Monday, February 24, 2020

Finding Untold Stories in Your Hometown

By Alice Faye Duncan

Schools and libraries require a great supply of nonfiction books to support academic instruction. That is GOOD NEWS for the nonfiction writer.

Conflict arises when writers find the nonfiction market glutted with books related to their special interests. Consider the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement as two examples. Annual publishing catalogs are replete with books that provide pathways for young readers to explore these two historical events. Your book on either one of these topics might be unique and needed, but it is likely a publisher will say, “We have one of those--already.”

I propose that nonfiction writers enter the market by exploring important, but seldom told histories and biographies found in their city or town. It is my opinion that writing about the significant, but obscure, improves a writer’s chance in landing a book contract. I also suggest that you draw from local history because you were shaped by that community. This shaping equips you with a ready voice and perspective, suited to bear witness on the living page.

Where do you find important, but unexplored histories connected to your city? I have three suggestions:

(1) Visit local history and art museums.

(2) Explore special archive collections at the local public and academic libraries.

(3) During family fellowship and reunions, interview senior family members concerning their personal histories and life experiences in your city or town.


When you find a local history or hero that inspires your writing interest, let me suggest three online resources to stoke your research for photographs, video and biographical facts. These sources include:

(1) the Library of Congress--www.loc.gov

(2) the American National Archives— www.archives.gov

(3) newspaper coverage—www.newspapers.com.

When it comes to my writing journey, I live in the city of Memphis. If anybody is going to write about the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, it should be me. Many of the striking workers lived in my South Memphis neighborhood and went to my local church.

What is your city?  What is your town? What local histories require your perspective and voice? The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children.

Furthermore, authors are urged to use primary sources and up-to-date scholarly works in their bibliography.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Faye Duncan is the author of Honey Baby Sugar Child, Just Like a Mama, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks, and Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop—which received a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor medal. For more information about Alice Faye, her books, and current research, she can be found at www.alicefayeduncan.com.



ABOUT THE PRIZE

One lucky winner will receive two prizes from Alice Faye! She is giving away a digital copy AND an autographed copy of her picture book, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. 

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Threading the Needle: Discovering the Author/Subject Overlap

By Bethany Hegedus

When crafting a biography—you aren’t just telling your subject’s life story—you are sharing a part of your heart. Yours. The authors. And you are working to connect that heart—your heart, your subject’s heart—to the reader’s heart. How can we do that?

By being in tune with your story, as much as the subjects, and tying that to the reader takeaway. We need to prick our own hearts. We need to bleed—just a little. We need to be sharing our own personal beliefs, hopes and pains.

Uh-oh, I hear you grumbling. Bethany, wait a second. Doesn’t that break all the rules?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe, it’s all a fine dance, where the steps laid in drafting and revision, do eventually become invisible. But that doesn’t mean, that we as the “dancers,” didn’t take them intentionally, planning every footstep and movement. We think about what the reader needs to know—and when? We change scenes with the move of a page turn. With pacing and sentence structure, we can weave story threads together. To be drawn to a subject there has to be a “why”—a deep “why” for ourselves and our readers.

And we must do all this AND stay true to the facts. Creative nonfiction, which almost all nonfiction these days is, simply means we writers can use the tools that all writers have at their disposal: voice, character, setting, pacing, repetition, refrain, subtext. We must consult our primary and secondary sources, listen to speeches, and read books, taking deep notes. But the real magic begins to happen, when we are able to connect the subject’s narrative through line to our own, and then to a deep need our readers may have. When that happens, feelings are felt. In us. In our readers.

How?

Subtext! And what do I mean by connecting the subject’s narrative through line to our own?
In biography—for me—a phrase to describe that subtext is a phrase I heard Libba Bray, the YA wunderkind, use when she was teaching a YA intensive with us at The Writing Barn, in thinking about character development—to “thread the needle” tying together your writer heart, the character heart, and then the heart of the reader.

So how does that work in nonfiction?

For me, I start with a deep connection to the subjects I am drawn to. Harper Lee. Mahatma Gandhi. Maya Angelou. Jimmy Carter. Each of these figures shaped the “me” I am. Their books. Their words. Their life’s work lived inside me and beside me, long before I decided to attempt to write a picture book biography of their lives. So, whose life and life’s work has always meant much to you? Some would call these figures personal heroes. Or maybe they were “influencers” before the term got attached to products and Instagram. Who are the scientists, artists, social justice figures that made you YOU? Start there, with a personal connection.


