Thursday, April 4, 2013

Believe It or Not! (A Guest Post by David Elliott)

A guest post by my friend and colleague at Lesley University, David Elliott

As an elementary school kid, the closest I came to voluntarily reading nonfiction were the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not bubble gum cards I bought for a nickel every Saturday morning at Jackson’s Newsstand.  Even now, I can hear the satisfying crinkle of that red cellophane as I peeled it away from the pink slab of brittle gum and the slippery, sugar-dusted card beneath it. And I’ll never forget my favorite card, the one about that guy who ate a truck, bumper to bumper. Ripley’s, by the way, is still around and still connected to the malleable world of gum. Check it out

But when Mrs. Stevenson, my funny and terrifying sixth grade teacher, passed out the orange books that were filled with dates and names and other info lethal to the imagination about, oh-my-god, the Presidents, I felt a sudden, uncompromising urge to see the school nurse.  I was a dreamy kind of kid, one whose life at home was filled with enough cold, hard facts to last a lifetime. I craved the escape, the relief, that fiction offered.  No wonder I became an author of picture books and middle grade novels. How odd then, that in my most recent work – a poetry series illustrated by the wonderfully talented Holly Meade --On the Farm, In the Wild, In the Sea  -- many of the reviews mention the amount of real information the poems contain.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised; the inspiration for many of the poems came from the facts I learned during the many hours I spent reading about the animals. When I discovered, for example, that while a leopard has spots, a jaguar has rosettes, I knew I’d found the beginning lines of my jaguar poem. 

The jaguar’s back is flowering
with delicate rosettes
as if she’s grown a garden there...

And who knew that a female sea turtle has to reach the ripe old age of thirty before she can lay her first clutch of eggs? 

(She) swims the seven seas
for thirty years,
where she was born
then finds the beach...

With many of the poems, I found that unless I included a fact, it was nearly impossible to say anything interesting or new.  

Dear Orangutan,
Three cheers to you man of the forest
You arrived here long before us... 

Orangutan is a Malay word. It means man-of-the-forest.

The more I wrote, the more I discovered that hard fact expanded the world of my imagination. This was never more true than when writing about the prehistoric creatures featured in the forthcoming In the Past. 

I was excited about the opportunity to write the poems, partly because the idea had come during a school visit. I was standing in the cafeteria, haplessly blinking at the very, very yellow trays of macaroni and cheese, when a second grade boy came rushing up to me. “You have to do a book of poems about dinosaurs,” he panted, tugging on my sleeve. “You just have to!”  My editor agreed. (Okay, maybe she didn’t think I had to, but she liked the idea.)

When I sat down to write about dinosaurs though, I found that the only thing I could think of was that most of ‘em were big. Not a very interesting book.  But by the time I had finished with my research, I had become a kind of annoying know-it-all junior paleontologist on the subject of prehistoric fauna. I had a homemade chart of the geologic eras taped to the wall, along with a timeline of the animals I wanted to feature.  Brachytrachelopan tripped off my tongue as if it had been my first word.   And in every single poem there is a fact, though it may sometimes be hidden.  Here’s an example:

So many of you.
So long ago.
So much above you.
Little below.
Now you lie hidden
deep in a clock,
uncountable ticks
silenced by rock.

A nice poem. I think (if you’ll allow me to say so), but it becomes a better poem when you learn that trilobites are, in fact, the ancestors of that modern day scourge – the tick.

It has been a lucky surprise, too, to see the way the blending of fact and poem seem to fit so nicely with the language arts standards of the Common Core --“Research to Build Present Knowledge” for example, with “Craft and Structure” and/or “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.”

 On a more personal level, I feel just as lucky that the process of writing these books has opened me to the poetic possibilities contained in a single fact.

Believe it or not, one day I may even try to write some prose non-fiction. But one thing is certain: I’m not going to eat any stinkin’ truck.


L.Robinson said...

I agree, David. . .a fact or two (or three or four) is just what is needed to get those imaginative juices flowing. Can't wait for the dinosaur book! My kids are your biggest fans.

Loreen Leedy said...
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Loreen Leedy said...

Enjoyed this post, David. Facts are indeed inspiring! In the Past sounds great...I was also sucked into the prehistoric vortex a couple of years ago and ended up summarizing the history of life on Earth in 48 pages(!) My hubby will love your trilobite poem...we have a couple dozen of them lurking around here along with the rest of his fossils. Would just love to go back in time and see them at their prime.

Zachary Klein said...

David--" I was a dreamy kind of kid, one whose life at home was filled with enough cold, hard facts to last a lifetime."


Jim Murphy said...

Trilobites = Ticks! OMG! I love trilobites and have several fossils of them. I HATE, HATE, HATE ticks and would be happy to nuke a forest to rid the world of them. Not really, but you see my passion/fear, I hope. But now I have a new understanding and (maybe) appreciation for the evil ticks that stalk me. Keep up the imaginative, thoughtful work, David, and I might yet be a convert.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Who knows, David, maybe you'll soon be writing biographies, as long as they don't have orange covers.