Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Carole Boston Weatherford

Today we conclude the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with a powerful essay by Carole Boston Weatherford. Thank you, Carole. Celebrate Science will be back in September.

Since the debut of my first children's book in 1995, I have mined the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles. I do so because when I was a child, black history was not in the curriculum and few black books were on library shelves. Not that I grew up culturally deprived, for there was always a grandmother in my house, quoting proverbs, sharing stories, passing down recipes, and humming hymns. My parents exposed me to all the African American culture in hopes of raising my consciousness.

That is reflected in the children’s books I write. I have chronicled the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I have profiled Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Harlem Renaissance bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, entertainer and civil rights activist Lena Horne, and jazz icon Billie Holiday who sang the anti-lynching hymn Strange Fruit. My latest release, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop shows how an art form rooted in rebellion evolved into a global youth culture.
I continue to focus on the African American freedom struggle. My books are often set during the slavery or Jim Crow eras. As the movement for more diverse children's books has gained steam, writing about slavery and segregation has become fraught with controversy. Debates rage about the depiction of the enslaved and about whether books with African-American characters are overburdened with oppression and victimhood.

I feel strongly about the appropriateness, and importance, of slavery and segregation as subjects of books for young people. Of course, no child's literary diet should consist solely of tough topics. And even the youngest readers may have genre or subject preferences. But it's never too early to raise a child’s consciousness, and I feel compelled to do so. Here's why.

1.       Children have a more absolute sense of right and wrong—no gray areas. That's why fairy tales in which good triumphs over evil have been bedtime fixtures for generations. Likewise, social justice themes resonate with young people.

After I read aloud books about discrimination, students invariably ask: Did that really happen? Who made that stupid rule? Why did whites mistreat blacks? And, the ringer: Which water fountain did biracial people have to use? Children demand, and we adults are obligated to offer explanation.

2.       Children need to learn a fuller, truer history than whitewashed textbooks or biased media provide. Children's books about the freedom struggle correct omissions, and connect dots, in our national narrative. By the time the Civil War began, four million people had been enslaved in the U.S. Thus, countless stories have yet to be told.

Much history has been lost because speaking of slavery was taboo, even among those formerly enslaved. Similarly, memories of the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement are fading. Gentle, yet thought-provoking children's books, like Kelly Starling Lyons' Ellen's Broom and Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side, share heartwarming stories from otherwise shameful chapters in our nation's history.

3.       Children deserve the truth, especially since racism still rears its ugly head, sometimes in dangerous ways. Children may not yet see race, but society already views them through that lens.

African American parents do not have the luxury of raising colorblind children or of waiting until their children are pre-teens to school them about racism. After all, Tamir Rice was 12 years old—and playing with a toy gun in a Cincinnati park—when he was killed by police responding to a report of an armed black man. Trayvon Martin was 14 years old—and talking on his cell phone on a stroll back from the store with Skittles and an iced tea—when neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman tailed him and shot him dead.

As long as African-American victims get blamed for their own murders and African-American youth are disproportionately profiled, we cannot spare children the truth. As African-American parents have "the talk" with their children about how to handle a police stop, children's books about historic racism can help place police brutality along the continuum of violent oppression.

4.       I write not only for African-American children who may one day feel the sting of racism, but also for children growing up in households that do not foster tolerance or celebrate diversity. Unless those children read books about social justice, they risk inheriting hatred and repeating misdeeds of the past.

I also write for educators who may have scant knowledge of African-American history and heroes. After all, educators can't teach what they don't know. And children can't know what they never learn.

Slavery and segregation are inextricable from America's story. Children's books like mine preserve history and honor famous and unsung heroes. I view those books as testaments of those whose voices were muted or marginalized. My books bear witness, sparking much-needed conversations about slavery and segregation among children, parents, and educators. If we are to bridge the racial divide, our children must understand the forces that created it, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

Carole Boston Weatherford has authored more than 50 children's books, including the Caldecott Honor winners Freedom in Congo Square; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. She is a professor of children's and adolescent literature at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Tanya Lee Stone

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Tanya Lees Stone. Thank you, Tanya.

I am on a mission to rid us of the term nonfiction. It is meaningless.

Why do we describe an entire genre of literature by what it is NOT? It tells us nothing about what it IS.

I no longer say “I write nonfiction.” Instead I say, “I tell true stories.” The latter sparks excitement. Rightly so.

A true story is a real adventure. It is something that actually happened, in need of being captured, told, passed on. That’s what history is, after all. A collection of true stories about ordinary people who have done extraordinarily wonderful—or horrible—things that have shaped our world. And my entire motivation for writing them comes from discovering a true story that so enthralls me I can’t wait to share it with other people. (It likely also makes me an incredibly annoying dinner party guest. “Did you know that Alexander Calder invented the mobile?!”)

Telling these stories depends on all the tools we use for fiction—character development, plot, setting, dialogue—with one crucial addition. The tool that allows me to tell an exciting story without making anything up is research. To understand the depths of this real-life character, to put myself in his or her shoes, to find the nuances of the plot, to become enough of an expert to do them justice, that research has to go deep. It has to get personal. Intimate, even.

