Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Writers Aren’t Robots

I’m excited to host award-winning author and poet Laura Purdie Salas, who has an important message for us to consider. Thanks, Laura.

I try not to take it personally, but there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out.

The reality is very different. I think my personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I end up writing. Here are some examples.

 A Leaf Can Be . . . (Millbrook Press, 2012)
I changed majors a lot in college. I tend to get bored easily, and that’s one reason poetry and picture books call to me. They are small, close, brief examinations of a topic.


Credit: Leyo, Wikimedia Commons
I tend to think about topics broadly and ask, “What else?” For example, A Leaf Can Be . . . began when I read an old poem I had written about Honduran tent bats and their leafy shelters. Some writers might have wanted to delve into that relationship in great detail. But because I like lists and variety, my question was not, “Why?” or “How did they evolve to do that?” It was, “What else do leaves do?”

Another way I am present in my Can Be… books is that I have a deeply felt sense of justice, and I tend to root for the underdog. I find that exploring the wonders of underappreciated things is a common thread in my work.

If You Were the Moon (Millbrook Press, 2017)
This is another list poem (basically) exploring the roles of an everyday (or every night) object. But this topic was more personal for me.

My dad worked as a NASA engineer at Cape Canaveral during my childhood. He talked about the space program a lot at the dinner table, but it was usually more about office politics or chemistry and physics way beyond my understanding.
 
Credit: NASA
Still, I was awed by our solar system, by space travel, by watching space shuttle launches. In college, I was devastated to witness the Challenger explosion.
 
When I started this book, I needed facts, of course. But I also wanted to explore my own emotions about space and the moon. And I wanted to present the moon in an accessible way that would leave kids inspired, not confused. I wanted to help kids make friends with the moon, in a way I couldn’t as a kid. So, I compared the moon’s actions to things kids do, like play tug-of-war or miss their friends.


Meet My Family!
This is my brand new picture book, and I feel like it’s been growing wings inside me for more than 40 years.

When I was a kid, my family was very different from my friends’ families. My parents were super strict. Five hours of TV per week, maximum. We kids paid part of the electric bill. Straight As weren’t good enough. We were estranged from most extended family.
 
On top of that, one of my sisters had a brain condition we now call OCD, and she washed her hands hundreds of times per day. Back then, that was just considered weird—not recognized as a medical condition. 

I'm the small kid with braids in the center.
While visiting schools, I’ve had students write poems about divorced parents, parents they’ve never known, being adopted, and more. Kids often feel such unwarranted shame. My own remembered shame about my family was like an engine driving this manuscript. It’s a nonfiction book about the different structures of animal families. But more importantly, it’s a book that says to kids, “Your family is okay. As long as you are loved, you are okay. You are okay.” I don’t think there’s anything more important that I have to say to young readers.

So all my little quirks, loves, and fears shape the books that I write. I’d love to see more recognition that this is true for most nonfiction books. And imagine all the exciting nonfiction that students will create as we encourage them to infuse all their writing—not just their fiction—with the qualities that make them who they are.

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 Water Can Be…, BookSpeak!, and Meet My Family! You can meet Laura at her website, laurasalas.com, where you can also access her blog and her e-letter for educators or learn where to connect with her on social media.

25 comments:

  1. Thank you, Laura, for your wonderful essay--we nonfiction writers are human and we write literature that reveals our humanity!

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    1. Thanks, Alexandra--that's it exactly:>)

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  2. Those personal touches make books richer and stronger. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

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    1. Thanks, JoAnn! It's funny. Until recently, I hadn't given that much thought to this topic related to expository nonfiction (only narrative). Once I thought about it for this blog post, though, it seems so obvious and pervasive. It's that whole "write the book only you can write" advice. But not just because of your own creativity, but because of who you ARE. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Laurie, thank you so very much for sharing this with us.

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  4. Laura's books are always filled with beautiful language and leave readers with something to think about. I enjoyed learning the backstory of these books.

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    1. Thank you, Linda, on all counts:>) It was really interesting to write this post and think about why I wrote these particular books and how they connected to me personally...

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  5. I'm on a constant campaign as a teacher and writer to show my students the creativity involved in nonfiction writing. This post will help me reinforce this message. Thanks!

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    1. Hooray, Michelle! I don't remember a teacher EVER connecting creativity with nonfiction when I was a kid. So glad you are helping to spread the word!

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  6. Many thanks to Laura for her transparency and to Melissa for creating a safe space for it. I imagine it is hard for people who don't write (fiction or NF) books to understand the emotional investment authors make in their subjects/topics. That investment is necessary to shepherd every book into the world!

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    1. Well said, Carrie! And thank you, indeed, to Melissa for being such an advocate for nonfiction of all kinds:>)

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  7. Thanks to Laura for writing this piece and to Melissa for allowing her to share it here. I can remember when I was in elementary school and most of the nonfiction available was dry facts. The breadth of creativity and knowledge that come together to form much of today's nonfiction should receive at least the same amount of respect as fiction. My son has dyslexia. It took a lot of perseverance and hard work on his part to eventually get to the point where reading a paragraph wasn't a major chore/challenge. What got him through was creative nonfiction. He was much more willing to do the work when I provided him with books that correlated with is personal interests. I love nonfiction books and the writers who create them.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, Kimberly. Every kid deserves books that excite him or her enough to be worth the (sometimes) struggle to read. Books so good they're more appealing than all the other entertainment options! Good for you on YOUR perseverance, too!

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  8. Great thoughts about nonfiction. Thanks.

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  9. Great post, Laura! So true that writers bring all of their own backstories to their writing. And I love seeing how the inner you is so connected to your work. Thank you for sharing your personal info!

    As an aside, I'm getting increasingly impatient with people (including other writers) who feel the need to make a distinction between nonfiction and "creative nonfiction." Candace Fleming provides a great anecdote when she's teaching. Both nonfiction and fiction writers have to make cakes that readers will think are delicious. Fiction writers can go to the store and buy anything they want to put into their cakes to make them tasty. A nonfiction writer has been given a mixed bag of ingredients and must make something tasty out of it without adding a single thing that wasn't in the bag. Now THAT'S creative!

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    1. I love that analogy, which someone (maybe you) shared on Twitter the other day. I think "creative nonfiction" is a dangerous term for two reasons: It implies (as you said) that most nonfiction ISN'T creative. Also, some writers/teachers use it to mean nonfiction that isn't really nonfiction, e.g., containing invented dialog, etc. Either way, I'm against it.

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  10. So true, Laura! It's an exciting time to be reading and writing nonfiction!! Looking forward to your new book! Congrats! :)

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    1. Thanks, Maria. Can't wait to see your Tongues book. Seeing a ton of buzz about it!

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  11. Thanks, Laura. I'm reading Meet my Family right now... and it's fun. I appreciate it more knowing how it grew from your heart.

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  12. Hi Laura - I am a retired teacher and have followed your blog and many of your books - they are wonderful. Wish I could meet you one day and talk children’s lit! Best wishes for your continued creativity.

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    1. Thank you, Vicki! That is so lovely to hear. I hope we do meet someday, and I appreciate your good thoughts:>)

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  13. Very belatedly wandering into this post, but so enriched to read it. Thank you, Laura, for your generous spirit and keen mind as always, and thank you, Melissa, for sharing.

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