Thursday, February 11, 2021

Nonfiction That Sings

By Miranda Paul

If you asked kid Miranda what she was going to be when she grew up, she wouldn’t have said author. I liked science, outdoors, trivia, school, and music. Oh, how I loved to sing and dance.

It took me several decades to figure out a way to combine all the things I loved, though. But writing nonfiction books that sing is that combination—and a true joy for me.

In my years as a teacher, I’d watch colleagues teach historical events or particular facts by introducing a lyric or clever wordplay (such as a mnemonic device) to enhance learning. It made sense; human brains are wired to respond to patterns of syllables and stresses, consistent rhythms, and chunked or connective images. Earworms that pop into our brain are often lyrics or songs rather than well-loved paragraphs from an encyclopedia. We even remember annoying jingles from TV ads with surprising accuracy for decades,

Translated into writer terms, the picture book—a combination of brief, carefully crafted words set to symbolic and connective images—can be the perfect vessel for imparting information to a child that makes them think, feel, or remember something for a long while. So it’s not surprising that when I’m writing nonfiction, I try to make it “sing.” Here are some of the ways I achieve that goal.

Add rhythm or rhyme

Not everyone’s a rhymer, and that’s OK. If you’re going to rhyme, visit the ample rhyming resources out there, especially Dori Chaconas’s “Icing on the Cake.” As Dori points out, it’s not just good rhyme that makes a difference, it’s the meter—or patterned rhythm—that delivers a smooth and fun read aloud. Beginners might try using an established or familiar structure to give yourself a better chance to stay consistent in meter. Using a set structure can give you the opportunity to turn your books—or parts of them—into actual songs, as was done for my book Water is Water.




WATER IS WATER Song YouTube video
 

Include a chorus

Most songs have a chorus. In a children’s book, a chorus might just be a repeating word or phrase. In Speak Up, the title phrase is the repeating refrain—these two words occur before the last line on each page that imparts the value and impact of speaking up.

SPEAK UP! spread - art by Ebony Glenn

SPEAK UP! spread - art by Ebony Glenn

 

Even books that don’t rhyme can have a chorus or repeating refrain. In One Plastic Bag, the repetition of lines such as “Then two. Then ten. Then a hundred.” quantifies how a problem builds or a solution spreads.

 

Spread from ONE PLASTIC BAG; art by Elizabeth Zunon

Use poetic comparisons

As nonfiction writers, it’s easy to get stuck in research and encyclopedia modes. We’re concerned with the precise language of the topic, and rightly so. But finding creative ways to deliver and explain that information becomes our job as artists and nonfiction communicators. Similes and metaphors are two literary devices in which one thing is compared to another to provide an effect.

In my upcoming book, Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space (Lerner/Millbrook, April 2021), chunks of frozen rock and dust are referred to as “frigid glitter” and the comets or “icy bodies” in the Oort Cloud are compared to zooming traffic headed in different directions. A Black hole, its accretion disk, and spouting jets get compared to a wild amusement park ride. The Helix Nebula is compared to a “glowing, glaring eyeball of ash.” Introducing these interstellar phenomena with poetry helped me create the right read-aloud feel—a journey of intrigue and drama—so that a child is enticed to learn even more beyond the images and words here.

 

Give words weight

When we’re passionate about a topic, it’s easy to overwrite or dump information into a story. But the shorter the text, the more weight each word can carry. When a work is stripped to its most important elements, phrases and “one-liners” have the opportunity to shine and elicit significant emotion, just like those famous song lines we recite by heart. For those who are writing lyrical science or historical books, try putting terms that don’t roll off the tongue into titles, headers, captions, sidebars, or back matter—a strategy I used in Beyond so the images could shine.

 

Spread from BEYOND; art by Sija Hong (not final)


Spread from BEYOND; art by Sija Hong (not final)


Another way to give words more weight is to lean on auditory devices such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. These sound devices were ones that my co-author Baptiste Paul and I leaned heavily on while writing our book PEACE. The result? A book filled with takeaways and one-liners.