Next, dig in and do the research. We can’t decide the through line ahead of time. Through the research, we must discover and unearth it. How did they become who they became? What obstacles did they face? How did they distinctly persevere? And in doing so we must think about those things for ourselves—what obstacles have we faced, or are we facing? Where do we share the same beliefs? And as much of ourselves as we are investing, our blood, sweat, and tears--we must think of the reader. The child reader. What do they need in their lives—what about your subject’s life will speak to them, inspire them? What is the impact—the reader takeaway—the emotional “ah-ha” you want to leave the readers with. Perhaps it is even something you need. That you too have struggled with.

Grandfather Gandhi did not come together until I embraced that the book was about anger and shame. Arun was angry and ashamed about that anger. As a child I was often angry and made to feel ashamed of that anger—instead of learning how to transform that anger into action—as the Mahatma does for his grandson, Arun. In schools, I have powerful conversations with students about anger, about what happens when we don’t express it, among the learning about life at the Sevagram ashram and the work of Gandhi and its impact on our country through the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Lightning or lamp? The book asks. Kid readers get to answer that for themselves.

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird is not just the telling of how young Nelle Harper Lee wrote America’s most beloved book. It is a story about why childhood matters. Nelle’s childhood? Yes. My childhood? Where I merged Scout and Ramona into the same spitfire girl I wanted to be? Yes. But more than that, it’s a story for the reader, of how and why what is happening to them in their lives right now might be used in their futures as they work to “live a life of their own design.”

Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou is more than a birth to death narrative about the great Maya Angelou’s resilience and ability to process trauma. It is about discovering one’s voice, using it in times of deep despair. It is about community. The healing power of the written and spoken word. For me, the key takeaway is, “there is no safety in silence.” Maya Angelou’s books, her activism, her performances told us this—and today’s readers need to hear it. As a truth teller myself, I need to hear it.

Hard Work But It’s Worth It, The Life of Jimmy Carter's central through line embodies a question. Why does hard work yield strong results only for some people? When this realization dawns on young Jimmy Carter, as a favored white man in the deep South, he sets about to make changes in the statehouse and eventually the White House, working for justice and equality because it is “right and fair.” And in his continued humanitarian work—former President Carter continues to define what it is to be an ally—long before that word was a part of our society’s lexicon. Discussions about white privilege and allyship need to be had. By me. By our teachers. By today’s readers. We all need to do what is right and what is fair—and not just for ourselves but for our communities—large and small.

I have a few more biographies in the publishing pipeline—and though I can’t reveal the subjects—I can reveal that what I believe, what my heart needs to hear, and to heal—is threaded into each and every biography I write.

Not at the expense of the subject.

Or at the expense of the reader.

Or to glorify my own journey.

But as a way to connect us—to pull tight the thread of human suffering, human dignity, human change, human hope.

So go thread that needle!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Hegedus is a novelist and picture book author who lives and works in Austin, Texas. A graduate of VCFA, Bethany is the founder and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing workshop and retreat center, where writers study online and in-person. She speaks and teaches widely and is the host of the Courage to Create Podcast. Find her online at bethanyhegedus.com

ABOUT THE PRIZE

One winner will receive a signed copy of Hard Work But It's Worth It and another will receive free admission to Bethany's class on picture book range:https://www.thewritingbarn.com/class/picture-book-range-with-author-bethany-hegedus/ 

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You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

What Makes a Winning Nonfiction Proposal?

By Stacey Graham


You have the idea, you’ve got the chops, and you’re ready to write a nonfiction book that blows their socks off—but where do you start on a proposal for an agent or editor that will make your idea stand out? Like all good adventures, we begin with a plan.

A nonfiction proposal is essentially a business roadmap. It details what the book is about, why you’re the best person to write it, shows that you’re cognizant of what goes into marketing and promotion, and can discuss comparative titles. By giving this information to an agent, and later an editor, you’re helping your book to advance to the next round in what I like to call Thunderdome—the acquisitions board meetings. The more information an editor has, the better prepared they are to fight for your book to become one of their titles that year.

