Monday, September 30, 2013

Combining Passion and Research for Compelling Nonfiction

Tanya Lee Stone talks at Bear  Pond 9/28/13
Tanya Lee Stone did not begin by writing nonfiction that she felt passionate about. Instead, she began as an editor, editing hundreds and hundreds of books of other people's nonfiction, then moved on to writing contracts for series of books for the library market. The first book that began in her own imagination that she then pitched to publishers was Elizabeth Leads the Way, about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her campaign to bring women the vote.

This book began as a well researched, solidly written story about one of the early founders of the women's suffragist movement. But it wasn't finding a publisher. So, Tanya set it aside, until one evening when she was watching a movie about women's rights and realized that the story had been lacking her own passion about the subject. She got off the couch and wrote what would become the first page of the finished book:

What would you do if someone told you you can't be what you want to be because you are a girl?

What would you do if someone told you your vote doesn't count, your voice doesn't matter, because you are a girl?

Would you ask why? Would you talk back? Would you fight. . .for your rights? Elizabeth did
When Tanya goes into classrooms, her first message to kids is to write on topics they care about. That's sometimes difficult, it calls for flexible assignments that, for example, don't assign students to write about "Italy" but instead ask them to find a country they're interested in and write about that.

Starting with a personal interest in a topic can not only make a more compelling final piece of writing, it also sustains the effort needed for solid research into that topic. Students writing a report on Italy may not put in the years, even a decade, of research Tanya will devote to her books, but it's still important to learn good research skills - to not open a Wikipedia page and call it a day.

Detailed research can back up an author's passion. When Tanya wrote her book Almost Astronauts about 13 women who demonstrated women could be astronauts, a former NASA employee followed her on the Internet dismissing the book as feminist propaganda. But the story was backed up by research, and librarians and teachers quickly came to Tanya's defense. Today NASA has its own web page telling the story of the "Mercury 13."

Research also uncovers new things - even topics that many people have researched and written about before have new information waiting to be uncovered. When Tanya and illustrator Boris Kulikov were working on Sandy's Circus about Alexander Calder, they needed to figure out what the castle he'd built for his little sister looked like. Other people had mentioned the castle, but no one knew what it looked like. Until, finally, Tanya discovered that Calder's sister (the one who received the castle) had written a book. . . and described the gift. Now the world has a picture of the mysterious castle.

Tanya worries that the market's current push for quickly producing a high volume of nonfiction that young readers will find entertaining discourages deep research. A related problem is finding serious market space for well-researched nonfiction - marketing it to children and adults, or moving from hardcover to paperbacks that will appeal to a broader audience. The changes happening with Common Core standards may help or hurt the situation. On one hand, these changes are partially feeding the push to get more entertaining nonfiction onto shelves quickly. On the other hand, they are building a bigger market for creative nonfiction. Some presses are even bringing back previous titles in paperback versions. This may be a sign that well researched, deeply thought out books will find more readers.

Tanya's final advice to students writing: start with your own passions, do good research, then get a first draft down without worrying about whether it's "good" (or going to get a good grade) and revise!

Want to learn more about making the most of visits from authors like Tanya in your classroom? Come to the store on Saturday, October 26th at 11:00 am for Jon and Pam Voelkel's talk about how to get the most from author visits (including Skype visits).

Recommended Resources:
Tanya Lee Stone & Jane Knight kick off the author-educator series for the 2013-2014 school year

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Using the Craft of Fiction to Tell Nonfiction Stories

This Saturday, September 28th, author Tanya Lee Stone is coming to Bear Pond Books' Children's Room at 11:00 am to talk about how she researches and writes nonfiction for young readers.

Tanya is an award winning, and prolific, author. As we posted earlier, on the 28th she'll discuss how she keeps the boundaries between fact and fiction when writing her books, which have covered historical figures ranging from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Abraham Lincoln to Barbie.

Even if fiction doesn't have a place in her nonfiction books, Tanya uses the same craft elements of a fiction writer to tell a story that draws her readers in, helping them understand and remember the events described in ways traditional textbooks may not.

One of Tanya's recent books, Courage Has No Color (2013, Grades 5 and up), offers a perfect opportunity to consider craft and structure as applied to both fiction and nonfiction. This book tells the true story of the Triple Nickles, America's first black paratroopers. A 2012 book, Shelley Pearsalls' Jump Into the Sky, uses historical fiction to tell the story of  the fictional grandson of a  Triple Nickle. The two books are a recommended pairing for a Common Core connection between fiction and nonfiction.

