Showing posts with label animals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label animals. Show all posts

Friday, September 13, 2013

Life Changing Nonfiction...Literally

As other I.N.K. authors have mentioned, there wasn't a great deal of engaging nonfiction for kids in the not-so-distant past. So, we made do. Personally, I gave up on the official children's area of the public library at 8 or 9 and remember wondering if someone would stop me if I dared to enter the adult section. Nobody did, so for years I headed straight for the 636 shelves where all the animal books lived and branched out from there.

Sometime in the early 70s, these books appeared on the big shelf in our family room:
Until seeing this picture, I had forgotten the rainbow-like arrangement you could make with the binding colors of the LIFE Nature Library. There were 25 volumes in all—a few are missing from this photo. One of the great things about this type of collection is the was like browsing in the library but on a smaller scale. It was comprehensive, covering animal behavior, the poles, the insects, evolution, plants, even the universe!

Confession: I didn't read every word. There were many pages with a high text to image ratio, which has never been my favorite approach for this kind of material. Spare me the endless prose…just give me plenty of pictures, you know? Speaking of which, here are some relevant images:
Anyway, time and time again I examined every photograph, drawing, and diagram and read the captions as well as a fair amount of the pontification, ummm, long paragraphs. Despite that complaint, the books provided a remarkable breadth of knowledge of the natural world as did our subscription to National Geographic. The photographs from all over the globe inspired many a drawing by providing exotic models that were otherwise unavailable in suburbia in those pre-Internet times. Want to draw an ocelot or an orchid or a young Tuareg girl in the Sahara desert? No problem!

To zoom up to the present day, I'm still intrigued by anything to do with nature, past or present. The other night we watched The Hunter, a fictional tale about the last Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian tiger/wolf, actually a carnivorous marsupial). In reading more online about the animal afterwards, I came across this photographic comparison of Thylacine and wolf skulls that show a remarkable example of convergent evolution.
The last known Thylacine, Benjamin, c. 1933
Like many of us these days, I do more and more of my knowledge rummaging online, but of course it isn't necessarily very well-organized or presented. Guess that's where authors come in (whew!) Since we're talking about life-changing nonfiction, why not highlight a few books about how life has changed over the eons? In a previous post I made a list of mostly reference books about prehistoric life, from short and sweet to comprehensive in scope.

The newest book in Hannah Bonner's prehistory series is about the Triassic period when dinosaurs first emerged along with the first mammals. When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic looks just as fun as her previous two books. In addition to the fascinating animals, she includes many prehistoric plants as well as liberal doses of humor. As a former Mad Magazine junkie, I love a helping of humor and/or satire stirred into my information soup. Her books are great for ages 8-12 (and older, if you ask me) and are published by National Geographic.
Nat Geo is also the publisher of the Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs, written by Catherine D. Hughes and illustrated by Franco Tempesta. The image shown is not the cover, but I love that little microraptor gliding by. It has a gazillion facts, dino descriptions, fun questions, baby dinos, easy-to-comprehend pronunciations, tips for parents, and outstanding realistic artwork that transports the reader back in time. It is 128 pages and is for ages 4-8.

And one of mine is My Teacher is a Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Poems, Jokes, Riddles, & Amazing Facts. It gives an overview the history of life in 48 pages, starting from the time when Earth was still molten. There are quite a few dinosaurs, but many, many other fabulous creatures including a few humans. 

In terms of approach it has some of the elements in common with the two books above...plenty of facts, humor, realistic artwork, and pronunciations of those jaw-breaking names...and also limericks, verses, and silly jokes. Several excerpts are shown in this post on my book blog. The age level is 8 and up.

Click image to go to download page
A printable teaching resource with three activities for my book can be downloaded at this link or click the image to the left.

I don't know of any modern equivalent of the LIFE Nature Library with its expansive coverage inside those matching volumes. Most of us compile our libraries piecemeal, which seems to work just fine. In any case, how information is organized and presented is important because different approaches will engage different readers. The prehistoric parallel is that wherever there is rich content for readers, an opportunity may arise to evolve in a new direction.