So, let’s break down the format.
  • First page: Title: 20 pt Arial | Your name: 16 pt Arial
  • Font: Arial, 12 pt in body of proposal/sample chapters
  • Heading 3 for sections: Overview, About the Author, Marketing, Promotion, Competition, and Chapter Summaries

1. Overview: Write a 1-2-page overview of your book and how it is needed in the marketplace. Why is this book needed now, who will read it, and why is it relevant? Write tight. This area is where you convince the agent or editor to keep reading and we have very short attention spans. 

2. Author bio: A 1-page bio of why you're the best person to write this book. Include publishing credentials and sales figures, your involvement in this subject, and what organizations you are involved in that are relevant to your book.  
  • Include a recent headshot.
  • Keep it professional. Family may be mentioned but it can’t be a focal point.
  • Flaunt your platform. How many people come to your website a month? Twitter followers? School visits? Guest posts? Podcast guest? Academic papers? Is your work related to this topic? Professional organizations you’ve been involved with surrounding that subject?
  • If you do not have extensive professional experience in this subject, what made this project perfect for you? What research have you done that makes you the right person at the right time for this book? 

3. Marketing: Include ideas on how you plan to reach them, then list how you plan to do it by using your established platform. Mention website hits, speaking engagements, appearances on radio or television, social media followers if substantial—give them solid numbers to back up why you're the best person for this project. If writing for children, include why your book is important for them to read. If targeting an adult market, how do you reach those readers? 
  
  • Include gift-giving, specialty groups, etc. Think outside of the norm for whom your book will reach.
  • Who will buy this book? Break it down into groups. Get specific.
  • How will they get it? Gifts? Park bench? Impulse buy?
  • Once your target market has bought the book, think of who they will recommend it to or give as a gift.

4. Format of the book for nonfiction: How long (word count) will it be? When is the estimated completion date after signing the contract? (Usually 3-6 months.)

5. Promotion: Include website, trailers (I'd love to see more trailers for nonfiction), upcoming conferences or conventions, plus other ways you'll promote your work. Make it conversational, not a list of things you’re planning to do.

  • Add conferences that you have been to/will be planning to attend. National conferences add heft to your proposal so if you’re going, be sure to include which ones, especially if you’ll be presenting or having a table.
  • Contests, social media (add links), how your website (add link) will promote the book.
  • Which podcasters/media contacts/ television/radio/bloggers will you reach out to for promotional opportunities? Have you been on their programs before?
  • What bookstores will you be approaching for signings? Include national and regional chains as well as indie stores. Don’t restrict yourself to a 100-mile radius. Local stores are a fantastic resource but publishers would like to see that you’re willing to do the footwork often needed in promotion as well.
  • Are you able to be a part of local author events or festivals? There are festivals for everything out there, get involved and be a part of their community!
  • Don’t forget to look at conferences or conventions that don’t immediately spring to mind. Go outside your comfort zone when looking for locales to promote your work.
  • Dig a little. Get creative!

6. Competition: Include 3-4 recently published (within five years) books that compare with your project. List the title, author, year it was published, and publisher. Write a brief summary of the book and how yours would be different. Include a book cover with each comp title.

7. Chapter outline: List the chapters with titles and a short description of each.

8. Sample chapters: Introduction plus two chapters. Present as a separate document, formatted with title page and then chapters to follow.

Tips
  • Please edit thoroughly for grammar, links, flow, and substance.
  • Add page numbers (not first page).
  • Use page breaks between sections to prevent overflow.
  • Agents and editors often read on e-readers or their phone so test your proposal in those formats to make sure they are easy to read.



A nonfiction proposal is an excellent tool to help writers focus on the bigger picture for their book as well as broadening a readership you may not have thought of at first glance. Get creative, think out of the box for your marketing and promotional ideas, and have fun!



About the Author


Stacey Graham is an agent with Red Sofa Literary, specializing in middle grade, romance, and nonfiction (though usually not all at the same time). She loves to read about weird kids and even weirder nonfiction. Please visit her website at www.agenstaceygraham.com or on Twitter: @staceyigraham. 

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You’re eligible for prizes if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.
 

