“There’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out. The reality is very different. My personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I write.”
I wrote these words for Melissa Stewart’s fabulous Celebrate Science blog three years ago, in 2018.
In those three years, I’ve reflected on this idea a lot, and I believe those words more than ever. In fact, those reflections have worked their way into my actual writing process, which I love! I feel like I’m more perceptive now about which topics and structures might be a great fit for me.
So, let’s explore that
final sentence. “My personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply
embedded in the books I write.” It sounds good, but what does it mean, exactly?
Here’s the breakdown.
I’m thinking about what qualities in other art forms appeal to me . . . what evokes an immediate, emotional response. I think that’s a deep reflection of who I am. Basically, I love clear, focused, beautiful things. Books with one storyline and a limited number of characters (not epic generational sagas). Songs with clear vocals standing out from a simple, melodic instrumental accompaniment. Images with one strong focal point and bold lines. (Here are a couple of cards I’ve got on my inspiration board.) Not every single work of art I like fits these requirements, of course. But most do.
How does that play out in my writing? My concepts are extremely clear, usually requiring broad but shallow research. (I hate interviewing people, another personality facet that affects my writing!) You can generally summarize one of my books in a single phrase.
Secrets of the Loon: a loon chick grows to independence over her first summer
Snowman - Cold = Puddle: equations show how things affect each other in springtime
Water Can Be . . .: water does many more things than we think
Explorer and photographer Sebastian Copeland, talking about photography, said, “[M]y mission would be to help people fall in love with their world, because I feel we will not save what we do not love.” That’s it exactly. I want kids to fall in love with their world. Often, that drives my choice of topics in the nature direction, to things like water, leaves, rocks, and the moon. But it’s more than that. I want kids to fall in love with friendship. With curiosity. With science. With themselves.
How does that affect my writing? I write about things that I’m desperately in love with and try to evoke that same response in readers. I want kids to care about animals and how they live. That’s Snack, Snooze, Skedaddle: How Animals Get Ready for Winter. I want kids to fall in love with thunderstorms, like I did as a kid. So . . . Zap! Clap! Boom! And I want kids to love who they are, even if they come from a family that’s weird or different from all their friends’ families. So I invite them to Meet My Family.
I was underestimated and undervalued as a child. Nothing my sisters or I did was ever good enough, so we were never good enough. It felt really unfair. More than that, it made me angry. (Okay, it still does, actually.) But good came of it. It shaped me into a person who doesn’t take other people or other things for granted.That often translates into writing about a common object to show how amazing and overlooked it is. I hope readers never look at the moon the same way after reading If You Were the Moon. I hope A Rock Can Be . . . and A Leaf Can Be . . . turn readers into rock or leaf collectors. And I hope If You Want to Knit Some Mittens makes them look at their hand-knitted winter mittens with fascination instead of irritation. I want to make kids feel the same awe that I feel.
Sage experts advise, “Write the book only you can write.” I used to feel disheartened by that because my life is pretty boring, ya know? I haven’t lived exotic places nor done headline-worthy things. But now, having thought more about what that means, I know I’m always writing the book only I can write, because I bring myself and all my loves and flaws and passions to each project. And I hope you do, too!
If You Want to Knit Some Mittens, illus. by Angela Matteson, Boyds Mills Kane, 2021
If You Were the Moon, illus. by Jaime Lin, Millbrook, 2017
A Leaf Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2012
Meet My Family, illus. by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Millbrook, 2018
A Rock Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2015
Secrets of the Loon, illus. by Chuck Dayton, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2020
Snack, Snooze, Skedaddle: How Animals Get Ready for Winter, illus. by Claudine Gévry, Millbrook, 2019
Snowman - Cold = Puddle, illus. by Micha Archer, Charlesbridge, 2019
Water Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2014
Zap! Clap! Boom!, illus. by Elly McKay, Bloomsbury, 2022
My summary of qualities I’m drawn to seems so obvious to me now. But it wasn’t until I sat down and did some brainstorming that I could see how some of the same qualities apply across different art forms.
Here’s the chart I filled out:
I wonder what you’ll discover about the qualities you’re drawn to if you do the same exercise? Click the image below to download a .pdf, or just do it on blank paper. Either way, don’t forget to spend some time thinking about how those qualities might show up in your nonfiction writing and your writing process. Making those connections—that’s what will make a difference in your work. I wish I’d thought about this 20 years ago!
ABOUT THE AUTHORLaura Purdie Salas is a Florida native cozily living in Minnesota. She’s written more than 125 poetry and nonfiction picture books, including Lion of the Sky, If You Were the Moon, Water Can Be…, and BookSpeak! Her books have earned the Minnesota Book Award, NCTE Notables, starred reviews, and more. She offers resources for children’s writers at https://laurasalas.com/writing-for-children/ and enjoys teaching and speaking at writing conferences around the country. Laura’s (uncomfortably) on many social media platforms as @LauraPSalas, and her online home is laurasalas.com.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Laura will send one signed copy of the picture book of your choice.