Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Behind the Books: Then and Now

Last spring, I wrote a post about Sarah Brannen, the illustrator of my upcoming book FEATHERS (Charlesbridge, 2014) for the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) blog. But I didn’t say too much about the book itself.

Over the summer, I realized it might be interesting to compare it to my book BIRDS (Children’s Press, 2001). Nonfiction for kids has changed a lot during the last decade and these two books are perfect examples of what worked then versus what works now.

Here’s a passage from BIRDS that discusses feathers:

      A bird’s most special feature is its feathers. Feathers are made of the same material as your hair and fingernails. They grow out of little tubes in a bird’s skin. Feathers help a bird fly, stay warm and dry, hide from enemies, and attract mates.
     There are two kinds of feathers—down feathers and contour feathers. Down feathers are like thermal underwear under a coat of contour feathers. Short, fluffy down feathers trap warm air close to a bird’s skin. Contour feathers cover a bird’s body, wings, and tail. They give a bird its shape and color.

And here’s a bit of text from FEATHERS:

Feathers can warm like a blanket . . .

On cold, damp days a blue jay stays warm by fluffing up its feathers and trapping a layer of warm air next to its skin.

. . . or cushion like a pillow.
A female wood duck lines her nest with feathers she has plucked from her own body. These feathers cushion the duck’s eggs and keep them warm.

These two pieces of writing are worlds apart. The first one is a straightforward compilation of facts. And back in 1999 when this book was contracted, that’s what teachers, librarians, and kids wanted and expected.

But then the Internet entered our lives in full force. All the information in the book is now available at our fingertips and free of charge. If authors and publishers wanted to keep on selling books, they had to create something new and different. And they did.

Today’s nonfiction for kids must offer something that the Internet doesn’t. FEATHERS focuses on all the amazing ways birds use their feathers. Feathers are for more than just flight.

But the topic isn’t the only innovative thing about this new book. It has two layers of text. The main text explains how birds use feathers through a series of comparisons. By comparing feathers to familiar objects, kids gain a more solid understanding of the unfamiliar. The secondary text provides more detailed information.

And that’s still not the end of the novelty of this book. As I mentioned in last spring’s blog post, Sarah’s art brings the book to a whole new level.

Here are a couple of sketches to whet your appetite: 

I started working on FEATHERS in 2005, so I’m really looking forward to holding the final product in my hand. Right now 2014 seems soooooooo far away.


  1. Thanks for doing that contrast & compare - it really is neat to see how books have evolved.

  2. Melissa, after seeing the sketches in your workshop, I am so looking forward to this book too. It is just the type of book my almost-six-year-old adores (along with every DK encyclopedia). Also, I just used my colored pens to edit a couple of manuscripts. They are going out next week. Thanks again for being such a wonderful teacher.

  3. Sue, I'm glad you like it. I look forward to seeing you in November.

  4. Kirsten, Hooray for pretty colors! Good luck with your manuscript.