Monday, May 6, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Kelly Milner Halls

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Kelly Milner Halls. Thank you, Kelly.

In my early years as a writer, I envied dozens of books written by other nonfiction authors. I had not yet discovered how important it is to find and cling to your inner flame—your core reason for writing.

In time, I started to ask myself, “What books did you want but never find when you were a kid?”
I was a weird little girl trapped in an era that didn’t celebrate weird little girls. I loved reptiles and monsters, baseball and toads. I loved forest forts and insects, Batman and hanging out with my best friends, all boys. 
After deep reflection, I realized the books I longed for then were the books I was destined to write now. Embracing the girl I was—the girl I still am—led me to my most successful path. All of my books are very carefully researched, written, and revised. But they are also a little bit weird—like me.
Consider Dinosaur Mummies. While writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune on where kids could go to dig fossils, I discovered Leonardo, a fossilized duckbill dinosaur. Most fossil finds reflect skeletal remains, but Leonardo had 70% of his soft tissue fossilized along with his bones. He was amazing, and a little bit weird.  The book was a huge success.
While touring the Denver Zoo, I met an African American girl with albinism—no coloring in her hair, skin, or eyes. She was remarkable—strong and bold. But I wondered what had carried her to such confidence? I wondered what I could do to support children like her. So I wrote Albino Animals, a celebration of a condition poorly understood. Weird.
I loved watching documentaries with my father on virtually any subject. I caught fire when I saw stories of mysterious animals that might or might not be real—the creatures of cryptozoology, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Tales of the Cryptids highlighted the ideas and evidence that intrigued me as a child. And it gave weird kids like me a place to explore weird wonders of their own.  
Almost every book I’ve published has had an element of weird and a piece of my heart, including my latest, Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers. When I found a dead kitten as an eight year old, I brought it to my father who helped me bury its lifeless body. I cried for hours. Then I began to wonder, “What’s happening to it now?” 
It took me days to confess my curiosity because I was ashamed. What kind of person would wonder about such a dark topic? But my father gave me a big hug and explained the wonders of our world’s ecosystems. That sad baby cat would feed smaller creatures. Its short life would have meaning. Weird? Perhaps it is, but what a relief.
When I do school visits (and I do a LOT of them), I tell the kids I get paid for being weird. At first, they try to be kind and defend me from such an awful label.  But by the end of the hour, they are waving weird flags of their own. The word has lost its toxicity, and I am blissfully content. 
Truth is, we all think we’re weird. And in our own unique ways, we are. But weird is a wonder worthy of exploration. It is the thread of gold that has made my life and my career so joyful. I let kids know that they’re welcome to share my core with me. Or better yet, they can dig deep and find the thread that will help them blaze a trail of their own. 
Kelly Milner Halls has written nonfiction for young readers for the past 25 years.  First, she wrote for magazines and newspapers, publishing more than 1,000 articles in ten years. In 2000, she shifted her focus to children’s books and has published almost fifty titles. Her latest is Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers from Millbrook Press. In 2019, the Cryptid Creature Field Guide from Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch Publishing will pick up where Tales of the Cryptids left off in 2006.


  1. I'm a huge fan of vultures, in particular, Kelly, so I'm very excited to read Death Eaters.

    I loved both Saving the Baghdad Zoo (so sad & cool about the lions and dogs who were raised together. I'm forgetting the details now, since I read it when it first came out, but I remember being so touched by that. In Search of Sasquatch was a fun read too!

    Congrats on your books!

  2. I love the idea of "detpxifying" the word, weird. Weird is good. Embrace it! And thank you for writing weird books.

  3. Kelly I love your books. I met you at a conference and learned so much from you. I just read your Death Eaters book and it was awesome. I hope to write a few weird books of my own.

  4. What a lovely post about embracing your weird. Fantastic for school visits. I talk a lot (and do fun sessions with the children) about making mistakes (and detoxifying making mistakes but I might just spell out the weird part of it, too. Anything that helps children understand that it actually IS ok to be them (in fact that it's great to be them) is a fantastic thing. Thank you! And good luck with your books.

  5. The world needs more “weird” writers and you are awesome for writing weird books and making kids feel comfortable - we are all weird in our own way! kudos to you and congrats on the success of your books!

  6. I love your writing Kelly. You get to the heart of the matter and help kids understand no question is too cumbersome to ask. One student friend had set up a camera to spy in on some baby vultures. It was extremely interesting. Keep writing.