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.
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.