AWP2019: Nonfiction for Kids and Teens: The Art of Writing Fact Not Fake Information

Panel Participants: Mary Cronk Farrell, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Phyllis Root was unable to attend)

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: Five experienced, award-winning writers offer a window into the creation of the vibrant and imaginative nonfiction books being published for teens and kids today. How a writer discovers her subject, chooses a form (from longer narrative nonfiction to graphic nonfiction to picture books) completes the research for both text and image, and persists to the final fact-checking will be featured. The participants share their own work, as well as innovative books that inspire them.

Claire Rudolf Murphy opened the discussion, explaining that voice, plot, character, theme, and setting are equally important in nonfiction as in fiction. She has written both fiction and creative nonfiction for children, including Marching with Aunt Susan, a historical fiction story about Susan B Anthony, and Martin and Bobby, a work of narrative nonfiction.

There are several categories of nonfiction marketed for younger readers: survey books which give a broad overview of a subject, biographies, and the increasingly popular Young Adult memoir, many of which are graphic memoirs. Also popular are collective stories in which the writer synthesizes stories and interviews of many people on a single subject, or compiles an anthology such as Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner.

Mary Cronk Farrell is the author of Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific, Irena’s Children, Standing Up Against Hate, and Fannie Never Flinched. She explained that teens get most of their information from their phones. They believe it is credible. An MIT study that examined tweets discovered that fake news spread 6x faster than the truth. The writers of fake news know the elements of story that connect with the human brain, like an emotional tug of the heart, eye witness accounts. Nonfiction writers can take a page from their book to hook our readers.

One key is synthesized information—a single unifying idea throughout the book that will strike like lightning. Best practices include timely first person interviews, extensive back matter and links to other sources, and to make facts relatable use comparisons to things children are familiar with. For example, in Don Brown’s graphic novel The Unwanted Stories of the Syrian Refugees Brown explained that Syria is the size of Florida, which helps kids understand the magnitude.

Everything we write is in competition with fake news, but we must hold onto the belief that what we write will make a difference in the world and help kids find and seek truth.

Farrell’s work covers heavy material, including injustice and death. In writing about the Holocaust the only thing she didn’t put in book from her research was the Nazis putting lye in railroad cars. She explained that dark stories tell kids how to survive dark things, and readers can’t appreciate the protagonists’ strength if they don’t know their ordeals.  “We don’t do our kids a favor by sugarcoating the world for them.”

Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is a national award winning author of eleven books for children and young adults. She teaches writing at the Whidbey Island MFA, a program of Northwest Literary Arts, at Writers in the Schools, a program of Oregon Literary Arts, and at Wordstock. She wrote Cesar, a biography of Cesar Chavez, even though she was not Mexican, never lived in California, and doesn’t even like to garden. She called herself “the wrong person to write this.”

Bernier-Grand was told by a Mexican friend that she had no business writing about Chavez since she is Puerto Rican, but Benier-Grand didn’t say no to the editor who asked her to do so. Instead, she immersed herself in Mexican culture: food, music, movies. She didn’t start writing until she “felt Cesar Chavez had grabbed my heart.”

Bernier-Grand calls her process the 3 Hs: fill your head with research, your heart with emotion, then let it to your hand. Write the words of your first draft so quickly there is no time to be critical.

“if you think I’m weird, you’re right…but you cannot force the words. You must let the words flow from your head to your heart then to your hand.”

She doesn’t stop writing to edit until the first draft is handwritten, only then does she type, highlighting places for further research as she goes. The 2nd draft is always about details, and should use all 6 senses. Bernier-Grand talked to parents of Mexican immigrant children, went to fields, visited farms both that were good and bad to their workers.

She is a big proponent of sensitivity readers if you write outside your culture. She sent Cesar to a Mexican friend, a farmer, and Cesar’s granddaughter.

Jacqueline Briggs Martin is the author of 20 children’s books, including the biography Snowflake Bentley which won the 1999 Caldecott Medal.

Bentley studied snowflakes on small Vermont farm and took 5,000 pictures of snowflakes. To tell his story, Martin read obituaries, learned about farming in Midwest, read poems of Robert Frost, who lived 20 years later in a nearby state. She listened to Frost read poems to hear the voice of her time and place.

Use of voice is paramount in nonfiction to build the world of the subject in readers’ heads.

Consider: who is telling the story? How does the book sound? 1st Person is a powerful way to bring a reader into one place, but the voice must be trustworthy. The rhythms of 3rd POV should be different for each book. For example, Thomas Yezerski used aggressive verbs such as gouging, pouring, digging to show a land being pummeled, beat up in his book The Meadowlands.

To develop the proper voice for each separate book, you must immerse yourself in the culture of when you are writing to capture the feel in your work.  You are writing from inside the world of your story.  Voice adds texture and setting.  One author put maps of 18th century France on her walls, others read newspapers in original French, covered their walls with photos, sketches, or magazines. Martin ate kimchi and listened to hip hop every day while working on Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix.

Martin will post a reading list shortly on her blog:

Workshops and mentoring opportunities are few and far between for writers of children’s nonfiction. You have to seek out mentors, offer to organize sessions if none are provided.

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility  with Andrea Fekete. Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and judged AWP’s Intro Journals Award for 2019.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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