Friday, February 21, 2020

When the Line Between Truth and Fiction Blurs

By Kelly Milner Halls

My friend Chris Crutcher once asked me how I write nonfiction about fictional characters. He was referencing my interest in cryptozoology – mysterious animals that may or may not be real. I answered, “If you’d read the books, you’d know.”

I have written hard science – books like Death Eaters about scavengers and Dinosaur Mummies about soft tissue fossilization. Sourcing those is a matter of scouring professional journals and following up with interviews to fill in young reader gaps.

Writing more subjective books like Cryptid Creatures: A Field Guide about mysteries like Bigfoot and Goatman is a special challenge because the stories may or may not be true. For those projects, research is more important than ever.

I’ve explored these topics for roughly 15 years now, beginning with Tales of the Cryptids, released in 2006. When I started, I thought I’d prove the stories were falsehoods meant to deceive. To my surprise, when I did the deep dive, I discovered many of the eyewitnesses were credible. If they didn’t see the creatures they described, they certainly believed they did.

I realized, it wasn’t my job to prove or disprove the Loch Ness Monster. It was my job to track down the best possible evidence. Once I’d managed that, I could leave it to the readers to decide if the animal might be real or not. If I couldn’t prove it was a hoax, I didn’t say it was a hoax. That would be a lie.

That effort begins with exhaustive reading. I haunt my public libraries. I pore through search engines and databases. I track down books published by experts who have been searching even longer than I have, read them, then interview the authors for answers and assessments of my own.

I almost never rely on blogs or self-published materials for my research. Those sources haven’t been evaluated by professional editors and art directors. Those sources might not be rooted in reality. I rely on more traditional books, magazines, newspapers and conference lecturers.

Once I’ve found at least two reliable sources on any one mysterious animal, I decide if the evidence merits inclusion in my projects. Some make the grade. Some fall away from my final manuscripts. Some are enhanced by tracking down the witnesses quoted in the source material for one-on-one interviews.

I believe some could be proven real in time. I believe others are unlikely, at best. And I share my opinions with the readers – not as fact, but as educated evaluations.

I do my best to teach young readers how to be critical thinkers, through the text published in the finished books. And I seek out illustrators like Rick Spears who can imbue the visual representations with life, even if they’ve not yet been photographically and scientifically documented.

I’ve pursued the same process for cryptozoology, aliens and UFOs, and ghosts. I suspect other mysteries will be on my horizon. Why? Because kids are brimming with wonder. They don’t want all mysteries solved. They dream of being the first to prove their favorites are real. But they do want to trust that I’ve done my homework.

I try never to let them down. If I do my job, imaginations soar, as does healthy skepticism. If I do my job, young readers learn how to make thoughtful evaluations of their own. I try to be a trustworthy and reliable guide along roads less traveled – roads kids cannot resist.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kelly Milner Halls has written quirky nonfiction for young readers for the past 25 years.  Her latest books, Cryptid Creatures: A Field Guide, Death Eaters: Meat Nature’s Scavengers, and Gross Science Projects prove her weird flag continues to fly.  She does conferences, festivals, and school visits all over the country and loves every minute of it. For more about Kelly, visit her website: www.wondersofweird.com



ABOUT THE PRIZE

Kelly is giving away FIVE prizes, one of each of the books pictured above, a critique, and a 15-minute phone call to discuss your questions or stumbling blocks.

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You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.
 

 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Crafting a True Story When Information is Scarce


By Vivian Kirkfield

In June of 2014, I took a picture book writing class called Nonfiction Archaeology…and it was love at first sight. The instructor suggested we Google first woman to do this and first man to do that. One of the names I came up with was Sarah E. Goode, who, according to the one line of information on a Black History website, invented a cabinet bed in 1885 and was the first African American woman to receive a U.S. patent. Wow, I thought! That was pretty awesome for an African American woman to do that, just twenty years after the end of the Civil War. I wanted to find out more about her. 

But there wasn’t anything more. I searched websites, library catalog but there was nothing. Just the same few lines of information (which I came to find out were incorrect anyway). I even reached out to the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago, Illinois. That was a dead end also – they didn’t know anything about her. I was flabbergasted. And so sad for Sarah. She’d accomplished something astonishing, yet was completely unrecognized except for the patent she’d received. 

