When I (the "I" here being Holly Schindler, administrator of the Smack Dab blog) received an email from Heather Schwartz offering a guest post, I pounced. I have to admit, I've never published nonfiction for kids, but I'm absolutely intrigued by it. (I think writing nonfiction, especially for the younger set, relies on a completely different set of talents than fiction.) I wanted to get some insights from Heather on the process...after all, she's written more than twenty (20!) nonfiction books from kids. Here's what Heather has to say on researching factual material for young readers:
Researching Nonfiction for Kids
By Heather E. Schwartz
I’m so happy to guest post for Smack Dab – thanks for having me! My first middle grade novel is in the works, and I’ve written more than 20 nonfiction books for kids on subjects I previously knew nothing about. Here’s what I’ve learned in pursuit of data, statistics, general information and unusual details.
One thing that’s relaxing about writing nonfiction is the facts are all out there. You don’t have to rack your brain dreaming up ideas or making the pieces of a story fit together. On the other hand, one thing that’s stressful about writing nonfiction is you have to be sure to get all the facts. Obviously you can’t make anything up, but you also have to be very careful about making assumptions. Every word you write has to be the absolute truth.
1. Finding the Facts
I’ve written on a vast array of topics—sports, science, animals, celebrities, history, etc.—but for the most part, the research process is the same. I usually start by searching on the Internet for an official organization representing the topic at hand. For example, there’s often a “National Association of” whatever I need to learn about. In the case of celebrities, I’ll check out their official website. For history especially, I search for museums dedicated to that period or event. These websites generally provide an overview of the topic, some history, and perhaps most importantly, contact info for people who can answer questions about the subject.
2. Bringing Those Facts to Life
Nonfiction writing—especially for kids—isn’t just a list of facts, though. It’s more than reporting. You need lively details to bring scenes to life and entice kids to read about your topic. Those kinds of details can often be found in newspapers and magazine articles. For example, it may be possible to reuse a quote from a celebrity interview. Of course, if you can talk to the celebrity yourself, that would be a great resource, too!
3. Getting the Nitty Gritty Details Right
Usually when I’m interviewing a source I need really nitpicky details—information I can’t find anyplace else. I may be having trouble understanding a science concept, or I may need to fact check a random item.
Finding sources to help in these cases is the most difficult part of researching nonfiction. I often start with ProfNet, an online resource for journalists that will send your query (“I need an expert on octopus behavior”) to a targeted community of professionals. If no one responds? First, I panic! But then I remind myself that someone out there knows the answer to my question. And not everyone is on ProfNet.
From there, I may contact a few local colleges through their communications departments. I may attempt some creative Googling (“octopus vet” – hey, that actually brings up a good source!). I may also rethink my question, so other types of experts might be able to answer it.
4. Avoiding Unreliable Sources
In general, children’s book publishers don’t want their authors relying on personal websites and user-written websites for information. Other children’s books are also generally off-limits, since you want to offer something different and you don’t know how other authors did their research.
That said, I have found these resources can be helpful for culling background information. Suppose, for example, you read a juicy tidbit about a topic on Wikipedia? It might be fiction, but now you have a chance to check it out. It could be something you can use, provided you can find that same tidbit verified by a more reliable expert, website or media outlet.
If I can’t find the information I need from a reliable source with real credentials (check the “About” section on websites), I’ll restructure what I’ve written. The information I originally planned to include may not be there, but the gap won’t be noticeable either.
When you’re writing nonfiction, it all comes down to one important rule: It’s better to leave something out than risk getting it wrong.
Heather’s middle grade novel, tentatively titled The Mysterious Case of My First Year in Middle School, is about a teen research detective who finds answers to quirky questions. Visit her blog at http://allaboutwritingforkids.blogspot.com/.
...On behalf of everyone at Smack Dab, I'd like to thank Heather for stopping by...and I'd like to encourage everyone to check out Heather's books, available on Amazon!