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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Have you ever waited at a bus stop? Waited and waited at a bus stop? You watch cabs rolling by, watch buses going the other way, watch your watch with increasing irritation. Finally your bus does come--with two or three other buses right behind it. A herd, a pod, a troup of buses. Very annoying, isn’t it?

A similar thing has happened to me in the publishing world, but I’m not sure whether it’s annoying or not. In 2004, I had five books come out in one year. And, up until a few months ago, I thought I would have four coming out in 2012.

How does this happen? I’ve never written four or five books in one year, so how do they get bunched up on the other end like buses? Good question. Some books go into production relatively quickly, while others take a long time to write. For example, I wrote a book called Skyscraper that chronicled the making of the Random House Building and I couldn’t write any faster than the construction. It had a four-year gestation period and came out in 2004 along with Choppers! that took about two years from research to release. Other reasons? Editors have babies. It can take a while to find the right illustrator or to wait for an illustrator to finish two other projects before starting yours or the illustrator goes on strike. The economy tanks and publishing houses thin their seasons and spread out the books so your pub date jumps a year or so into the future.

Let me be clear, I’m not complaining, really. I know having a bevy of books is an embarrassment of riches. It’s certainly better than no books at all, or a surfeit of buses traveling in a pack. But what are the pros and cons for the author—and the books?

In the old days, the perception was: bringing out more than one book a season or a year meant the author was competing against herself. Mark that down as a notch in the “con” section. Of course in the old days, most authors published with only one house so the publisher would be competing against itself too; they controlled supply and demand.

Today many children’s book authors work with several houses. We cannot act as traffic cops giving Simon & Schuster the green light for one season and putting Penguin on hold. Now publishers are competing against each other. Has that changed the model? Does it help or hurt the author? And given the increased avenues of media, does having multiple books out at the same time increase buzz? Advertising wisdom says the more consumers hear something, the more likely they will remember it, perhaps become interested and start word-of-mouth.

In 2004, I decided that if there was any time to hire a publicist, having five books come out was it. Susan Raab and I concentrated on three of them. Susan was great and responsible for a good deal of the media coverage they received. So having that many books in one year pushed me to hire a publicist. Having her work on three in one year was also cheaper than if I had hired her for each separately. Furthermore, it may have garnered more results. If a journalist wasn’t interested in one, Susan had an opportunity to mention two others that might be more tempting. Three checks for the “pro column.”

There is another serious con, however. Just as a band of buses assures someone is going to have to wait a long time before the next clutch arrives, if you have four or five books come out in one year, chances are, it will be a while before the next release date. And if it’s quite a while, you feel the effects. Without something new in the offing, your name isn’t as much in the public eye as a reminder of your whole body of work. You get fewer invitations to speak at conferences during the lull. You, or at least I ended up feeling de-energized, even though I knew I had “books in the bank.”

That’s why I was so easygoing when my editor called a few months ago to say we had to delay my fourth 2012 release, How Do You Burp in Space?, a kids’ tourist guide to space travel. I was gracious and calm in response to a conversation I’m sure she had dreaded having. After all, I’m an experienced professional who knows that these things happen.

And now I also have a book coming out in 2013!

Here's my 2012 line up:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Searching for Sasquatch

Hello, everyone! Happy almost autumn! I hope you all had a great summer. I did. I read (but not as much as I said I would), I wrote (put the finishing touches on my first YA novel, out next summer) and I went to the Galapagos. I will write about that amazing trip next month. Before Galapagos I went to New Orleans and ALA where I checked out the most important cultural sites:

and was on a panel with a group of stellar authors. One of them, Kelly Milner Halls, agreed to "sit down" for an interview with me about her latest book IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH, which will be out in a hot minute.

Your website is um, weird, Kelly.

“As a freelance writer, I often got paid for being weird,” she admits. “And it’s still true for many of my books and definitely true for my elementary and middle school visit presentations.”

You told me that with many of your books including IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH you aim to engage reluctant readers. Which I'm sure you do! Where did the book come from? How did it move from an idea to a book?

I wrote a book called TALES OF THE CRYPTIDS in 2006 – an exploration of the evidence for and against the creatures of cryptozoology; mysterious animals that may or may not be real. Many of the legends seemed unlikely to be real, but a few were surprising in that credible evidence did exist to support the possibility of their being true, undocumented new species of animals. Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, was one of those surprises. I had limited space to share that evidence in CRYPTIDS so I set out to write a new book about it, and Erica Zappy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made it possible.