So, what do you think I did? I wrote a story called The Disappearing Bed (which became Sweet Dreams, Sarah). If any of my long-time critique buddies are participating in NF Fest, they will probably remember receiving that manuscript. I started the story with a young girl during the Civil War (I had Sarah’s approximate date of birth and knew she was about ten years old when the war ended). I told a story about how she had a dream of a different life. And how, after the Civil War, she had moved north to Chicago – with freedom in her pocket, hope in her heart, and ideas swirling in her head.

Slowly but surely, I continued researching to try to find more evidence to help me craft an authentic and accurate story that would engage readers while honoring Sarah.

I checked census records for Chicago’s Cook Country. Sure enough, in the 1870 census, I found Harriet and Oliver Jacobs, parents of Oliver Jr, 14-year old Sarah, and two younger siblings. The next census, in 1880, showed a 24-year Sarah E. Goode, married to Archibald Goode, with a little girl named Inez. And when I checked old city directories of 1884, I found two listings for Sarah E. Goode, a residential one that showed she and her husband owned a house that took in lodgers, and a business listing showing she was the proprietor of a furniture establishment on State Street.

Here’s a tip: use those little tidbits of info as you craft your story. Here’s how I used the information that she took in lodgers:

Sarah rented out rooms in their house to people who needed a place to live. She saved every penny she could to pay for her third dream, her own furniture store.

My next move was to reach out to my local research librarian. She reached out to other librarians at some of the university libraries. They responded with an old image of State Street in Chicago circa 1885 – and they circled the furniture store they thought was probably Sarah’s. But they, too, had no other information. What to do?

I was able to see her patent on the Internet. She originally applied in 1883 and it took a year for the government to get back to her with a denial. I was also able to see she reapplied in 1884 and received her patent in 1885. Those became very important moments in the book.

I googled Find a Grave and discovered Sarah was buried at the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago…I called the cemetery office and for $10, they sent me a list of the people who were buried alongside her in the Goode family plot, the age they died and what they died from. 

And then, using my local library’s online database, I found two old newspaper advertisements – the first from 1884 for Sarah’s furniture store. The second, from 1887 from another vendor who claimed he was the exclusive seller of Sarah’s cabinet bed. Sure enough, when I checked the city directory for 1890, Sarah E. Goode’s business was no longer listed. Referring back to the grave information, I discovered that Sarah’s child and mother died in 1886, the year after she received the patent. Perhaps she fell into a depression. Possibly she became ill and was unable to continue her business. She died in Chicago in 1905 at the age of forty-nine. 

That information is not part of the narrative, but it did give me more insight into the person Sarah was, and I do include it in the back matter. I am crafting stories for young children and my goal is to inspire them to dream and build their dreams into reality just like Sarah built her cabinet bed. I took the few facts that I was able to verify and I used them as the frame for the narrative. I never put words into Sarah’s mouth. But I did assume that she had moments of doubt and difficulty, as any inventor might. 

As I crafted Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, I faced similar problems. Although I was able to watch YouTube videos of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and movie star Marilyn Monroe, I wanted their friendship to be the focus of the book. And none of the resources I read told me anything about that. In one of those taped interviews, I heard Marilyn say that Ella was her favorite person in the world and that she loved her. I watched an interview where Ella mentioned that she owed Marilyn a great debt and that Marilyn was a special person, ahead of her time. Was that enough to conclude they were friends? I didn’t think so. 

Luckily, after some detective work, I was able to have a telephone conversation with the woman who was Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years and she confirmed that they were friends. Although I read many books about Ella and Marilyn, the story I wrote wasn’t based on those. It was based on the photo that I saw on the Internet of Ella and Marilyn sitting side by side in a nightclub. That photo sparked my interest and when I discovered how they had both battled different types of discrimination and forged a life-long friendship, I became passionate to tell the story.

My advice for crafting a true story when information is scarce? Gather the facts you can verify. From those facts, find the focus of the story and create a well-paced, accurate, and action-packed narrative that will keep kids turning the pages!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. Vivian blogs at Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest.


ABOUT THE PRIZE
Vivian Kirkfield will be awarding a picture book manuscript critique to one lucky winner.

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.
 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Tell a Science Story Two Ways: Prose and Verse


By Susannah Buhrman-Deever

The work of a scientist involves both logic and intuition. Logic helps us understand and analyze data. Intuition gives us leaps of insight, those “Ah-ha!” moments. Both types of thinking are needed to make discoveries.