Tanya's teacher's guide to using Courage Has No Color in the classroom suggests things that the two books have in common beyond the starting inspiration. For example, the guide includes:

Craft and Structure
  • Find examples of ways the author uses words and phrases to set the tone of the times in regard to black soldiers and the discrimination they faced.
  • What is the relationship the first and last chapters and how they are written compared to the interior chapters? Explain how the chapters relate as a whole to the book.
  • From whose point of view is the story told and how did this shape the content and style of the book?
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
  • Identify vocabulary specific to the paratrooper units. Explain how the context supports the meaning and then look up the words in a reference book. What strengths did you notice from using the supporting context to explain the meaning?
  • Locate specific instances in the book that use figurative language or a passage in which the words are connected to provide a clearer idea or thought on that topic. How do the author’s word choices add to the meaning of the paragraphs, page, or chapter?
These exercises also apply to analyzing a fictional text. And the comparison suggests more questions - like what research a fiction writer does before writing their story, how creative nonfiction compares to formal or technical nonfiction writing, how an author decides what technique to use, and how students can experiment with telling the same story in different ways. Bring your own questions to Bear Pond Books on September 28th at 11:00 am!

This event is free and open to the public and involves snacks.

Links to More Information on This Topic: 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Making the Most of Author Classroom Visits

The first Author-Educator talk of the 2013-2014 school year is happening on September 28th at 11:00 am when Tanya Lee Stone talks about the research that goes into her nonfiction books and how facts become a compelling story. Here is a sneak preview of the second talk, happening October 26th with the Voelkels, authors of the Jaguar Stones series. 

Jon and Pamela Voelkel put a lot of planning into their school presentations about Maya culture, research, and their popular Jaguar Stones books. They've got an action packed, fast paced approach that is designed to align with Common Core Standards for Science and Social Sciences in grades 6-8. And when we say action packed, that includes adventure tales from their time traveling through the rainforests of Central America, multimedia visuals, theater, and fried meal worms (if you're curious, the worm snacks are sold here).

On their website the Voelkels also have lesson plans, guides to classroom projects, and suggested resources for studying the cultures and history discussed in their presentation.

In short, this writing team has worked hard to become expert in making the most out of every minute they spend in schools. Along the way, they've learned a lot about how teachers can make the most out of any author visit, not just theirs. On Saturday, October 26th, at 11:00 am the Voelkels are coming to Bear Pond Books to share their tips and insights.

Join us on October 26th to talk about getting students engaged in author presentations, connecting these presentations to Common Core Standards, preparing for a visit, following up a visit with classroom lessons and activities, questions to ask authors and information to provide for them. . . and any other questions you might have about using author visits in your school.

See also the follow-up post on Author Adventures

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tanya Lee Stone - Saturday, September 28th - Nonfiction for Young Readers

On Saturday, September 28th, we're excited to kick off a great year of author talks for educators with Tanya Lee Stone. Please join us at 11:00 am in the Children's Room at Bear Pond Books. We'll be talking about how to write a compelling story while sticking to the facts, with a focus on works for elementary and middle school age children.

Last winter, authors Rebecca and Joshua Rupp presented a great talk on writing creative nonfiction, which they define as "nonfiction with personality" (notes from that talk are here).

On September 28th, we're returning to nonfiction with personality when author Tanya Lee Stone joins us with a talk on "A Fine, Fine Line." The title comes from a 2011 article she wrote on blurring (or, more accurately, not blurring) the line between fact and fiction.

Why is the line between fact and fiction so fine? Because writing a narrative is different from taking a true / false test. Authors need to convey not only that events happened, but also the emotion behind what happened and a storyline that draws readers into the history. The techniques of fiction writers help create the emotion, character and story. Sometimes, though, writers cross the line into fiction  - with dialogue that's imagined for the purpose of illustrating a point, emotions that are likely but not documented, opinions that are intuited but not cited. Okay, if you announce you're writing fiction, not okay, Tanya says, if you don't..

Tanya explains that strictly staying to fact means "If I write that Jerrie Cobb’s smile was tinged with sadness, the reader needs to know I do so with authority. That I have seen that smile or have some other documented knowing of it."

So, then, how does a nonfiction writer do the research needed to stand behind each word? And how does she craft a compelling tale that remains on the nonfiction side of the line?

As Tanya writes "We don’t need to manipulate the facts to be effective storytellers. We don’t need to invent to be inventive. The facts, in the right hands, are as entertaining as any fiction." Find out about her approach to research, writing and documenting history for young readers on September 28th at 11:00 am in the Children's Room. 

If you're interested in this topic, you might also be interested in these articles on historical fiction from our March, 2013, talk with Jenny Land and Natalie Kinsey Warnock.

For a follow up post on this event, click here to read "Using the Craft of Fiction to Tell Nonfiction Stories." And read about all Bear Pond Books events at our website

More Information on Tanya Lee Stone

Tanya Lee Stone is a former editor and the Robert F. Sibert Award–winning author of Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Her most recent nonfiction book, Courage Has No Color, was almost a decade in the making, as she did extensive original research into the Triple Nickles, the U.S.'s first African-American paratroopers who fought in World War II. Her most recent picture book Who Says' Women Can't Be Doctors? was named one of the year's top 10 biographies by Booklist.

Some readers may also know Tanya from her 2010 book The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie, which won the Golden Kite Award. In all, she has written almost 100 books for kids.

Coming Up This Fall
In October we'll be inviting local authors in to talk about making the most of an author visit to your classroom. Stay tuned for the final date. Any good tips to share? Send them to helen.labun.jordan @ or via Twitter @BearPondBooks