Thoughts on Writing Nonfiction for Children:
Telling the Truth to Children
A couple of years ago, I set out to write a book on writing nonfiction for children. Together with my mother, award-winning author Margery Facklam, we explored why we write nonfiction and how we do it.
No two writers work precisely the same way -- not even mother and daughter. We share many of the same views on writing nonfiction, and our processes are similar, but our experiences in the publishing industry, which span almost 50 years, have been different. In 1960, Margery typed her first book, Whistle For Danger on a Smith-Corona typewriter using a carbon paper and whiteout. Thirty years later, I wrote my first book, Volcano! using one of the first state-of-the-art word processors -- a Kaypro that opened like a bread box, using 5-inch floppy disks. But more has changed than the technology. The business of children's publishing has changed, education has changed, and children have changed. Because we are both science majors we came to think of nonfiction writing as a body of knowledge, and hopefully we have diligently dissected its anatomy into its working parts. Nonfiction is a simple beast. In its most basic form it consists of a skeleton of accurate information, the flesh and blood of story, the heart of the writer, and the muscle of marketing. Subspecies have been identified -- biography, how-tos and science writing -- but their survival and success depend on these basics.
The Nonfiction Writer
When author Annie Dillard described herself in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she said, "I am no scientist ... I am a wanderer with a penchant for quirky facts." That pretty much sums up most nonfiction writers. We are perpetual students of the world, soaking up the odd, unusual, bizarre and fascinating fact. We are also eager teachers, but we do not teach just facts. Many people have the perception that children's nonfiction is unbiased or neutral, but it is not. Good nonfiction does not list cold facts like a witness interrogated by Joe Friday on the old Dragnet television show when he'd say, "Just the facts, Ma'am." What that dedraggled witness said was filtered through her eyes, her past experiences and personal beliefs. So too is everything a nonfiction writer collects, reads and writes. Nonfiction writers are biased. We can't help it anymore than anyone else can. But our bias is to present the facts through a hopeful lens. We portray a world where everything may not be perfect but with hope that someday it will be better. As naturalists, we could not write about the deforestation of the rainforest without talking about the efforts of coffee companies learning to grow coffee beans in an environmentally sound manner. We need to give hope to the next generation, and perhaps inspire them into action.
More to come....
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