Monday, September 10, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Melissa Stewart

Last year, award-winning children’s book author Laura Purdie Salas wrote this wonderful post for Celebrate Science. I especially love this quotation:
 
“. . . 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.”

When I posted a link to Laura’s essay on Twitter, the response was incredible. Dozens of nonfiction creators replied, “Me too!” Because I wanted to hear and share their stories, I’ve invited thirty-three award-winning children’s book authors and author-illustrators to post here on Mondays throughout the year.

Again and again, what you’ll hear is that crafting nonfiction involves much more than just cobbling together a bunch of facts. The books we choose to write and the perspectives we choose to explore are often closely linked to who we are as people and our experiences in the world. Nonfiction writers—all writers—have to dig deep. If we don’t, our writing will fall flat, and no one will want to read it.

Our passion for a project, our author purpose, is what drives us to dedicate years of our lives to a single manuscript. It spurs us on despite the obstacles and setbacks, and of course, through the inevitable criticism and rejections.

Today, I’m going to begin the series with the story behind Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (illus. Stephanie Laberis, Peachtree, 2018)—a book that began on a chilly December morning in 2013.

I’d been thinking about and researching animal superlatives (biggest, strongest, fastest)—and then anti-superlatives (smallest, slowest, weakest)—for a long time, but I didn’t really have a vision for the book I wanted to create.

But, as I lay in bed, waiting for the alarm to go off, these words popped into my mind:

“Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.

But this book isn’t about them. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone finally paid attention to them?”

I jumped out of bed, ran to my desk, and scrawled those lines in my notebook. I couldn’t believe it. In one flash of inspiration, I had the book’s beginning and its hook and its voice. It felt like a gift from the universe, and it was.

But it came with a catch.

As I typed the words into a computer file later that morning, I realized that a dark part of my subconscious was rearing its ugly head. That creative hook, that unique perspective hadn’t come out of nowhere. They were born out of the severe bullying I’d endured as a child. Writing this book would mean revisiting some painful memories, and that scared me.

So I shut the computer file, and I didn’t open it again for 6 months. By that time, I had made peace with the part of my past that would drive the creation of this book. And I got to work . . . because that’s what writers do.

It’s hard to believe that the description of a western fence lizard’s hunting strategy could be autobiographical, but it is. I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so that little lizard is kind of my hero.


See how its “weakness” is actually the secret of its survival success? I think that’s an important message for kids because we all have our weaknesses, and I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.

In the end, Pipsqueaks is a book about animal adaptations and about celebrating the traits that make us different and unique. It’s my way of offering hope to children who are being bullied right now.


22 comments:

  1. Beautifully said, Melissa. Cheers for the underdogs!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your writing process and all the emotions that go along with it. I am sure as I bring this to students many of them will be able to relate to being the underdog and being able to share that even successful adults have had struggles in the past may help them to see that you do not have to be defined by your bullies.

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  3. Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your story behind this book. And thank you so much for writing the book! I recently had a conversation with another educator about how in the "anti-bullying" message, we are neglecting this very important part to stopping the vicious cycle--making kids strong so they can deflect the bullying. You are right: we need to offer them hope. We need to help students know how to ward off a bully. I am thankful my mother taught me how when I was a target. Sometimes, I wonder if there is anyone who has not been a bully's target at one time or another.

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    1. I like that there are currently so many books coming out about kindness and appreciating differences. I hope they lead to conversations that can really help kids.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your personal story, Melissa--that makes the book's message even more powerful.<3

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    1. I think you're one of my biggest supporters, Maria.

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  5. rooting for the underdogs! Great post, Melissa. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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  6. What a great perspective! I’m looking forward to this series!

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  7. Thank goodness for wonderful you, Melissa! We all benefit from your experiences, perspective, and wisdom. Thank you for sharing your process with the world. I know lots of readers will identify with you. xoxo

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  8. From Laura's quote to the way your life experience informs your writing (in yes, ALL genres, people!) -- I love this post. Thank you, Melissa!

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  9. I always enjoy hearing your "behind the books" stories.

    And I loved Laura's post last year. It really resonated with me.

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  10. I love this, Melissa! You share yourself everywhere--in your books, on your blog, and more. We are all richer for that.

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    1. See what your post started, Laura? There are so many terrific essays coming.

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  11. What a great peek into an author's process! I am glad this inspiration came to you and that you saw it through even though it had you dredge up painful memories (even though I have yet to get my hands on the book). I can't wait to read all the essays to come.
    Hugs,
    Erika

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    1. I hope you get a chance to read the book, Erika. And stay tuned for more posts.

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