Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Behind the Books: Concept and Connection

I began this blog back in 2009 as a way of exploring the intersection of science and literacy for children. I hoped to find a community of like-minded authors and educators. I hoped to participate in discussions about the kinds of science books we were creating for children and how we might be able to do it better.

Back then, I’d never heard anyone talk about the craft of nonfiction writing, but I had a fledgling sense that there were ways science writers could dig deeper and offer more to young readers. I yearned to understand my writing process better and to grow in new directions. And thanks to this blog and social media and conferences for writers and educators, I’ve had illuminating conversations that have helped me understand the breadth and depth of nonfiction writing for children and discover how the kind of writing I’m most passionate about fits into the overall picture.

Today I know that most of my books are expository nonfiction. They inform, describe, or explain, rather than tell a true story. Some are “data” or “fast fact” books that focus on presenting fascinating information, while others are “fact plus” books that aim to put the information into context by discussing overarching ideas. In other words, they present facts and explain them.

I’ve also learned nearly all nonfiction books for children can be classified in one of four categories (survey books, life stories, concept books, and specialized nonfiction), and that most STEM picture books, including all the ones I’ve written so far, are concept books. Recognizing and naming the concept of a book before I begin writing is now an important part of my process.

I’ve also come to see that for a STEM picture book to shine, it needs to hook the reader, and that only happens when a child can easily make a connection between the concept and his/her daily life.

Kids love No Monkeys, No Chocolate because they’re intrigued by the idea that we depend on monkeys (and many other creatures) for our favorite dessert. That’s the relatable lens I use to show readers the concept—that everything in the natural world is intertwined, including us.

As children read Feathers: Not Just for Flying, they feel connected to the many different ways birds use their feathers because I compare these amazing natural objects to familiar human-made objects.

We all know that kids are naturally curious and have a limitless supply of questions about the world and how it works. Can an Aardvark Bark?, due out in June, celebrates this with a lively question-and-answer text structure intended to engage readers as they explore the book’s concept—that a range of animals make similar sounds, but for different reasons.

For me to endure the long and sometimes frustrating journey from inspiration to publication, I need a connection too—a personal connection.

My personal connection to No Monkeys, No Chocolate traces back to the glorious woodland walks my father, brother, and I took when I was young. That’s when I first discovered how living things are related to one another and their environment. During those walks, our father’s enthusiasm for nature rubbed off on us, so in many ways No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a tribute to him.


Feathers: Not Just for Flying was inspired by a single sentence in a magazine article: “Hummingbird eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world.” This simple fact blew my mind, fueling a flurry of questions. Birds have eyelashes? And they’re made of feathers? How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? That last question is the underlying concept of Feathers.

For this book, my personal connection is my deep admiration for a college friend who was endlessly fascinated by birds and took me bird watching many times. As I worked on the book, I kept thinking of him.

As I described on Alyson Beecher’s blog, Kidlit Frenzy, Can an Aardvark Bark? was inspired by a question my nephew, Colin, asked me during a family trip to Disney World. In this case, my personal connection to him motivated me to find a concept worth exploring in my mountain of research. Without Colin’s interest, I doubt I would have spent four years searching for just the right way to present the information.

Of course, my journey as a writer is far from over. I still have plenty to learn. But at least for now “concept and connection” serves as my mantra. It’s what guides me from each fledgling idea to a manuscript that’s ready for an editor’s eyes.

This post is adapted from a piece originally written for Beth Anderson’s blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this insightful post! It inspires me to reflect on my own writing process.

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