Some kids love nonfiction, but they might have lots of books to choose from on the topic of their choice. Your book has to stand out.
Other kids don’t like nonfiction. Or they don’t have any interest in your particular topic. Your book has to make them dive into it also.
Basically, your book has to hook young readers and be impossible to put down. This is why I have been playing with many different approaches to my current project. I have my topic, and I am fascinated by it. But the topic is not something brand new or intrinsically exciting. That means my approach needs to be. That will help it stand out among other books on the same topic and among all the books kids have to choose from.
I was at The Commons in Minneapolis recently, doing a story time with author friend Tracy Nelson Maurer. There were these two huge structures very colorful that we couldn’t figure out what they were. Then someone said something about birds, and we realize they looked like bird houses. Sure enough, I walked a little closer and saw that the signage was about birds. I thought they were bird houses, until I read a little more. Then I realized they were actually sculptures titled Orbacles. The signage at ground level and also text printed on each little section had to do with birds in Minnesota and what would happen to their populations if climate change continues unchecked. So this is art meant to educate. But what first drew me in was the color, the flash, the visual interest.
If the artist were to ask a stranger, “Hey, are you interested in climate change and how it’s going to affect our bird population?” I’m guessing the answer might be no for some people. But if you draw those people in with something really cool, looking a little bit mysterious, then by the time they actually realize what it’s about, they’re hooked. Smart art.
So that’s our job as writers, too. If we’re writing nonfiction, we have something we think is important for kids to know or something we feel drawn to write about in some way. The trick is how to prime readers so that they are eager to learn it, to read it, even if they didn’t jump up and down saying, “Please tell me about climate change!” Or whatever.
The way we get that curiosity going is often with our hook. Take Tracy’s most recent book, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words. I confess that history is not my strength. I am much more likely to read a nonfiction book related to science than I am to read one related to history. But in Tracy’s book, the ghost of Noah Webster is editing Tracy’s manuscript and making corrections all along. How freaking cool is that? As a reader, that makes me want to dive in and see: how does Tracy and how did history see Noah Webster, and how does that compare to perhaps the way Noah perceived himself? So that dichotomy right there becomes as much a part of the book as the facts I learn along the way about history and the dictionary and how American spelling had a lot of political meaning and thought behind it.
Awesome Millbrook editor Carol Hinz had a recent blog post about surprise and nonfiction (and Tracy’s is just one book she uses as an example). I think surprising our readers, challenging their expectations, and just giving them something brand new that draws them in –even against their will–that is the way to win readers over. That’s our job.