What was your process in researching and writing it?

I had done some great preliminary research for CRYPTIDS so my main aim was to talk to the best experts in the field of investigating Sasquatch. I went to the scientists, including Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, and other credible experts. I read their books, I sat through their lectures, I interviewed them first hand, I mirrored their search techniques and really got a sense of how and why these serious people were searching for Sasquatch.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Knowing what to include and what not to include was the hardest part of writing this book. There are so many elements we didn’t have room to include, in a relatively short book for young readers. I was fascinated by the topic, and I hope that shows in the end product. I hope kids will be as fascinated as I was.

Seems to be a common problem in writing picture books as people have talked about recently here on I.N.K. So what was the most satisfying thing about this project?

When I was a kid, I was one of those squirrel-y kids who asked WAY too many questions. The adults in my life did their best to help me with that curiosity, but answers were hard to come by. The most rewarding part about this book -- and all my books -- is having the license to actually ask the experts, not just for myself, but for all of those kids LIKE me. I do my best to anticipate what THEY might want to know, and reflect that in my final work.

What do you hope for the book?

I love to hear kids tell me they were engaged by the books I’ve written. And I am so lucky that they very, very often do. Kids who don’t normally read get lost in the projects I put together for them, and nothing could be more fulfilling. Our community, the world of children’s writing, is an eyes-open endeavor. We know we may not collect material wealth, beyond having our basic needs met. But we are incredibly rich of heart. What more could anyone want?

Well, that and a country house with a full staff. But maybe that's just me. What’s next for you?

IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH will be released on October 25, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and I am so excited to see how it will be received. But my first fiction work, a YA anthology called GIRL MEETS BOY, will be released by Chronicle in January of 2012. My next nonfiction book, ALIEN INVESTIGATION will be released by Millbrook in April of 2012 and HATCHLINGS: LIFE SIZED BABY DINOSAURS will be released by Running Press, also in April of 2012.

You're a slouch, aren't you, Kelly?

Kelly? You still there?

I guess she's back to work. Go, Kelly, Go! And thanks for talking with all of us here at I.N.K.!

To find out more about Kelly, check out her website.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Nonfiction in Doodles

There’s been a lot of discussion about invented aspects of nonfiction lately, although of course it has always been an issue: whether to use only direct quotes in context, and not to envision conversations; whether to connect points A and C with a B that seems necessary but is unknown; whether -- and how -- to fill in the blanks of a narrative.

Although the answers are full of grey area (and controversy) they seem more black and white to me than do answers to similar questions about illustrations. While illustrators must use real, reliable references, they also make tricky decisions about what to show -- and wander the border between fact and fiction struggling to envision a scene that demonstrates the heart of the story being told or the situation being described.

Take my current work, for example. I’m writing this blog post in a break from my forthcoming graphic article, White Whale on the Go, a Humanimal Doodle (For more on these, please see my Humanimal post or the Humanimal section of my website. ) Here’s the story this doodle tells:

The tiny Iñupiat Eskimo village of Point Lay, Alaska depends for its food on beluga and bowhead whales that migrate through. The Iñupiat have dispensation to hunt a small number of whales for subsistence. Scientists trying to learn more about beluga behavior and physiology asked the Iñupiat for access to the whales -- specifically, they asked for help catching whales so they could be tagged with data transmitters that would track their paths, and for tissue and blood samples from recently killed whales. These samples were used to compare the wild beluga with belugas kept at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

After several years of cooperative work, two Point Lay men were invited to visit Mystic to see the labs where the research was conducted and to visit the aquarium’s whales. Enthralled, they asked that other people from Point Lay be invited, and they were quite specific about whom: high schoolers. Not only did the men want the cooperative effort to continue -- because scientists are monitoring the effects on whales of climate change, expanded shipping lanes, and increased drilling for oil -- but they wanted the next generation to lock things in. Moreover, they hoped their young people might be inspired to go into science.