As nonfiction writers, our goal is to help our readers understand a subject. And we can tap into our readers’ intuitive and logical brains by using both poetry and prose in our work. Poetic language and rhythm help readers feel their way to an understanding of a subject. Complementary prose supports that understanding by guiding readers through the facts.

Poetry Collections
Many science and nature-themed poetry collections with prose sidebars or back matter have been published in recent years. Two examples are Joyce Sidman’s exploration of life in winter, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold (illus. by Rick Allen, HMH 2014),  and Allan Wolf’s celebration of outer space, The Day the Universe Exploded My Head: Poems to Take You into Space and Back Again (illus. by Anna Raff, Candlewick, 2019). In each collection, the white space, language, and imagery in the poetry gives the ideas room to breathe, providing mental space for the readers to make connections. The sidebars and back matter expand the reader’s understanding with additional details.

The forms of the poetry in these collections can also help reinforce subtle themes. Joyce Sidman’s poetry collection Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow (illus. by Beth Krommes, HMH 2006) celebrates life in a meadow through riddle poems with prose “reveals.” By writing each poem as a riddle, Sidman gently reinforces the importance of closely observing the world around you. 

In my book Predator and Prey: A Conversation in Verse (illus. by Bert Kitchen, Candlewick, 2019), I explored different ways predators and prey use communication in their battle for survival. I chose persona, or mask, poetry where the poem is written from the point of view of its subject so that predator and prey could talk to each other directly as they do in life. By having predator and prey face off in persona poem battles, I also hoped to reinforce the idea that each animal has its own motivations and strategies that shape its behavior when interacting with others.

Two-Layer Texts and Book-Length Poems
The combination of poetry and prose is not limited to poetry collections. It can also guide readers through a complicated subject via a two-layer text. Rhythm, rhyme, and refrain can help break down facts into easy-to-remember chunks, while re-stating and re-imagining complementary prose. Older than the Stars by Karen C. Fox (illus. by Nancy Davis, Charlesbridge, 2010) uses a “This is the House that Jack Built” nursery rhyme structure to tell the story of the Big Bang, which could at first glance seem far too complicated to tackle in a book for youngsters. It works because the nursery rhyme provides memorable “headlines” that reinforce the denser prose sections on each page.

Combining poetry and prose can also help pull together separate facts into a satisfying whole. Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward (illus. by Steve Jenkins, Beach Lane, 2014) is a good example of this. A book about the myriad ways birds build nests could feel like a list of facts. By using a poem with a consistent meter as the main text throughout the book, Ward creates a feeling of cohesiveness. This concept can be carried out equally well with free verse, as seen in Dianna Hutts Aston’s An Egg Is Quiet and related titles.

As a Writing Tool
And finally, writing in poetry and prose can help us find our story. When I’m working on a prose piece, I often reach a point where I’ve collected notebooks full of facts, but I’m unsure of how to gather it all together. At these times, I’ll write a poem about my subject. This poem may never see the light of day, so I don’t worry about it being terrible. (Terrible writing is all part of the process.)

This practice wakes up my intuitive brain, helping me discover the heart of my story. Writing a poem reminds me of that gut-feeling of why I was inspired by my subject in the first place, cutting through my fact-clutter, and paring everything down to the essentials.

It also helps me discover my voice. Voice can seem ineffable, but, to paraphrase Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park, voice boils down to a matter of word choice and punctuation (or rhythm). For me, writing a poem is a low-stress way to play around with different vocabulary and rhythms, and I’ll often uncover nuggets that guide my voice for the final prose.

Scientists rely on logic and intuition to make breakthroughs. As writers, we can play with prose and poetry to access our logical and intuitive brains and create a story that sings. Try telling your science story in both poetry and prose and see what you can discover.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former biologist, Susannah Buhrman-Deever now writes about the natural world for young and curious readers. Her debut book, Predator and Prey: A Conversation in Verse (illus. by Bert Kitchen, Candlewick Studio), was named a 2019 Best Book for Children by the New York Public Library. She lives with her husband and sons outside of Rochester, NY.


ABOUT THE PRIZE

Susannah Buhrman-Deever will be awarding a signed copy of Predator and Prey: A Conversation in Verse.

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.