Monday, January 14, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Heather Lang

Writing nonfiction is a highly personal experience for me—a journey. And the adventure always begins with a strong connection to my topic. While the connection could be rooted in passion, it might also stem from intense curiosity . . . or fear.

And what better way to explore a topic than through the experiences of brave women from history? As a child and young adult I often avoided trying new things because I feared failure.

But now I realize how important failure is to growth and success. The women I write about inspire me to take risks and embrace failure. This often involves taking on challenging and exciting hands-on research, so I can truly understand who and what I am writing about.

I grow personally with every book I write. Here are a few examples of how this has played out.

The spark for Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) was my own fear of flying and my admiration for those early aviators who risked their lives. When I read about Ruth Law and her record breaking cross-country flight from Chicago to New York City, I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to fly in a flimsy flying machine made from bamboo and cloth. And what about the huge obstacles Ruth faced as a woman in 1916? Her persistence was remarkable.

But how could I write about Ruth without knowing what it was like to fly in an open cockpit? Since I couldn’t find an early biplane, I decided to try paragliding. Up in the air, after my heart stopped racing, a different feeling overcame me: exhilaration and freedom. I was flying . . . gliding . . . swooping . . . with amazing open views in every direction.
In that moment I felt so connected to Ruth. I understood what she meant when she said, “The higher I soar, the greater freedom and liberty I feel.” This inspired me to weave the theme of freedom into the story—the freedom Ruth felt as a pilot and sought as a woman.

My journey writing Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (Albert Whitman, 2016) literally transformed me. I had been terrified of sharks and afraid to swim in the ocean ever since I saw the movie Jaws as a child.

Genie’s close relationship with sharks fascinated me. Through my conversations with her, I discovered her profound curiosity and passion for them. This sense of wonder became a primary theme in the book.

When we met, Genie couldn’t stop talking about an upcoming research trip and how she hoped to scuba dive—at the age of 91! It was then that I knew I needed to experience her underwater world to successfully write about it, so I got certified to scuba dive.

By the time I plunged into the ocean, I had already learned from Genie the truth about sharks: “sharks are magnificent and misunderstood.” And when I saw my first shark underwater, I found myself following it.
My research and personal journey not only informed my writing and the themes in the book, they transformed my fear into a passion for sharks, and they reminded me to never judge based on rumors or appearance.

My newest picture book biography, Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman, 2018), grew from my childhood passion: baseball. As a young girl, I rarely left the house without my mitt and ball, and I played catch every day with my father and brother.

When my own kids started playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I had the urge to learn more about the history of women in baseball.

I was shocked to read about Kathryn’s struggle to play Little League in 1950. I had no idea girls were prohibited from playing Little League baseball until 1974. I couldn’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball. I knew I had to tell Kathryn’s story.

Reading, researching, and writing nonfiction helps me grow in so many important ways. It’s a chance to explore personal thinking, connect with our natural world, understand how people in the past have made things better for us today, find role models, overcome fears, and discover new passions. I hope the stories I share will inspire young readers to dream and grow and embrace their own journeys.

Heather Lang loves to research and write about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. Her research adventures have taken her to the skies, the treetops of the Amazon, and the depths of the ocean. Her award-winning picture book biographies include Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion and The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall. Her next book, The Leaf Detective, will share the story of biologist Margaret Lowman and her quest to explore and protect our treetops. Visit Heather at

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