Besides writing books, I teach at Lesley University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. During the June residency, one of my duties is to conduct a seminar on children’s nonfiction. It’s needed too. We have a couple of Writing for Young People students working with nonfiction and a few more writing picture books and middle grade novels, but nowadays most seem to be in YA (along with every other new writer AND the marketplace).
After teaching the same course the same way for years, I’ve decided to shake it up a bit. Instead of starting with a little historical background and presenting books that embody important qualities of good nonfiction, I think I’ll begin by adapting an exercise I sometimes use when visiting elementary school classrooms. I pass out a report by Susie Goodman on brown bats that seems plagiarized from an encyclopedia. It certainly is as dull as if it had been. I tell the 4th or 5th graders we have to help Susie rewrite her report so it’s fun to read. I remind them that nonfiction can be an exciting narrative story with all the elements of fiction; you just have to make sure that they are all true.
Of course they don’t have a clue about how to do that, but I do. I simply ask them to read through this short report and tell me what they find interesting or exciting. One kid likes that bats fly at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Another mentions echolocation. Inevitably a boy picks the part where bats use sharp teeth to chew their insect prey. I write all these things down on newsprint with space in between them.
Then we decide what feeling we want our report to evoke—happiness, humor, spookiness, whatever. Guess what they pick. Since we know from the report that these bats live all over the U.S. we can factually pick a scary location, often a cemetery or forest. That goes up on the board too, up at the top because I know (even if they don’t yet) that we’ll begin with a dramatic setting for the opening scene.
Then we continue by brainstorming about each topic—finding strong images for the dark night (nocturnal hunters), great verbs to describe diving for prey at 40 mph, and dramatic ways to describe mangling a moth (keeping in mind that this is nonfiction and there wouldn’t be enough blood to drip and splatter). Afterwards we start painting our setting and introducing our hero—a single bat looking for dinner. Slowly but surely, we draft its story of search and success with all the graphic enthusiasm a bunch of eleven-year olds can have for the macabre. We use most of the facts “Susie Goodman” copied from the World Book. And we make the most of those facts, using them as the hook that suddenly makes most anything about the brown bat come alive.
If this exercise gives young kids a new sense of nonfiction’s potential, why not MFA students? Once I have them the M.O. it will be an individual endeavor not a group one. But I’ll let them find the story in the facts—maybe about bats, maybe about the Battle of Gettysburg and its casualties of nearly 50,000 men, or the shenanigans orchids pull to get fertilized. And I'll hope that writing those few strong paragraphs will be a great hook that suddenly makes all the other nonfiction I show them come alive as well.