Monday, December 10, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Patricia Newman

In my Sibert Honor acceptance speech for Sea Otter Heroes, I mentioned a teacher who once defined nonfiction as the facts and fiction as the heart. I’ll be honest; she hurt my feelings.

Written like a mystery, Sea Otter Heroes explores the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know. Marine biologist Brent Hughes connected the dots to discover endangered sea otters are responsible for the health of a seagrass ecosystem. Seagrass sequesters carbon, provides a nursery for our food supply as it matures, and calms the waves that pound our coastlines. Now consider the new White House proposal to gut the Endangered Species Act. Without protection, sea otters and the benefits they provide could be lost to us and future generations. I want my readers to understand the effects of our actions.

My books—part biography, part science adventure—tell inspiring true stories of scientists who make a difference. I hope these stories empower children and show them their voices matter, which the Common Core might tempt readers to identify as the author’s purpose. But my purpose goes beyond “persuade, inform, or entertain.” Just as fiction authors write about themes that resonate with them, so too do nonfiction authors. My themes first have to light my fire with a personal connection, a narrative, and a Wow! factor.

Standing in front of the soon-to-be
completed performing arts center. The
blue arrow points to me.
I was raised to care for myself, my family, and my community. My husband calls me a professional volunteer. Building a performing arts center at my kids’ former high school is my latest project. Time commitment:  ten-plus years.

Hopping my way to victory
on July 4th sack race
As a kid, I spent a lot of time outside. I played kickball in the street, hiked, ice skated, built snow tunnels, rode my bike, fished, planted trees, and sailed on Malletts Bay (hello fellow Vermonters). I collected bugs and pressed fall leaves for my season-deprived friend in Florida. I even read outside.

Me (right) examining the skull of a long-dead
elephant with a guide in Kenya
Outside was part of me. Clearly there’s a connection between my love of the outdoors, my urge to volunteer, and my string of environmental titles. But there’s more to it. Like fiction, nonfiction comes from emotion. For me, that usually means feelings of injustice and confusion. Injustice over problems such as mountains of marine debris or elephant and rhino poaching. Confusion over how my time (and money) might be most effective.

My challenge is to simultaneously tell the truth, inspire, and offer hope for myself and my readers. In my books hope is synonymous with science.

I used to volunteer for the San Diego Zoo, and traveled to Kenya on a safari led by one of the zoo’s geneticists. During the trip I became fascinated by elephants’ social relationships and cognitive capabilities. Eavesdropping on Elephants explores the value of listening to them in order to save them from extinction. I’ve added QR codes to the narrative to bring kids into the forest to see and hear the elephants as the scientists did. The closer kids get to the wild the more they will care.

As a zoo volunteer, I understood how zoos promote conservation, but many people don’t. Zoo Scientists to the Rescue braids together three fascinating success stories about endangered species and the zoo scientists who protect them. The scientists go to incredible lengths to save orangutans, black-footed ferrets, and black rhinos, but they started out as kids who loved animals. Readers identify with that. One mother wrote to say, “My son is now more than ever convinced that he wants to study lit a fire in him with this book. For that, I am grateful!”

Ultimately, my books meet an emotional need within me. But if they also resonate with readers, I know kids have found the heart I’ve woven through the pages.

Patricia Newman writes books that inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as SEA OTTER HEROES, EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS, and NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE encourage readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Her author visits are described as "phenomenal,” "fantastic," "mesmerizing," "passionate," and "inspirational." Visit her at


  1. Thanks for this inspiring post! These books are "must reads" for all children!

  2. I feel exactly as you do Patricia! Both in why I'm inspired to write and what I hope inspires young readers. Thank you for your books and voice.

    1. You're very welcome, Ilsa. Sorry I'm so slow to respond. The planet needs all the voices it can get.

  3. I love all of your books, Patricia, but I especially loved EAVESDROPPING--such majestic and sensitive creatures and the science was fascinating too!

    1. Sorry, I'm a little slow on the uptake Maria. Thank you for your lovely comments. The elephants and I appreciate them. :-)

  4. Thank you for posting this wonderful lady and her passions. I'm anxious to read them all. I'm sure I'll have a favorite.