This year, four Point Lay girls visited Mystic, and I drove up to meet them and to talk to the scientists they were working with. I came home with good notes and great quotes, and now I had to turn them into a visual story. My Humanimal Doodles are all, uh, doodled, so photographs were out of the question. But I did have photographs showing the girls meeting Mystic’s three beluga whales, wearing chest-high waders to enter the chilly pool.

Well, what do you think I should have done? Copy a photograph as a drawing? If I did, I worried what the photographer might think. What about attaching a quote to a drawing copied from a photograph? That seemed wrong, too, because the things the girls told me weren’t associated with particular moments that might have been photographed.

What I came up with, instead, was an imaginary situation completely based in truth. Here it is: the four girls in their waders, which definitely happened; standing together and acting goofy the way people do when they put on waders, because they feel a little silly, their feet all heavy and weird; and saying things to each other that they had actually only said to me. In identifying them with their actual names and ages, I feel as though I’m saying “This is true and factual.” Overall, it isn’t exactly correct historically, if you will, but each piece is factual. In the end, I made a judgment call that the girls would not object to the context in which I placed them and their comments.

I am reminded of a favorite quotation: “Things are not untrue just because they never happened.” -- Dennis Hanley

In my Humanimal Doodles, I find myself continually confronted with these kinds of situations and decisions, and frequently check things out with the subjects of the articles. I’m lucky to be able to do this, since they’re around, and I can call them up or email them my work. And their affirmative responses to their portrayals gives me confidence that if what I am doing “works” for them in telling their stories, then it works for me in writing them up.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On and On and On

I’m still thinking about Barbara Kerley’s post from February 10, Done. She was writing about being dum-diddly-um-dum done with her latest book, but I’ve been thinking about certain books where I never really felt finished. For example…

The first children’s book I sold was Unseen Rainbows, Silent Songs. It was born out of the trippy desire to let kids know that parallel universes exist all around us. Other animals on Earth have very different senses, so on some level, we co-exist but on very different planets. We think we know the world, but we only really know our world. There are others dancing around us we’ll never see or touch or hear.

That book definitely had my best title, perhaps the best idea, but not my best writing. I worked so hard, and it showed. Every sentence was beautifully, lyrically crafted. Damn, Susan, give the kids a rest. Eventually I cut out a good part of the fancy language and then the editor who acquired it cut out more. The occasional times when I pick up and read a page, I’m cutting it still.

I’m also writing it still.

About a year from now, I have a book coming out called It’s a Dog’s Life. Its working title was The Secret Life of Dogs, which pretty much tells you what it’s about. In hopefully humorous (not at all lyric) fashion, it reveals just that. And part of that secret life is…yep, what they can hear that we can’t hear, the very different view they see when they look at the same thing we do, smells we have no whiff of that rule their world.

There are certain ideas that resonate with you. So you see their echoes in different places and different forms—and write about them.

Who knows, in 2016…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Narrative Truth

I really thought I could get away with it. You know—taking all that I loved and observed about this animal—and making that into a book. Last week, after 13 months of persistent nibbling away at the text, it was finally down from 5,000 words of rambling observations to 400 words. Yesterday it reached 198 words. Oh, beautiful tight rhymes, bouncy images, joy!

But it was flat as a pancake—and not a good pancake, with native Missouri pecans or Michigan blueberries. It was more of a Bisquick pancake without even milk or a loving Papa to make it. I had failed with all my warm-hearted might.

I had strenuously avoided, only poetically hinted, at the central fact of this particular little animal’s life.

The ugly truth? This creature is snack food. Bite-sized for just about everything that roams its region. It is munched, crunched, and lunched on, left and right.

Oh, endearing animal! I tried, for your sake. But for the manuscript’s sake, we’re going to have to incorporate TRAJECTORY. Yup, this celebration of cuteness has got to go somewhere. Drama. Suspense. Wait and worry. Curiosity. Completion. Narrative needs it.

It’s not going to be fun, little one. I apologize. But this is life. Okay, so maybe it is assembled life, but it is made to represent you in nature.

So sorry; hope you’re ready to dash.

Will yours be a fate similar to that of Arlene in Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine?

I hope not. But, sometimes, that is what the truth, even constructed narrative truth, demands.

