Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Making Science Sing: Writing creative nonfiction about science, for kids. By Christy Mihaly

If you're interested in writing about science for children, you've probably heard that editors are looking for creative nonfiction. If you find that confusing, you're not alone.

What is creative nonfiction? Writers, readers (and a few editors) sometimes trip over the definition. My librarian friends could talk all day about how best to categorize science-related books. But the basic rule is simple:


If you want to write nonfiction—to submit to a nonfiction magazine, or for educational publishing, or because you want teachers to teach your book as nonfiction—you can’t make anything up.

Take this quick quiz.

Is it Fiction or Nonfiction if . . .

1. a fictional character tells a friend (or a student, or a grandchild) important factual information you want to convey to readers?
A: FICTION. You may call it “informational fiction” or some other name, but it’s basically fiction, with factual information embedded in it.

2.  in describing a scientific discovery, you invent a dialog between the scientist and her husband?
A: FICTION. Use a single word that you can’t substantiate with a reliable source, and you’ve turned your story into fiction.

3.  you describe the planet Mars from the perspective of a resident there?
A: Again, FICTION. If you’re writing from a Martian’s perspective, you’re making something up. It may be science fiction – but that’s fiction.

Nonfiction requires thorough  research, and checking your facts. If you say anything that you can’t verify as factual, then it’s fiction. Which is fine—I like fiction! Just don’t call it nonfiction. 

Which brings us back to our question of the day:

Q: How do I make an article about ants, or a book about physics, compelling to young readers? How do I use creative nonfiction for science?

The answer: use the fiction writer's tools . . . tools like poetic language, a story arc, setting the scene with detailed descriptions and an engaging voice . . . to liven up your nonfiction. 

Here are some ideas and examples.

Make it poetic

As long as you keep your text factual and accurate, you can use poetry to breathe life into simple concepts such as the water cycle.

Wait . . . the water cycle?

Yes, even that. In Water is Water, Miranda Paul uses simple rhymes to show us the cycle from water to steam, to clouds, and on and on.

Laura Purdie Salas, in her poetic series of books (A Leaf Can Be; A Rock Can Be; Water Can Be . . . ) explores different aspects of the natural world.

In these books, the art, while scientifically accurate, can also introduce kid-friendly whimsy and even show characters and story lines that draw readers in. 

Jason Chin’s illustrations in Water is Water show a sweet family story to illuminate the text, and the cover of A Rock Can Be features a smiling crab.

Nonfiction writing need not be altogether serious. Jane Yolen has published several poetry collections conveying information about animals. A recent example is Bug Off!, which contains 13 funny poems about insects paired with fabulous photographs and facts about the featured bugs.

Non-poets, take heart! You don’t have to write actual poetry to use lyrical language for science topics, like horseshoe crabs . . . .  

Lisa Kahn Schnell’s beautiful book about horseshoe crabs provides factual information while drawing young readers into a story about the life cycle of these fascinating creatures. See more in this prior GROG post.
. . . or eggs.

In An Egg is Quiet, Dianna Aston’s lyrical language and Sylvia Long’s beautiful illustrations illuminate eggs in all their colorful and mysterious glory.

Make it tell a story

A great way to write lively science is to make it “narrative nonfiction” with a story arc.

Obvious examples are biographies of scientists or inventors, or stories of their inventions. In BOMB: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, Steve Sheinkin recounts for middle grade and YA readers a riveting tale of history and scientific discovery, along with politics and philosophy along the way. 

Nonfiction? Yes. Great narrative writing? Absolutely.

Sometimes it's challenging to uncover a story arc. Here’s where creativity comes in! In writing about an animal, for example, you could follow it through its life cycle, or a single day, or a migration.

Melissa Stewart found a fascinating story arc in a rain forest ecosystem. Her book, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, uses the delicious hook of “Chocolate!” to explain how cocoa pods, monkeys, and brain-eating coffin fly maggots are all part of the interdependent process that makes chocolate possible. This book is written on several different levels, from the simple narrative for the younger reader, to more detailed information for older kids (or adults).

Make it interactive
How could you make medical history interesting to kids? Carlyn Beccia did it with a humorous (and sometimes revolting) multiple-choice quiz, in her 2010 book, I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures. 

Do you know, for example, whether any of these old-fashioned treatments cured a sore throat?
A: A frog down the throat;
B: A necklace made from earthworms;
C: A dirty sock tied around the neck.

For each choice, the book explains the origin of the “cure,” and provides the answer (Yes, No, or Maybe) with a discussion of why the particular procedure may or may not have worked. This book packs a surprising amount of information into 48 illustrated pages. 

Cheddar finds it fascinating.

