I don’t write “informational” books although my books certainly contain lots of information. In fact, I dislike the label. In this day and age, with easy access to specific information on the internet on an “as needed” basis, information is the least important component of my work.
Traditionally, the main reason kids read informational books is that they have to do a homework assignment. I want to write books that kids pick up because they are intrigued and can’t put down because their interest is sustained. When I write, I must continually bear in mind who I’m writing for and what other reasons besides a school assignment they might want to know about something. This means that there have to be some big ideas in a book to form a conceptual framework for facts, which are merely decoration for these ideas.
I like to think of my books as “conceptual.” Every book has some underlying theme or thesis that builds the kind of comprehension that makes facts memorable. Let me give you some examples:
The “Imagine Living Here Series” consists of seven books dealing with life in a part of the world that can each be described with one word. This Place is Cold, for example, is about Alaska. The narrative develops around a series of questions my reader might ask. How cold is it? Cold enough to freeze your eyelashes so they break. Why is it cold? The answer brings up a discussion of latitude… which also discusses the ratio of daylight to nighttime. How do animals and plants adapt to this climate? How do people adapt? What kind of culture occurs? How does this show up in their lifestyles and their art? No information is gratuitous—every fact is connected to a big idea.
My “Where’s the Science Here?” series has four books on subjects of intrinsic interest to kids: sneakers, fireworks, junk food, and show business. Sneakers lets me discuss the biomechanics of walking and running, the structure of the foot, the comparison of human locomotion to that of fast animals like the cheetah and the pronghorn antelope, and the engineering of athletic footwear to enhance performance and protect the foot. Fireworks explores the chemistry of fire and the physics of rocketry. Junk Food discusses the gas laws behind popcorn, the packaging of potato chips, the sugar content of regular soda vs. diet soda, the melting point of chocolate and ends with a discussion of the nutritional content of the foods. On Stage describes the theatrical special effects behind fake snow, rain, fire, blood, breaking glass, and flying in the context of the science used to produce them. Simple activities as sidebars illuminate the concepts and give the reader real experience of the science in the books.
The “Science Play” series has four titles. Each explores a very common event in very young child’s life from the point of view of a scientist. This kind of paradigm shift—revisiting the ultra-familiar as a scientist might—lends itself to a series of activities that ultimately lead to a non-intuitive conclusion. I have written an extensive analysis of why I wrote this series in the November 2005 Book Links, (which you can find on my website: here).
I’ve recently had the fun of writing Harry Houdini: A Photographic Story of a Life for DK Books. Telling the story of Harry’s life chronologically like so many other people have done did not appeal to me. After absorbing their work by reading dozens of books it occurred to me that there were recurrent themes running through Houdini’s life as a multifaceted person and I used these themes to organize my book: Harry as a young man, a showman, a self-promoter, a death defier, a scholar and author, a family man, and as a champion of science against spiritualists.
In fiction, characters and plot make up the conceptual framework that drives the story. In nonfiction, facts are not enough. More than ever before, the nonfiction author must find points of view for a narration. The reasoning throughout the work must be inductive—going from the specific to the general (doing the opposite, making general statements and illustrating them with examples is boring) and the specifics must have a compelling fascination for kids to grab their attention. Once you have their attention, the author should be a Pied Piper taking them where she wants them to go. Now that’s a challenge!