There is a magnitude of secondary sources, of course, but it’s the primary sources that feed me. I’m especially enamored with in-person interviews and any amount of extended time I might be lucky enough to spend with a person I’m writing about.

It’s in the quiet spaces, in between the formal interviews, that you have a chance to learn about a person. To watch their body language and their facial expressions in conversation, to talk about topics unrelated to your book; to know them. By the time I emerge from the research, the subjects I’m studying practically feel familial.

Research is another term that doesn’t necessarily connote excitement. But if you call it what it really is—exploring—it takes on a whole new feel. When I think about my roots in research, I realize I have been doing it since I was a little girl.

Growing up on the beach in Milford, CT, my sister and I conducted research every day. I mean, what else do you call calculating how long it would take to walk the long, skinny sandbar out to Charles Island before the tide might strand us there, or how much seawater we should add to the shale we just crushed in order to make a paste that could cool the sting from a jellyfish?

The things I learned then are as clear and memorable to me as the personalities and quirks of the people I have been lucky enough to explore in the books I have written.

In Almost Astronauts, for example, deep and varied research yielded me facts, insights, and emotional information enabling me to write the opening lines to the book:

“One woman stands alone, off to the side of the crowd. She paces back and forth—agitated, excited, impatient. From the back, it is hard to tell her age; her faded brown leather jacket and blond ponytail reveal nothing. But if she were to turn to glance at the group of women on the observation bleachers behind her, you would see the lines of time etched on her face. You would see a smile tinged with sadness.”

It reads like fiction but is grounded in fact.

Achieving this kind of intimacy in true stories takes time. For me, it doesn’t come until I am fairly far along in the writing process. My early drafts are a bit of a mess for a while, truth be told.

There’s a whole lot of reading and thinking and writing and re-writing, trying to make sense of who this person really is and what is really going in the intricacies of their life. As I revise, I dive back into the materials again and again, searching and re-searching.

Inevitably—and often just when I’m convinced I may never properly capture this person’s story—a moment of understanding unfolds; it shows itself to me. It says: pay attention, this is what the story is really about, and this is why it matters to you.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to describe, but unmistakable when it occurs. From that moment on, I know where I’m going. I can proceed with the business of getting what’s in my head and in my heart onto the page.

Tanya Lee Stone is best known for telling the unsung true stories of women and people of color. Her work has earned many recognitions, including an NAACP Image Award (Courage Has No Color), a Sibert Medal (Almost Astronauts), and a Golden Kite Award (The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie). Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time was her 100th book. Forthcoming books include Remembering Rosalind (Franklin) and A Story of War, A Story of Peace.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Nonfiction Evolution: The New Survey Book

Once upon a time, all nonfiction books for children were survey (all about) books that provide a general introduction of a broad topic, such as gorillas or galaxies or weather.

These books, which are often published in large series, feature concise, straightforward language. They have a description text structure and an expository writing style.

Because covering a huge amount of information in a limited number of words constrains a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich text, these traditional nonfiction titles may seem less engaging than the other kinds of nonfiction books that have become increasingly popular in recent years.

Some young readers enjoy narrative nonfiction because it reads like a story. Narrative nonfiction is ideal for biographies and books about historical events because it has a chronological sequence structure.

Other children are especially fond of expository literature, which takes an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept. Because the topic is tightly focused, writers can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content, and they can experiment with voice and language devices.

And yet, many curious kids are hungry for books that provide broad overviews of their favorite subjects. In an effort to create books that satisfy young readers and seem more fun, some authors have begun employing techniques that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. The result is informational fiction survey books.

For example, I, Fly: The Buzz about Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos features a talking fly who tells a classroom of students all about flies.

In Sun: One in a Billion by Stacey McAnulty, a sun character (with eyes, a nose and mouth, and arms), talks directly to readers, sharing a plethora of fascinating facts.

Truth About Bears: Seriously Funny Facts About Your Favorite Animals by Maxwell Eaton III combines a simple, straightforward main text with information about bears and dialog bubbles in which talking bears add humor. Many pages also include factoid boxes.  

Beavers: The Superpower Field Guide by Rachel Poliquin, which is 96 pages long and intended for a middle grade audience, is narrated by a girl who presents information to readers in an enthusiastic, conversational voice.
Some educators worry that young children may be confused by this new way of presenting true information. They wonder:

·        Will kids mistakenly believe that an animal or inanimate object can talk and/or experience the world in the same way as humans do?

·       If children recognize that the first-person narrators are made up, will they realize that the ideas and information are factual?  

While understanding how kids at various age levels respond to these books may take time, the growing interest in informational fiction survey books suggests that we’re likely to see more of them in the future.

This article was originally published by PLOS Scicomm on April 9, 2019, but I thought it was worth publishing again here because informational fiction seems to be getting more and more popular all the time . 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Digging Deep by Patricia Valdez

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Patricia Valdez. Thank you, Patricia.

When asked to imagine a typical scientist, most people picture a man with wild hair, like Albert Einstein, or with a bow tie and lab coat, like Bill Nye.

