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.


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:


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.

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.


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!


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.

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.


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.


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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Uncovering the Story: Layered Text

By Lisa Kahn Schnell

I started.

I didn’t intend to write a book with layered text. To be honest, I’m not even sure I’d heard the term when I started writing. But the pattern of short phrases followed by longer sections of prose on the same page emerged, so I went with it. It’s just what worked.

I explored.

I had already waded deep into my project—my curiosity about horseshoe crabs led to internet searches, piles of books and articles, phone interviews, and horseshoe crab tagging. Then, on a research trip to help band migrating shorebirds, I wandered down to the beach before dawn. I thought I’d be lucky to find a few clusters of horseshoe crabs. But as my eyes adjusted, I discovered a swath of thousands of these animals clambering in the waves as far down the shore as I could see.  

Knowing about the annual horseshoe crab spawning event and standing in the water as moonlight reflected off each point and curve of their convoluted shells were two entirely different things. Alone that morning, I knew I had to find a way to share this moment. But how could I capture on paper the jumble of energy, facts, and observations that were in my head?

I wondered.

I started by asking myself a lot of questions, and I made a lot of lists. What was it, at the most basic level, that I wanted to share? Which details mattered most? I was dedicated to creating a nonfiction book, but as much as I love all the incredible information—and truly, the facts are fascinating! —it was ultimately the feeling of awe, the wonder and amazement, that I was trying to communicate.

I structured.

When I distilled my lists and thoughts down to the basics, I ended up with…another list. But now it was a list with shape, a mini-symphony of horseshoe crabs, birds, and people braiding in and out. It built, it crescendoed, it receded—kind of like the annual spawning cycle itself. I’m always a little uneasy until I find my structure, that unsung hero that holds a project together. Now I had it—short, repetitious bursts of words that linked the various parts together and felt sturdy enough to hold what I wanted to say.

I layered.

With each bit of text, I could easily recall my pre-dawn walk, the way tiny shore birds peeped and skittered along the water’s edge, and all the other experiences I’d had. But for that kid in Kansas or Chicago who had never seen wild horseshoe crabs, I wanted more. So, I added sentences full of observations, facts, and sensory moments to develop the feeling of excitement and make the drama of the event clearer.

I envisioned.

Picture books have another layer, too: illustrations. As an artist, I pay close attention to how images bring a book to life and create a deep connection with the reader. In this case, I knew that for many children, just going outside, let alone staring down a bizarre, prehistoric-looking creature, might be overwhelming.

Before I ever sent the manuscript to an editor, I used a draft of my text to make a book dummy, and then sketched out some illustrations myself. From that process emerged the idea of having a guide—in this case, a child to follow through the pages.

Thankfully, my fantastic editor and illustrator were both open to my idea. (This is not a given, and I was very thankful for their openness to my suggestions!) In the final illustrations, we see friendly, inviting faces that amplify the feeling of the moment and put the reader at ease. Hey, I hope the reader thinks, if that kid can be out there, face-to-face with a horseshoe crab, I could be too.

I recommended.

Tempted to try layered text for your project? There are lots of benefits. Young children, impatient listeners, and parents with only a brief time to read can focus on the short top layer, and enjoy the images. Other readers can dig deeper into the main text (and the back matter—yet another layer), depending on time and interest. Repetition in the top layer provides an opportunity to consider how the same phrase can change meaning depending on the expanded text below it, and it allows readers to enjoy success with recognizing familiar words and sounds.

For examples, mentor texts, and more thoughts on this subject, check out the resources listed below.

It’s over…until I start again.

I’m happy with how the layered text worked for this project. But who knows what structure will emerge next time! For any project, I look forward to the moment when I’m finally able to relinquish control and let whatever it is I have to say take over. It’s a little scary, a little exhilarating, and—despite the layers of challenges in this sort of creative work—it’s the thrill that keeps me coming back for more.  
Mentor Texts:

Lisa Kahn Schnell writes, draws, and shares the stories of the strange and wonderful creatures she encounters wherever she is—from Alaska to Ghana to her current home in Pennsylvania. High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs, a celebration of one of the animals Lisa has fallen in love with, was an AAAS/Subaru SB&F Excellence in Science Writing Prize Finalist, an Outstanding Science Trade Book, a Cook Prize Honor book, and one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children's Books of the Year (Outstanding Merit). Visit Lisa at and follow her @lisakschnell

Lisa will be giving away one picture book critique.

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.