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

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