 

Spread from PEACE; art by Estelí Meza





 

Take the reader with you

 When we’re writing, often we’re swept up in the research and story as well as our adult sensibilities. Remember to take that reader with you, too.

When writing Nine Months: Before a Baby is Born, I pull in young listeners by appealing to all five senses.




Spread from NINE MONTHS; art by Jason Chin

 

When writing the picture book biography Little Libraries, Big Heroes, the narrator uses a casual tone and speaks in second person to directly address the reader in an ending invitation to become part of the story.

 

Spread from LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES; art by John Parra






From focusing on a relatable experience to infusing humor or interactive elements, our most important job is to make sure we take child readers along with us on the nonfiction journey.

Activating a rhythm, rhyme, or repetition carries the tune. Poetic language offers clever wit or heartfelt emotion. Interactive or relatable elements allow the reader to make your words their own. Combined, a good nonfiction book produces a learning experience with a lasting and emotional connection, just like a great song. So put that record on repeat, and let’s dance.

 

ACTIVITY:

Miranda Paul’s action items for nonfiction that sings:

1. Add rhythm or rhyme: Type out the words to a favorite song or nursery rhyme. Change the words to fit your nonfiction subject or topic.

2. Include a chorus - Scan your manuscript to find words or phrases that appear more than once. Ask yourself, are they repeated regularly or randomly?

3. Use poetic comparisons - Identify three words or concepts from your research that might be tricky for a child to understand or whose sound sticks out in a clunky way.

4. Give words weight - One line at a time, sing your manuscript out loud.

5. Take the reader with you - Write a section of your book in 2nd person POV.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Miranda Paul is an award-winning author of more than a dozen books for children. She has received starred reviews and Junior Library Guild distinction for titles including One Plastic Bag, Water is Water, I Am Farmer, Nine Months, and Little Libraries, Big Heroes. Her editorial debut, Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, was a 2020 ALA Notable title. Miranda’s 2021 titles include Peace, coauthored with Baptiste Paul (NorthSouth Books), Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space (Millbrook), and Right Now: Real Kids Speak Up for Change (Clarion). Miranda is also a co-founding member of We Need Diverse Books. More at MirandaPaul.com.


86 comments:

  1. Miranda, your way with words is magical - as evidenced by your text, video, and visual examples. Whenever you guide others, you walk the talk. Brilliant!

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  2. Fabulous advice, Miranda--and I can't wait to read BEYOND!

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  3. My first drafts are always rather dry, so I find that my revisions often involve adding more lyricism. These tips are so helpful and practical...thank you! And BEYOND looks amazing. I can’t wait to read it!

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  4. Thank you for these very specific tips, Miranda. Congratulations on all your success!

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  5. I love this topic! Thank you for the great advice. I've played with these skills but they need work.

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  6. Wow this was great advice! Great exercises! I can’t wait to apply it when I start writing my nonfiction text.

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  7. Thanks for the inspiration and activity ideas--I especially love the idea of giving words weight!

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  8. THIS is golden!! I am a science, tech and music lovong author who enjoys approaching topics lyrically. Thanks for the tools to help make the writing process smoother.

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  9. You know I'm a dancer so I'm putting that record on repeat and dancing! Thanks for all your tips and reminders and providing specific examples. Helpful, as always.

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  10. Great article! I just finished Miranda Paul's nonfiction course through Storyteller's Academy and it was amazing!

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  11. Miranda's books are simply brilliant, like Miranda is! I love the sing-song-ness in them.

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  12. Thank you. There is SO MUCH in this post to think about, because every single suggestion is stellar.

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  13. Such good information and tips here, Miranda! Thank you. I write lyrically and love how you put into words the reason why I do this. I'll remember your words and suggestions as I write new stories and revise others.

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  14. Thanks for the tips Miranda! I am so looking forward to your newest book: BEYOND. I love books about what's out there.

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  15. I love this post! I’m working on a ms right now that I replaced the words for my NF topic.

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  16. I am a fan of incorporating rhythm, assonance, and alliteration, but I struggle sometimes at the beginning. Great idea to use a known nursery rhyme or song. Thank you for these ideas and suggestions and best of luck with the launch of Beyond!

