By Doreen Rappaport
Writing nonfiction for kids is an absolutely wonderful career. It’s a passion, a commitment to the young to present important and meaningful stories that will stretch their minds and hearts.
Research is the first step. The deeper you dig, the richer, more interesting and illuminating will be your work. And your research will lead you to the right approach for telling the story you want to tell. Don’t worry that someone else has written about a subject you’re passionate about. There’s always room for more well-written books on your subject. Do your research and you will find your unique voice, the hook to tell your stories.
In writing about the African-American struggle from the kidnappings in Africa to the Civil Rights Movement, I read the work of scholars who took years to untangle and present this history accurately. I read poetry, interviews, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, documents. All these elements confirmed that this was a history of resistance, and that’s when I found my hook--resistance. Primary sources allowed me to accurately recreate historical events without fictionalizing. Having studied and taught music myself, I knew its importance as a cohesive force for Black Americans and had to include this great tradition. And so, my trilogy uses all these elements.
Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to write a book on Martin Luther King, Jr. There were already 10 or so books about him, and I initially resisted because there were so many other great Black Americans whom kids didn’t know anything about, and I wasn’t sure I could find a different way to write about Dr. King’s life. But I dug in. I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture an immersed myself in biographies about Dr. King and in his speeches, interviews, letters, autobiographies, and diaries. I thought about what Dr. King meant to me, about my Mississippi summer working in a Freedom School, and the joyous day at the March on Washington in 1963, and of course about Dr. King’s now famous speech, and it all came together.
My hook to present Dr. King’s life would be to combine a narrative punctuated with words by this great man, and so Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.
Seek out experts to clarify facts. A coal miner helped me with my book on a mining strike in Pennsylvania. I reached out to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who read and commented on every page in my almost final draft, catching confusion and demanding greater clarification, helping me simplify but not dumb-down legal arguments. I wanted to add Cherokee words and phrases to my book about Wilma Mankiller, and her husband provided them and a pronunciation guide. I have found people more than willing to help me, because they too wanted accuracy about what I was writing.
Never fear criticism. It will only strengthen your work. Have a few writer friends whom you trust to show your early drafts. Ask them to read your revisions, also.
Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Revision is the key to all writing.
Read nonfiction books by other writers. When I began, I read all of Jean Fritz’s early books. I don’t write at all like her, but she taught me about “attitude” and point of view, that we all are unique, and there are lots of way to tell a story, and they are all valid if they are grounded in research and careful self-editing.
And remember, there will be stumbling blocks along the way. Times you think you’ll never get it right. You will. Walk away from the book for a while. Sometimes, I walk away for a month or so. Right now, I’m working on a book that I put away two years ago.
Give it a Try
I know you have unfinished manuscripts in your files, books you just "couldn't get right." Well, maybe you couldn't get them "right" when you wrote them a while ago, but dig them out, re-read them, smile about what is strong, think about what doesn't work. You might be surprised that with fresh eyes you can come up with solutions to finish the book. I'm working now on a book that I put away 10 years ago. A long time, right? Well, I think I've solved most of the problems. Getting away can be so important, and having the courage to go back is essential. Good luck! Follow your passion! You can do it, too!
About the Author
Doreen Rappaport is an award-winning author of 75 children’s books that celebrate multiculturalism, historical events, the lives of world leaders and the stories of those she calls the “not-yet-celebrated.” Her books have received critical acclaim for her unique ability to combine historical facts with intimate storytelling, and for finding new ways to present the lives of iconic heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Statue of Liberty. Among her numerous honors, Doreen is the recipient of The Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Award for Lifetime Achievement for the writing of nonfiction. Visit her at www.doreenrappaport.com