So…what about science based picture books? How do you find the “heart” in STEM topics? Many thanks to Melissa Stewart for sharing her process and all the valuable links. Dig in!
Mining for Heart: Concept and Connection
Before the Common Core State Standards were introduced in 2010, people rarely discussed nonfiction craft. In fact, many people thought there was no such thing. Luckily, that’s changed.
Today, educators and writers are thinking deeply about informational writing and identifying its most important characteristics.
Educator-bloggers like Alyson Beecher of Kid Lit Frenzy
Carrie Gelson of There’s a Book for That,
Cathy Potter of The Nonfiction Detectives,
and Mary Ann Cappiello of The Classroom Bookshelf have all helped me recognize the interplay among voice and point of view, text structure and writing style in finely-crafted nonfiction.
These dedicated educators have also helped me realize that nearly all nonfiction books for children can be classified in one of four categories (survey books, life stories, concept books, and specialized nonfiction), and that most STEM picture books are concept books. Recognizing and naming the concept of a book before I begin writing is now an important part of my process.
I’ve also come to see that for a STEM picture book to shine, it needs to hook the reader, and that only happens when a child can easily make a connection between the concept and his/her daily life.
Kids love No Monkeys, No Chocolate because they’re intrigued by the idea that we depend on monkeys (and many other creatures) for our favorite dessert. That’s the relatable lens I use to show readers the concept—that everything in the natural world is intertwined, including us.
As children read Feathers: Not Just for Flying, they feel connected to the many different ways birds use their feathers because I compare these amazing natural objects to familiar human-made objects.
We all know that kids are naturally curious and have a limitless supply of questions about the world and how it works. Can an Aardvark Bark?, due out in June, celebrates this with a lively question-and-answer text structure intended to engage readers as they explore the book’s concept—that a range of animals make similar sounds, but for different reasons.
For me to endure the long and sometimes frustrating journey from inspiration to publication, I need a connection too—a personal connection.
My personal connection to No Monkeys, No Chocolate traces back to the glorious woodland walks my father, brother, and I took when I was young. That’s when I first discovered how living things are related to one another and their environment. During those walks, our father’s enthusiasm for nature rubbed off on us, so in many ways No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a tribute to him.
Feathers: Not Just for Flying was inspired by a single sentence in a magazine article: “Hummingbird eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world.” This simple fact blew my mind, fueling a flurry of questions. Birds have eyelashes? And they’re made of feathers? How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? That last question is the underlying concept of Feathers.
For this book, my personal connection is my deep admiration for a college friend who was endlessly fascinated by birds and took me bird watching many times. As I worked on the book, I kept thinking of him.
As I described on Alyson Beecher’s blog, Kidlit Frenzy, Can an Aardvark Bark? was inspired by a question my nephew, Colin, asked me during a family trip to Disney World. In this case, my personal connection to him motivated me to find a concept worth exploring in my mountain of research. Without Colin’s interest, I doubt I would have spent four years searching for just the right way to present the information.
How can a writer interested in STEM topics go about identifying the concept and connections for a work in progress? By thinking deeply and asking questions like, “What really prompted me to choose this topic.” and “Why do I feel so committed to writing this book?”
Journaling can be an invaluable tool during this process. Try writing about how the ideas you want to share are linked to who you are—your personality, your beliefs, your experiences in the world. Does some aspect of your topic trace back to a powerful childhood memory or a person you love? Is it connected to a deep-seeded desire, fear, hope, or disappointment?
Whether fiction or nonfiction, the best writing comes from digging deep, from celebrating passions, from acknowledging vulnerabilities. We write because we have something we need to say.
Melissa Stewart is the award winning author of more than 180 STEM books for children, including No Monkeys, No Chocolate; Feathers: Not Just for Flying, and the forthcoming Can an Aardvark Bark? She maintains the blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. www.melissa-stewart.com