Friday, March 15, 2019

Me and the Magic of Three by Heather L. Montgomery

Today, author Heather L. Montgomery discusses three critical elements of writing nonfiction for kids. Thanks for your contribution, Heather.

Every writer knows a “Rule of Three.”

Fiction writers plan three acts; protagonists go up against three conflicts; essays include three supporting ideas. But in writing nonfiction that’s good enough for kids, I’ve found a different three:

(1) A subject full of “Wait, what!?!” facts

(2) A theme that resonates deeply within me

(3) A structure that carries the theme
When considering a project, those magical three give me the green light to dive in.
A “Wait, what!?!” Subject
Did you ever read a book like Sarah Albee’s Poison and find yourself spouting facts about murder and medicine for weeks? That’s the crazy, contagious energy I need before committing years to a project.
When selecting a subject, I’m tempted to use curriculum or market trends as a guide, but I can’t afford to. I have to be selfish. To be a genuine inquiry, a subject has to hyper-excite me.
Sometimes I have a strong theme but finding the “Wait, what!?!” subject takes a while. Thinking about how tough growing up was, I wondered if metamorphosis could be a strong theme. But insect metamorphosis has been done till it’s worn thin.
One day, out in a boat, we hauled up a net of bizarre creatures. They were juvenilesmarine invertebrates on the verge of a monstrous morphing of their bodies. Wait, what?!? Starfish kids don’t look like starfish? Junior jellyfish look like plants! And one marine kid surfs on top of jellyfish! This I couldn’t stop telling people about.
So I applied the “growing up” theme to the “marine animals” subject. Fortunately, that all played well with a structure I’d been dying to try: an inquiry about scientific inquiry. Suddenly I had the magic three. Out popped Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis Under the Waves.
Universal Theme
From studying books like Melissa Stewart’s Feathers: Not Just For Flying, I’d learned that a universal theme touches readers at a deeper level than straight facts. So I cast about for a way to marry facts with a universal theme. And that’s when my six-legged friends jumped in to help.
Finding insect fun facts is easy, but my passion for insects runs deeper than that. Insects challenge me to think about generosity (a mother shield bug “shops” till she dropsliterallyfor the perfect food for her young), devotion (burying beetles toil endlessly to prepare spit soup for their kids), and family (tortoise beetles protect their siblings by waving poo in the air).
Family. That was a universal if surprising connection we have with some insects and with one another. Next, I found a structure that worked (thru-the-day) and a book was born: Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids.

Supporting Structure

Finding a structure to support my theme and subject is always a challenge. This is the deep craft of nonfiction. The kind of thing that, if I think about it directly, slips away like a fish between my fingers. The kind of thing my subconscious wrestles with for months, often for years, until I find what works.
I don’t know when I started looking at roadkill instead of turning away, but one day I realized there could be a book there.
When animals are killed, everyone’s heart hurts, so nailing a universal theme should be easy. I discovered mind-blowing research (contagious cancerthat’s right contagiouswas discovered thanks to roadkill), so the “Wait, what!?!” was covered. 
But, how could I ever, ever approach a topic this tragic in a book for young people? I was stalled out in fear of my topic.
For years it thrashed about in my mind. Then I found myself telling stories about my research journey. Each discovery turned me a few degrees away from tragedy toward awe. Drawn in by people saving animal lives. That is when I realized I could take my reader with me. The research journey was the structure I needed to share the hope in Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill.

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are wild about animals. The weirder, the wackier, the better. An award-winning science educator, Heather uses yuck appeal to engage young minds. During school presentations, petrified animal parts and tree guts inspire reluctant readers and motivate reticent writers. She has published over a dozen nonfiction books. Heather lives on the border of Alabama and Tennessee. Inquiry is her life.


  1. Thanks for sharing your tips Heather, especially about structure!

  2. Thanks, Heather. I LOVED Something Rotten so much & learned so many fascinating things. Thank you for writing such a fun and engaging book. I love animals and am the kind of person who cries when I see dead animals, so it made me appreciate the science behind the study of them even more. <3

  3. Thanks for sharing your process, Heather. It can be maddening to figure out structure. You seem to be a very patient person. My son's school LOVES the roadkill book. And I have to say it's pretty fascinating, too. And I've read Bugs Don't Hug. I love its humor and dual-layered text. But I haven't seen Poison or Little Monsters, so must put those on my TBR pile.

  4. Excellent! I am thinking through this frequently and looking for the A-HA moment that connects the subject to something larger with kid-appeal.

  5. Excellent post, Heather! You've captured the essential elements of idea and process. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you for sharing, Heather! Structure is something I'm constantly grappling with. Great ideas!

  7. Great post. Many thanks for sharing your process. I love your thoughts on structure -and on underlying theme... I'll be bearing this article in mind over the coming weeks when I'm working on two nonfiction projects. x