[At least all the animals in my upcoming fiction, If You're Hoppy! (Greenwillow, Feb 22, 2011) get to hop, flap, and leap away in the end . . .]

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Time for prehistory

My earliest memories of learning about the prehistoric era include an orange plastic Triceratops and the Flintstones. A few years later when a set of Time Life books about paleontology appeared on our shelves at home, the real story began to take shape in my mind. We didn’t have much instruction on the topic during my years at school, but I kept a casual interest going over the years by reading an article or book here and there.

When my longtime editor, Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish Children, suggested doing a book of dinosaur jokes, that seemed like a fun project. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, but let’s just say things escalated a bit. After browsing through a few books, it became clear that I had missed out on a lot of wonderful fossil discoveries and insights made in recent years. (For a post about some of the resources used, click here.) 

An aspect that jumped out at me was the number of books available and what topics are covered. Here are some very simple “infographics” to illustrate. In general, most nonfiction (and fiction) books take place within the context of recorded history, right?
Fine, now let‘s compare the quantity of Prehistoric time vs. Historic time:

Obviously these are not mathematically accurate proportions, but it conveys the idea. Prehistory is far bigger than History, in terms of the sheer number of years.

Then, when we look only at prehistoric time, the dinosaurs showed up 250–200 million years ago, then dominated the Earth for a relatively small chunk of Earth’s entire 4.5 billion years (minus 65 million years since the asteroid fell.)

However, when we look at the actual books written about prehistoric topics for children, it looks more like this:

This is my (perhaps long-winded) way of saying that there are a heck of a lot of books about dinosaurs, but the rest of prehistory? Not so much. I felt compelled to include the whole shebang in my book, or at least the highlights that would fit into a mere 48 pages. Without any further ado, here is my fall book, My Teacher Is a Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Poems, Jokes, Riddles, & Amazing Facts...
It begins with the newly-formed Earth under a hail of comets and asteroids, then deluged by millions of years of rain. The next spread shows the era of volcanoes, huge tides, and a moon so large it would almost require sunglasses (moonglasses?) Life appears in the form of microorganisms, with cyanobacteria being the most important because they made oxygen. Many pages and many incredibly diverse lifeforms later, the book winds up in the Ice Age.

Along the way, each spread has cinquain poems and/or longer rhyming verses, silly but topical jokes, riddles in the form of limericks, fun facts, and of course, full-color artwork of the fantastic array of plants and animals that once populated this planet, or in some cases still do. (Such as the coonties growing in our yard, a cycad plant whose ancestors grew during the Permian period.)

The poems include:
The Bad Old Days
Plant Pioneers
The Fish That Wanted Legs
Reptiles on the March
How to Stay Alive
Did Hadrosaurs Quack?
A Warning from the Mammals

About the poem My Teacher is a Dinosaur...there was some opposition from the publisher about using it for the book’s title (too young? too insulting?) so just to be sure I read it aloud to a group of reading teachers. My editor did the same, and both groups overwhelmingly urged us to keep this title, so yay! While I intended the title to sound a little subversive, the poem itself negates the idiomatic meaning of dinosaur (i.e. old or outmoded) and favorably compares teachers to various dinosaurs. The first couple of lines should make it clear:

My teacher is a dinosaur, but I’m not sure which one—
could she be Gallimimus, who was always on the run?...

It took much more time to create this book than I originally expected, but (with all due modesty) it turned out to be unique, entertaining, and informative. My hope is that it will entice reluctant readers to explore its pages as well as enlarge the perspective of dinosaur-loving kids (aren’t they all?) For a peek at a spread featuring Brachiosaurus and Archaeopteryx, click here. To preview and download a coloring page of Allosaurus, click here.

Happy back to school, everyone!

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's Good for the Goosling...

Besides writing books, I teach at Lesley University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. During the June residency, one of my duties is to conduct a seminar on children’s nonfiction. It’s needed too. We have a couple of Writing for Young People students working with nonfiction and a few more writing picture books and middle grade novels, but nowadays most seem to be in YA (along with every other new writer AND the marketplace).