A peek inside a laboratory today would reveal that, yes, women work in labs, too! That said, women seem to disappear from science as we look farther up the ladder. And the situation for women of color is much worse.

Why is this happening?

The importance of role models and mentors is clear. The limited number of women at the top makes mentors scarce. Sure, men can be great mentors to women, but it’s never easy to work in an environment where you are considered “other.” Role models show young girls that yes, they can make it, too.

The more role models, the better.

One of the reasons I write picture book biographies is to shine light on women whose scientific contributions were ignored or forgotten. Both boys and girls need to know that women have been contributing to scientific discovery since the dawn of man (and woman).

Joan Beauchamp Procter, the subject of my picture book biography, Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, knew from an early age that she would devote her life to the study of reptiles. She found a great mentor in Dr. George Boulenger, curator at London’s Natural History Museum. He realized her genius early on.

When Dr. Boulenger retired, Joan took over as curator, but many of the men were uncomfortable with a woman in charge. To them, Joan was “other.” They wanted to hire a less-qualified man to supervise Joan, so she took another job at the London Zoo in 1923.

Joan Procter regularly challenged people’s presumptions about what women could or should be. When interviewed by newspaper reporters, she often insisted that they focus on the animals and not her gender. “Why shouldn’t a woman run a reptile house?” she asked. Still, the newspaper headlines always managed to sneak the words “girl” or “lady” into the headline.

Joan even challenged people’s presumptions about the animals under her care. She presented papers that dispelled myths about the size and temperament of Komodo dragons. Perhaps Joan felt a deep connection with Komodo dragons because, like her, they were also misunderstood in a world that considered them “other.”

As a Latina scientist, I’ve often been in situations where I might be considered “other.” I’ve had difficulty finding good mentors throughout my career. I hope someday that women and people of color will occupy more rungs at the top of the ladder.

To paraphrase Joan Procter: Why shouldn’t a woman run the world?

Patricia Valdez is an author and scientist who loves writing for children. She earned her Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently works at the National Institutes of Health. Originally from Texas, she now lives in the Washington, D.C. area. Her first picture book, Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, is a 2019 NCTE Orbis Pictus Recommended Book. Find more at and follow her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer

Monday, June 3, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Carla Killough McClafferty

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Carla Killough McClafferty. Thank you, Carla.

Tragedy made me a writer. 

My fourteen-month-old son Corey died from a head injury after a minor fall off the backyard swing. Life as I knew it was over. I faced a crisis of faith that took time to work through. Although I’d never written before, I knew I was supposed to share my experiences. I wrote a deeply personal book for adults entitled Forgiving God: A Woman’s Struggle When God Answers No. 

After that book, I continued writing. I believed I could write about the lives of other people and keep my own emotions unattached and a safe distance away. I was wrong. I soon discovered that I’d use the fire of my own emotions to choose topics and write about them in a way that only I could.            

When I was doing the research for Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, my mother was dying of cancer. On nights I spent beside her hospital bed, I filled my sleepless hours reading research material. I searched for the best way to make a reader understand that underneath the always-stern-looking Curie, beat the heart of a vulnerable woman who had faced a lot of adversity.
While I grieved the loss of my own loved ones, I wrote about the day Marie’s husband, Pierre Curie, died. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I wrote and rewrote that scene. Still today, I tear up when I read the words I wrote.          

As I searched for the topic of my next book, a photograph I’d seen once lurked in the back of my mind. It was of Nazi soldiers surrounding an elderly Jewish man, laughing as they cut off his beard. I started researching the Holocaust, looking for a true story that hadn’t been told.  When I found Varian Fry, I knew that was the book I had to write. 

Fry was an American journalist who volunteered to go to Marseilles, France, in 1940 to rescue Jewish refugees trapped there. As I researched In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, I studied Hitler’s rise to power and the war in Europe. While writing the text, I chose each word carefully so that my readers would be transported to the streets of Marseilles in 1940. I want readers to feel the fear and desperation of the refugees who were trapped there. I want them to understand how Varian Fry and his team felt as they made life-and-death choices about who they could help and who they couldn’t.

As a writer, I must feel the emotions first (oh yes, I feel them). Then, hopefully, my readers will feel them too.

I’ve tackled another difficult topic in my newest book, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In it, I’ve highlighted the lives of six enslaved people who served the Washington family. For the past five years, I’ve felt a host of emotions as I’ve thought about the lives of each one.

I hope my readers will see these six individuals as real, flesh and blood people with the same feelings we have today. I want them to step out of the fog of history and stand in the spotlight.

As any nonfiction book should be, my books are filled with the facts. But along with the facts, I do my best to deliver maximum emotional impact. I want readers to FEEL my books.        

At the beginning of my career, I didn’t know how deeply I would need to dig into my own emotional life to write about the lives of others. When I look back through my books, I recognize tiny fragments of myself scattered across the pages.      

Carla Killough McClafferty is an award-winning author of nonfiction books. She is a popular speaker at schools and teacher conferences both in person and via video conferencing. Her books have been recognized for excellence with starred reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and more. She is an active member of iNK Think Tank that produces The Nonfiction Minute. She joins other writers on the blog Visit her website at