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  17. I am a fan of incorporating rhythm, assonance, and alliteration, but I struggle sometimes at the beginning. Great idea to use a known nursery rhyme or song. Thank you for these ideas and suggestions and best of luck with the launch of Beyond!

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  18. I adore this post-- thank you so much! I'm going to sing the next time I revise. :)

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  19. Love all these suggestions, Miranda. And I can't wait for your new book Beyond, especially after getting a tasty sneak peak at the WEMTA story time!

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  20. Miranda, thank you for this (for me) new way to approach writing nonfiction for kids! Thanks also for sharing your examples, Dori Chaconas' how to and your rhythm acton items. I loved Little Libraries and I am looking forward to reading your other books.

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  21. Thank you for a lovely, lyrical take on writing nonfiction that sings and resonates with children! Excellent suggestions and activities.

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  22. I love this post. Such wonderful suggestions for making your non-fiction sing! Thanks Miranda. :)

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  23. Great advice and inspiration to take a closer look at our stories with a more informed eye. Thank you Miranda for all you do to help the kid lit community move forward on their journeys. I can't wait to get my copy of Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space!

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  24. Great post. Thanks for all the helpful advice, Miranda.

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  25. Thank you for all your tips and activities for keeping NF fresh for children. I'll keep reminding myself that shorter text can shine!

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  26. Thank you! This was very inspirational. I'll be going back through my manuscripts!

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  27. Great post, Miranda! I love your activity suggestions. They're a great way to get the brain to recharged.

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  28. I love this post. Kids love rhyme or repetition, or stories with a musical flow. Thank you for reminding us, Miranda.

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  29. Great post Miranda! Your speaking my language since I write in rhyme. I am going to challenge myself with activity of writing a chorus or repeat refrain in a new draft!

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  30. Thank you Miranda! These are great strategies for all genres.

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  31. This post is so useful! Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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  32. Thanks Miranda Paul for sharing your writing tips and connecting music, rhyrhm and rhyme in the story. Yes, turn it up! I enjoy all of your books and share them with readers all over.

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  33. Thanks for all your wonderful tips, Miranda. They sing!

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  34. Great tips - and just in time for me to play around with... thanks!

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  35. As a rhymer it makes me feel good to be given an invitation to add rhyme to my nonfiction writing. Adding a chorus is a great too. That really worked well in SPEAK UP! Thank you.

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  36. Singing your praises for your books and the amazing tips and ideas you've shared here. I can't wait to try the activities and put more song in my words while imparting memorable information into a young reader's heart.

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  37. I love to use the literary and/or sound devices. THanks for the great ideaha

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  38. Thanks for a great post, Miranda - packed with valuable tips and takeaways!

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  39. Excellent, excellent, excellent.
    Thank-you.

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  40. Thank you for the great instruction. I'm going to try using a rhyme or song to tell a nonfiction story. Awesome post.

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  41. Love your books, Miranda! The visuals for BEYOND are stunning. I spend a HUGE amount of time studying words that sing and working to make my own words do the same. La la la laaaaaahhh! I am sooo looking forward to reading PEACE!!

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  42. Loved this post and these exercises! Thanks, Miranda!

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  43. Thank you for these helpful tips and beautiful examples, Miranda!

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  44. Great, Practical advice! Thank you Miranda for taking time to share with us.

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  45. Thank you for the inspiration, Miranda. Time for revisions for a story as I sing and dance my way through a polished manuscript.

    Suzy Leopold

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  46. Thanks Miranda! Great reminder to make your story sing! I just incorporated a fun new repeating phrase in my WIP. Cheers!

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  47. How I enoy taking a ditty and changing up the words: Minnie-minnie tippee tee, fishee fishee in the sea. Isabel my loving wife does not like my way of life.
    Kitty kitty on my lap, how I love to watch you nap. Fur ball, purr ball, goofy friend,how I love the joy you send.

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  48. Fantastic advice, Miranda--I especially love the poetic comparisons! Looking forward to savoring ALL of your new titles:-)

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  49. My family is going to love hearing me sing all my drafts! Thanks for that tip!