After teaching the same course the same way for years, I’ve decided to shake it up a bit. Instead of starting with a little historical background and presenting books that embody important qualities of good nonfiction, I think I’ll begin by adapting an exercise I sometimes use when visiting elementary school classrooms. I pass out a report by Susie Goodman on brown bats that seems plagiarized from an encyclopedia. It certainly is as dull as if it had been. I tell the 4th or 5th graders we have to help Susie rewrite her report so it’s fun to read. I remind them that nonfiction can be an exciting narrative story with all the elements of fiction; you just have to make sure that they are all true.

Of course they don’t have a clue about how to do that, but I do. I simply ask them to read through this short report and tell me what they find interesting or exciting. One kid likes that bats fly at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Another mentions echolocation. Inevitably a boy picks the part where bats use sharp teeth to chew their insect prey. I write all these things down on newsprint with space in between them.

Then we decide what feeling we want our report to evoke—happiness, humor, spookiness, whatever. Guess what they pick. Since we know from the report that these bats live all over the U.S. we can factually pick a scary location, often a cemetery or forest. That goes up on the board too, up at the top because I know (even if they don’t yet) that we’ll begin with a dramatic setting for the opening scene.

Then we continue by brainstorming about each topic—finding strong images for the dark night (nocturnal hunters), great verbs to describe diving for prey at 40 mph, and dramatic ways to describe mangling a moth (keeping in mind that this is nonfiction and there wouldn’t be enough blood to drip and splatter). Afterwards we start painting our setting and introducing our hero—a single bat looking for dinner. Slowly but surely, we draft its story of search and success with all the graphic enthusiasm a bunch of eleven-year olds can have for the macabre. We use most of the facts “Susie Goodman” copied from the World Book. And we make the most of those facts, using them as the hook that suddenly makes most anything about the brown bat come alive.

If this exercise gives young kids a new sense of nonfiction’s potential, why not MFA students? Once I have them the M.O. it will be an individual endeavor not a group one. But I’ll let them find the story in the facts—maybe about bats, maybe about the Battle of Gettysburg and its casualties of nearly 50,000 men, or the shenanigans orchids pull to get fertilized. And I'll hope that writing those few strong paragraphs will be a great hook that suddenly makes all the other nonfiction I show them come alive as well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Writing Across the Species Divide

After Gretchen's terrific post on writing across cultural divides, I can't resist a few thoughts on another divide: human vs. nonhuman. Because that's where I like to dance as a writer of both expository and narrative nonfiction.

When I studied biology at Duke University, I was well trained in scientific thought and making sure not to ascribe human emotions to non-human animals. I avoid anthropomorphism. Yes, a bee can be hungry. A bee can search. But can it want to be a butterfly? Can it be disappointed? I can't say that, so I didn't put that in THE BUMBLEBEE QUEEN.

Yet in the years since I graduated, knowledge of nonhuman animal consciousness has increased dramatically. If anything, I feel pushed to study the current literature so I can include more plausible animal reactions and emotions in what I write. It's evident from recent studies that many animals make plans and remember individuals. Birds can count. Snails may experience pain. Dogs have a sense of fairness. The new studies in animal consciousness blur line after line we have tried to draw between ourselves and other animals.

Crabs Feel Pain and Remember Being Hurt

Chimpanzees plan to attack visitors shows evidence of premeditated thought.

Dogs have a sense of fairness

Chimpanzees having premeditated thought? I could have told them that. I would swear the woodchuck is having premeditated thoughts right now about the tomatoes in our garden. But I can't prove that. It's just a feeling, so strong a feeling that I just ran out to make sure it had not enacted said plan.

Personal, daily animal observation lets me know that we know so much less than we think we do. Catbirds, squirrels, crows, grouper, angelfish, and barracuda all vary tremendously in their behavior as individuals, not just as a species. It is hard to resist calling those differences "personalities."

Yet in books, I do resist that temptation. I stick with the facts. That's nonfiction. All my observations of sloths, squirrels, toucans, and sharks are not controlled studies. They are anecdotal evidence, boosted by my own imagination.

It's easy to be conservative in portraying animals as emotionless. That isn't controversial. But soon, we may all need to stretch a bit farther to be realistic in our portrayal of animal consciousness. I can hardly wait to see what the next round of studies reveals.