One Writer’s Journey

October 23, 2013

How to Write Nonfiction: Kid Friendly Doesn’t Mean Dumbed Down

NonfictionThe very best nonfiction for children does two things:

1.  It presents the topic in a kid friendly manner.  

Some books do this in terms of measurements, presenting abstracts in terms more easily understood.  In How Big Were Dinosaurs?, author/illustrator Lita Judge does this by relating the size of various dinosaurs in terms that mean something to her readers.  There is no discussion of feet or meters or or MPH or tons except in how they relate to school buses, first graders and chickens.  For dinosaurs that are simply too large to relate to a kid-friendly measurement, Judge measures a piece of the dinosaur such as a claw or a tooth.

Other books do this by discussing abstract or ominous topics (such as the web of life) in very concrete, nonthreatening ways.  Rotten Pumpkin tells about decomposers not in the abstract but by showing them reducing a jack-o-lantern.  Author David M. Schwartz makes the various fungus as familiar as possible by relating more common tasks that each performs such as making bread rise or fighting infection.  These things are real and understandable and nothing to draw away from in disgust.

But that isn’t all that good nonfiction does because you do all of this in an overly simply way.

2.  The best nonfiction gives the reader enough meat to show that you respect them and their ability to grasp the topic.  Judge does this in terms of the animals that she discusses.  Some of them are fairly familiar such as the velociraptor, the stegosaurus, and the ankylosaurus.  Others, much less common, include the therizinosaurus, the tsintausaurus, and the struthiomimus.  Yet she give the young reader all of these names and leaves it up to the hapless adult, reading out loud, to successfully sound them out.

Rotten Pumpkins deals with the Latin names for various fungus.  It also discusses how a colony of slime mold can link together to form a net, one single creature with movement and a need to find food.  The book also delivers on a topic a lot of adults will shrink away from as nasty or disgusting, trusting that young readers are wise enough to get why this is awesome and amazing and wonderful.

If you can make the information accessible while also trusting the reader to get it in its full scientific glory, maybe science writing is the children’s nonfiction for you.

–SueBE

is week I read two nonfiction picture books that were a perfect balance of making the topic kid friendly but also presenting information that respected the reader.

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2 Comments »

  1. It’s amazing how difficult finding that perfect balance can be! I’ve contributed several nonfiction articles to Calliope & Dig, and they really look for current research that is interesting and accessible. I always find that it takes me about two months to steep my mind in the research before I can begin to arrange the pieces in a coherent and kid-friendly framework. It’s sometimes maddening, but always rewarding.

    Comment by Lisa Haag Kang — October 23, 2013 @ 4:34 am | Reply

    • Amen re: Maddening but rewarding! I generally find current research and then have to make it accessible myself because, most often, the research is in scientific journals. Obfuscate much?

      Comment by suebe — October 23, 2013 @ 3:56 pm | Reply


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