Magazines often incorporate crafts, quizzes, experiments and other projects into science articles. 

Increasingly, book publishers are getting into the act with how-to manuals, project books, and the like. Check out titles such as those illustrated here for inspiration to increase your interactivity.

Make it fun
Just because you can’t make anything up in your story doesn’t mean that you can’t make it fun. Think of an imaginative format. If you were a kid, how would you view a topic?

Susan Goodman’s middle grade book for kids about space travel uses a title sure to intrigue her readers: How do you BURP in Space?

This 2013 book is set up as a travel guide, with chapters such as “Planning your trip” and “Dining.” It presents technical information on gravity and other important topics in a fun format. Interested readers can refer to a glossary, index, and timeline of space exploration and travel in the back. The futuristic fonts and jazzy illustrations (a mix of cartoons and space photography) add to the kid appeal.

Bottom line: 
If you love science, why not write about a topic you care about, in a way that will make kids love it too? That's creative nonfiction!


For further reading, check out these selections from the GROG archives:

See some nature books that GROGGer Leslie Colin Tribble loves here

Read about science books for kids in Sherri Rivers' two-part post with interviews from writers Miranda Paul and Heather Montgomery

And for a fun chat about nonfiction rhyming picture books, look to Sherri's interview of Nancy Day.


  1. Awesome tips and mentor texts, Christy! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Whoa, get out, Chris. This fab post really breaks down the definition of nonfiction and whow to make it irresistible, like your post. Way to go.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. And good luck with your teaching gig!

  3. Chris, this was an awesome post. Well researched and full of great science books to study. Go to the head of the class. You are the teacher's pet.

    1. Sherri, you are very funny. Thanks for letting me include all your old posts in my "further reading" section. Must have "further reading" in nonfiction!

  4. This is a wonderful post, Chris (and thank you for including my book!).

    I also wanted to share an interesting blog post from a NYPL event with nf authors and illustrators. It gives a bit of insight into illustrators' perspectives on accuracy.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! Your book is one of my go-to mentor texts. And thanks for the link. Those illustrations are central to these kids' books -- i just wish I could paint!

  5. Everything you say is totally true. I would class this blog post as nonfiction.... creative, even!

    1. Sue, you are such a careful reader, I am happy to hear your comment (and classification)!

  6. Thank you, Christy, for this informative and mentor packed blog!

  7. This is such an educational, understandable post. Great use of mentor texts! Thank you so much. I will be siting a link to your post on the Reading for Research blog. (ReFoReMo blog)

    1. That's wonderful, Carrie, I love ReFoReMo. Glad you enjoyed the post -- I had a lot of fun writing it.

  8. Christy, I love your article! Great information and examples. Thank you!

  9. Thanks for providing so much helpful info in such a compact space! And I, like Carrie, love your choice of mentor texts. They're awesome!

  10. Excellent post, Christy! I never tire of reading about nonfiction:)

  11. Christy: This post is filled with much information about creative nonfiction. I am familiar with most of the outstanding books depicted in this post. Thank you for introducing me to new titles. I look forward to reading Cheddar's recommendation, I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures.

    1. You can't go wrong with Cheddar's choices . . . .

  12. Such great stuff here! Thanks so much for sharing Christy!

  13. Hi Christy - I really enjoyed this great post. You've put together information in a lively way - a perfect example of interesting nonfiction. I like your book choices. I've read many and am going to check out the rest.
    I love this grog blog - I now know 3 of you! (even though I haven't met Tina in person yet.)

    1. Thanks, Claire! It's great to see you here. Good luck with your writing -- whether nonfiction or fiction.

  14. Thank you, Christy. Wonderful examples of how to make nonfiction POP for kids. Two great titles that I'm unfamiliar with, so off to the library for me!

  15. Christy, Love the examples. Great post.

  16. This is such a great post. Really helpful and insightful. Thanks.

  17. Appreciate this post & all the authors recommended & titles - some are already beloved & others will be on my library list.

    I copied the illustrator talk url that Lisa Schnall kindly shared - there are no picture books without the pictures so I'm intrigued to know how that talk played.

    Very importrant topic, all around great tips & references - thanksabunch!

  18. Love this post. Great book suggestions and analysis of what makes creative nonfiction so engaging. Thanks for including Water is Water, too!

  19. Very, very informative. This post definitely clears up all the misconceptions I had about the difference between fiction writing and creative non-fiction writing. Thanks a bunch! I'm going to purchase Jane Yolen's BUG OFF! I love writing poetry for kids.

  20. This is such a great post, even though I'm way behind in reading it. THANK YOU!!!

    1. Thanks, Virginia! And I'm even more behind in checking comments ... Happy writing.