Children’s authors gathered for a Friday BEA discussion about writing nonfiction for kids. The speakers were Gabrielle Balkan (The 50 States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 Fact-Filled Maps!, Wide Eyed Editions); Steve Sheinkin (Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, Roaring Brook); Matthew McElligott (Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster, Crown); and Winifred Conkling (Radioactive! How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World, Algonquin). Betsy Bird, New York Public Library youth materials specialist and coauthor of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, moderated.
The discussion kicked off with the panelists reflecting on how they came to be involved in their recent projects and what they hope to accomplish through writing nonfiction for kids. For Conkling, she was initially intrigued by Irene Curie and Lise Meitner, because, though both have been relegated to “footnotes in history,” she sensed that there was much more to discover about the two scientists. After researching their lives, she discovered compelling angles through which to approach the narrative. During WWI, Curie and Meitner witnessed “horror on the battlefield” while serving as nurses operating X-ray equipment, which caused them to become pacifists. Yet in an ironic twist, their research into radioactivity contributed to the making of the atomic bomb. Conkling seeks out such psychological complexities when researching her subjects; once she finds that tension or intrigue, she knows she’s onto “a much bigger story.”
Sheinkin joked that, since he used to write textbooks, “I’m trying to make amends for that” by writing riveting accounts of real-life events. He calls Most Dangerous, about the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a “complex and big story... a natural thriller about a consummate insider who decides to expose the truth.” For Balkan, the impetus behind writing The 50 States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 Fact-Filled Maps!, illustrated by Sol Linero, was to create a book about the U.S. that is a mix of “essential info” and material that readers would never have come across before, broadening the concept of a simple atlas to be something much more encompassing.
McElligott began writing Mad Scientist Academy: The Dinosaur Disaster because he was just following his bliss: “I love to draw monsters, to learn about science, and I love the challenge of presenting information in an engaging and fun way,” McElligott said. The Dinosaur Disaster is the first in a series about a school run by Dr. Cosmic with a student body of monster kids who must use science to avoid situations like robotic dinosaurs coming to life and wreaking havoc.
The authors discussed other challenges that are unique to writing nonfiction for young readers. For Conkling, she struggles with reigning in the amount of information she often uncovers during the research phase. It’s easy to become distracted by material that isn’t necessarily germane to a project at hand, she said, and she often has to remind herself: “What’s the arc of this story?” She admitted that, while some material might not make it into the final product, “I write it in because it excites me, and then delete.” Even if some information does not end up in the book, she makes a point to use resources that readers themselves can locate to learn more about the subject, such as the Gutenberg Project. That way, if a reader wants to, they can research the topic more in-depth and on their own terms.
McElligott said he struggles with striking a balance between storyline and factual information in his books. One of the trickiest tasks for him is presenting scientific material through dialogue in a way that feels natural to readers. He also tries to avoid having the story feel like it is being imposed on a science lesson. It’s a challenge that all of the panelists said they encounter: seeking the sweet spot between telling the truth and entertaining readers. Above all, Conkling believes in honoring what actually happened with accurate, detailed information. “Kids have access to so much info,” she said. Nonfiction books should serve as models and tools through which kids can become “discerning readers, learners, and processors of history.”
Sheinkin said he understands how important it is to provide accurate content, and remarked how easy it would be to simply make something up if it would fit well into the context, though it isn’t necessarily the truth. “A million great things are said that aren’t recorded,” he noted, adding that it might be tempting to just fill in the blanks. And yet: “it’s cheating. You can’t cross that line.”
Sometimes, the truth can really throw a wrench in a game-plan, as McElligott explained. While he was finishing writing and illustrating Dinosaur Disaster, paleontologists made revisions to what they had previously understood a particular dinosaur to look like: “300 million years they have to decide what this dinosaur looks like,” he joked. As a result of this new scientific consensus, McElligott had to go back and revise all of the images of the dinosaur in question.
Bird brought up the issue of whether the authors feel they have to leave out content that might not be appropriate for young readers. Generally speaking, the authors feel that there are very few limitations placed on them in terms of what they can include in their books. For Sheinkin, he pushes content as far as he can in terms of complexity. While he’s had some adults tell him that they think his books are too dense, he’s never had a young reader say that. For Balkan, though The 50 States is primarily “celebratory in content,” there are elements of darkness from U.S. history that are also included in the book. In those cases, it becomes a matter of angle and perspective. Balkan’s approach was to “focus on the heroes in those moments,” or individuals who made positive impacts under bleak circumstances.
In closing, the speakers spoke about their own relationships with nonfiction and history growing up. In fact, none said they were particularly voracious readers of nonfiction. It was often within the context of fiction that the authors recalled becoming intrigued by history. McElligott noted how interested he was in “elements in fictional stories that are, in fact, the truth.” Sheinkin loved reading historical novels; Balkan recalled that, while “history felt very flat to me growing up,” her interest was sparked by depictions of the past in books like Little House on the Prairie. She recalls being fascinated by what characters were eating. It led her to start thinking about how history isn’t something dead from the past, but is filled with moments and choices, some small, others pivotal. “History is happening now,” she said.