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  50. Great advice, as always, Miranda. I love the concept of singing out our words!

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  51. I love your emphasis on using rhythm and rhyme in this post. Thank you , Miranda!

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  52. Hear-hear for poetry and white space to make your work sing! Thanks for the tips, Miranda!

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  53. What a wonderfully powerful way to approach writing NF for kids, especially when dealing with complicated subjects. I will revisit the Activity for this article when I begin writing the NF series I have in mind--I've started it, and realize it will take time to organize and begin writing the project! Thanks!

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  54. I love this tip! “ For those who are writing lyrical science or historical books, try putting terms that don’t roll off the tongue into titles, headers, captions, sidebars, or back matter—a strategy I used in Beyond so the images could shine.”

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  55. I literally told my rhyming critique group the other night that they need to check out Water is Water (and your other books) and encouraged them to dive into NF writing with rhyme! It’s a great combination - kids love rhymes and it makes NF sing! Thanks, Miranda!

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  56. I am not a rhythms person, so I appreciate the action items to give me exact tips on how to try something new in my writing. Thanks for writing this!

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  57. Thank you sharing ways to make words sing!

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  58. Thank you, Miranda. As I read your wonderful tips, I could hear how a writer friend of mine indeed gave more weight to her fewer words in a revision she recently shared. I look forward to trying out #1 of your activity. Thank you.

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  59. Miranda, ever the teacher! TY for teaching a poetry class for us here w/your books. Sharing this w/Storyteller Academy today!

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  60. This is a treasure trove! Thank you, Miranda.

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  61. So many ways to make our nonfiction subjects shine--thanks Miranda!

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  62. The writing tips you apply for nonfiction are the same tips I use for fiction. I just, for some reason, never considered using those same tips for nonfiction. Thanks for giving me the visuals!

    Great post!

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  63. Love poetry...yet there's always so.much to learn. Thanks for your great examples.

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  64. Thank you, Miranda. Water is Water has been a mentor text for me. Weaving facts into poetic nonfiction brings me joy.

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  65. Thank you Miranda. I am so happy to read about your success while I have been gone from the writing scene.

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  66. This is my favorite part of writing for kids...finding what can make my story SING!

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  67. Thank you Miranda for an excellent primer in wonderful ways to use language. I love the poetic comparisons you listed and I can't wait for your new book Beyond! Such great teasing passages & photos. Thanks again.

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  68. charityreid1985@gmail.comFebruary 16, 2021 at 5:49 PM

    This is absolutely phenomenal. Thank you so much for your contribution to NF picture books! We're looking forward to your future releases.

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  69. Thank you so much. This is always a struggle.

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  70. Thank you so much. This is always a struggle.

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  71. This post is so helpful. The "sing" approach is terrific, even if in real life I can't carry a tune! What will stick with me as I write? Your sentence: "a good nonfiction book produces a learning experience with a lasting and emotional connection, just like a great song. So put that record on repeat, and let’s dance." Thank you for your post!

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  72. miranda,
    I accept your challenge to make nonfiction sing with a chorus or rhyme or poetic metaphor and simile. Looking forward to reading Speak Up and Beyond and Peace.

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  73. Can’t wait to use one or more of these activities when revising my manuscripts. Thank you for your sage advice, Miranda!

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  74. Yes! Creative language and not encyclopedic. (An easy rut to fall into!)

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  75. So happy to see your success. Thanks for inspiring us to sing.

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  76. Wonderful post! Thank you for this great toolkit of ways to make our writing sing!

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  77. Great suggestions. Thank you! I especially love the notion of a chorus.

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  78. Another excellent post! Thanks so much for all the great advice and helpful examples, Miranda! I love the video for WATER IS WATER, too.

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  79. I've read my manuscripts out loud before but I've never tried to sing them. Fantastic post! Thank you!

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  80. I have read most of the books you have mentioned. I love your work. Thanks for sharing, Miranda!

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  81. Miranda, thank you for your post on how to create NF poetic masterpieces!💖

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  82. This is so helpful. I need to go through my manuscripts again. Thank you. ( And read all your books!)

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