I frequently do a workshop for teachers where I discuss, among other things, different elements good nonfiction may have, including plot or story. To illustrate this particular point, I bring out The Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop. Cowley’s book tells young readers where these frogs live, what they do and eat. But, with just 170 words, she also duplicates the structure of War and Peace. Okay, a little hyperbole here, there’s no Russian winter or love interest in this one, but the book does have a strong setting, a gutsy hero with a conflict, a subplot that leads to the climax, resolution of the original conflict, and a denouement.
So I was surprised the first time—and the second and third—when a teacher said he or she hadn’t realized that The Red-Eyed Tree Frog contained a full story.
Kids know this on some level, that’s why they read and reread the book. Humans are social creatures and busybodies; we all love to hear stories. I realized this in a past life, when I was a magazine writer. I’d write an article about, say, the effect of stress on infertility. Naturally I’d quote statistics and experts, but what people remembered were the anecdotes about Jane or Sarah’s experience. Stories are, in large part, how we learn.
Some nonfiction books are obvious stories, from Jennifer Armstrong’s account of Shackleton’s amazing Antarctic expedition, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World to The Great Fire by Jim Murphy. Others are not so obvious. I’m not suggesting that writers should turn every animal into a swashbuckler or start giving thunderbolts a mission. I just know that when I’m writing and confused about how to proceed, I often ask myself, “What’s the story here?” And my answer may unlock the logjam.
A few years ago, I got a dream assignment. The new director of Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, knew my children’s books and asked me to create new signage for the entire garden. I knew I could write clear, even lyric signs, but I wanted something more compelling. Now, Selby has a big sign at its entrance that explains that plants live their lives differently than we do, but they have the same needs and goals. Then I invited the visitor to come learn (through subsequent signs) about this world whose inhabitants were busy staying healthy, making a living and a family, fighting turf wars with neighbors, outfoxing predators—and, sometimes preying on others themselves. In other words, I made a story.
And a bookish example. My newest comes out in May--
See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House.. In it, I write that we not only should vote, we also have to know enough to make good decisions. But what will kids remember more—that clear, slightly stodgy sentence or the story that follows it and illustrates the same idea, the one that took place in Milton, Washington, when Boston Curtis won an election in 1938. Milton’s mayor had put this totally unknown candidate on the ballot to prove how important it is to know who you are voting for. Boston Curtis was a mule.