A lot of us around here have been giving serious thought to how to get more nonfiction into classrooms. The summer has been spent (so far! It’s not over!) blogging and paneling about ways students and teachers can get into reading our nonfiction. Just in time for Back-to-School, fellow author Marc Tyler Nobleman reminds us of something vital:
Kids write nonfiction, too. They write answers to homework questions, they make powerpoint presentations, they pen letters to the editor, persuasive essays, journals, and reports. For most of them, as for most of us, in the words of Ringo Starr, “It don’t come easy.” But Nobleman can help.
His book, Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work! (Scholastic) is a compendium of funny, clear, wry, and effective solutions to the fuzzy problems of the teller of the true story. It is the product of Nobleman’s own troubleshooting in the course of writing more than 70 books for kids, including last year’s sparkling Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (Knopf), which was reviewed here. In addition, Nobleman is a cartoonist, whose clients include The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Good Housekeeping, and more.
“All the best stories in the world were true before people started retelling them and making stuff up,” says Nobleman. “We have to break the stigma that nonfiction writing is boring. It’s great!” Nobleman is excited about many of the original, accessible, and generally fabulous titles the nonfiction shelves these days. Among his faves:
• The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barden (Charlesbridge, 2009) about Joe and Bob Switzer, brothers who invented those bright glow-in-the dark colors.
• Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune, and Swimsuit History by Shana Corey (Scholastic, 2009) It’s about the woman who revolutionized the sport of swimming for women and made the one-piece bathing suit famous.
• The 39 Apartments of Ludwig von Beethoven by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Barry Blitt (Random House, 2006) “Most biographical subjects don’t lend themselves easily to comedy, such as Ludwig von Beethoven. But this author hit upon a great approach, using humor to teach history. Beethoven moved a lot, and he had to move his piano every time. It was winter, it was snowing, it was Vienna. The author tells the story through the lens of the moves. It’s hilarious!”
Nobleman also intrigued by new picture books about people such as Coco Chanel and Alexander Calder, who “aren’t necessarily household names but are such fun stories you’ll remember them.” And he’s excited about publishers who take chances on off-center books, as opposed to more books on say, Abraham Lincoln, who has been pretty well covered.
Nobleman’s idea for Quick Nonfiction came from a workshop he developed called “Draw a Story, Write a Cartoon” which he has frequently run for both students and teachers His goal, he says, is to get writers to rethink nonfiction by getting them to focus on just the first line of the story. “The secret is that any tip you learn for the first applies to the rest of the writing. One exercise shows how to convey a character right away. Another shows how to clear away adjectives. You start with the first line and branch out into varying wood choice, avoiding clichés, cutting, and self-editing.” Another secret? This book will work for any writer, not just the grades indicated on the front of the book (4 to 6). Each page stands alone and can be photocopied so every student has his or her own sheet to work from.
“You can open to any page in the book and apply that page to any subject area.” To test this theory, I give him a topic, the activity that’s going on outside my window: lawn-mowing. Nobleman opens his book to a page on the senses. “It’s perhaps most common to write about the sense of sight, but think of the intrusive sound of a lawn being mowed with a power mower, the smell of gasoline and grass. Then there’s my neighbor who mows this lawn at six a.m. That’s a different feeling!”
Nobleman honed his nonfiction craft by writing for Nickelodeon magazine, which sadly is shutting down. “Once I wrote about pirate myths versus realities. What might be dull in a school/library book could be told in a livelier way in Nick – and that helps teach, because we remember what we laugh at.” He takes that Nickelodeon sensibility into his own writing, so it’s natural that it ends up wrinkling the starchy side of teaching writing.
“Nonfiction writers have a number of assumed roles,” Nobleman says. These include storyteller, detective, reporter, historian, teacher, and rebel. “Anyone who puts a book or story out there is a little rebellious. Anyone who writes about someone unconventional is saying ‘This person is important even if you’ve never heard of them. And someone who writes his or her own perspective on a real person takes a risk.”
So where did this idea come from that nonfiction is boring? Nobleman credits fantasy. “Kids are reading completely outlandish fiction about dragons, pirates, aliens… It transports them! They don’t realize that real people have stories that are just as transporting – and true.”
Nobleman’s purpose in writing Quick Nonfiction is to help train well-equipped nonfiction writers. That entails knowing the difference between a good story and a good story that’s well told. With the tools in his book, he says, “writers can take raw material and make something beautiful, or can take a story that others have mined and reforge them into a new ring from the same old gold, and make it their own.”
Now that Quick Nonfiction is out there, Nobleman will continue teaching writing, while practicing what he preaches on his next true story, a biography of Bill Finger, the dominant force behind Batman comics.
As for me, I’m paging through his book, picking up pointers to inspire the first line of my next nonfiction, whatever that’s going to be – plus all the lines that come after.