Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Storytelling

When people talk about the new nonfiction, or narrative nonfiction, they are usually thinking of books with real people in real situations and settings. The episodes or events the authors describe have been crafted, based on meticulous research, into a series of scenes that help us get to know the human “characters,” and through them, the historical events or scientific endeavors in which the living, breathing people participated.

Authors who excel at this kind of writing include Elizabeth Partridge, Russell Freedman, Jim Murphy, Sy Montgomery, Loree Griffin Burns, Kadir Nelson, Barbara Kerley, just to name a few. I love the books written by these authors and eagerly await their next titles.

Another category of children's nonfiction that relies on storytelling includes books that describe the typical daily routine and behaviors of a single animal or a host of animals living and interacting in a specific environment. The authors of these books aren’t writing about exactly what a particular real-life creature did on a specific day. They are creating a sort of montage that provides a view into the world of the animal or the overall workings of a habitat.

The written piece is generally based on observing the animal in the wild over a period of time or spending many hours exploring a specific habitat. Because animals don’t always cooperate with an author’s needs, parts of the narrative are also based on reviews of the scientific literature or discussios with scientists or nature lovers who have their own observational experiences.

I have written many books using this strategy and people sometimes ask me why. I guess it’s because I’m much happier spending hours exploring the natural world than interviewing living people or scanning microfilm with newspaper articles from a hundred years ago. But that’s just me. Thanks goodness there are lots of different kinds of writers.

Anyway, in either case, we authors have the same goal in mind--to present information in a lively, accessible way. We want readers to be engaged and well as informed. And most of all, we want kids to gain a deeper sense of the world around them.

Next week I’ll share what I think was my most successful use of narrative nonfiction to paint a picture of a rich and diverse ecosystem—the Florida Everglades.

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