risks, and submit this book as a joint project—which you’re not supposed to do.  We were thrilled to find a publisher for this project.

Fine literature is about the human experience, and picture book biographies are no exception. The best of them give a sense of the subject’s humanity, of her inner life, passions, and struggles. I want my nonfiction stories to have a beating heart! To write them, I’ve got to be emotionally involved. 

Michelle Markel is the author of several acclaimed nonfiction picture books, including  The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (PEN Steven Kroll Picture Book Writing Award), Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Jane Addams Flora Stieglitz Award; Orbis Pictus Honor), and Balderdash: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books (16 state awards). She has been an instructor at UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, a teacher, and a freelance writer. Her home is in Woodland Hills, California. Visit her website:

Monday, May 6, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Kelly Milner Halls

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Kelly Milner Halls. Thank you, Kelly.

In my early years as a writer, I envied dozens of books written by other nonfiction authors. I had not yet discovered how important it is to find and cling to your inner flame—your core reason for writing.

In time, I started to ask myself, “What books did you want but never find when you were a kid?”
I was a weird little girl trapped in an era that didn’t celebrate weird little girls. I loved reptiles and monsters, baseball and toads. I loved forest forts and insects, Batman and hanging out with my best friends, all boys. 
After deep reflection, I realized the books I longed for then were the books I was destined to write now. Embracing the girl I was—the girl I still am—led me to my most successful path. All of my books are very carefully researched, written, and revised. But they are also a little bit weird—like me.
Consider Dinosaur Mummies. While writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune on where kids could go to dig fossils, I discovered Leonardo, a fossilized duckbill dinosaur. Most fossil finds reflect skeletal remains, but Leonardo had 70% of his soft tissue fossilized along with his bones. He was amazing, and a little bit weird.  The book was a huge success.
While touring the Denver Zoo, I met an African American girl with albinism—no coloring in her hair, skin, or eyes. She was remarkable—strong and bold. But I wondered what had carried her to such confidence? I wondered what I could do to support children like her. So I wrote Albino Animals, a celebration of a condition poorly understood. Weird.
I loved watching documentaries with my father on virtually any subject. I caught fire when I saw stories of mysterious animals that might or might not be real—the creatures of cryptozoology, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Tales of the Cryptids highlighted the ideas and evidence that intrigued me as a child. And it gave weird kids like me a place to explore weird wonders of their own.  
Almost every book I’ve published has had an element of weird and a piece of my heart, including my latest, Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers. When I found a dead kitten as an eight year old, I brought it to my father who helped me bury its lifeless body. I cried for hours. Then I began to wonder, “What’s happening to it now?” 
It took me days to confess my curiosity because I was ashamed. What kind of person would wonder about such a dark topic? But my father gave me a big hug and explained the wonders of our world’s ecosystems. That sad baby cat would feed smaller creatures. Its short life would have meaning. Weird? Perhaps it is, but what a relief.
When I do school visits (and I do a LOT of them), I tell the kids I get paid for being weird. At first, they try to be kind and defend me from such an awful label.  But by the end of the hour, they are waving weird flags of their own. The word has lost its toxicity, and I am blissfully content. 
Truth is, we all think we’re weird. And in our own unique ways, we are. But weird is a wonder worthy of exploration. It is the thread of gold that has made my life and my career so joyful. I let kids know that they’re welcome to share my core with me. Or better yet, they can dig deep and find the thread that will help them blaze a trail of their own. 
Kelly Milner Halls has written nonfiction for young readers for the past 25 years.  First, she wrote for magazines and newspapers, publishing more than 1,000 articles in ten years. In 2000, she shifted her focus to children’s books and has published almost fifty titles. Her latest is Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers from Millbrook Press. In 2019, the Cryptid Creature Field Guide from Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch Publishing will pick up where Tales of the Cryptids left off in 2006.