Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dissecting nonfiction

 by Sue Heavenrich

A few years ago (2011, to be exact) Peggy Thomas and Margery Facklam's wonderful guide to writing nonfiction was born. Since then, it's been my go-to reference for questions about writing true stories for kids.

I think it's because I love the way it's organized - if you remember those biology dissection labs, it makes sense. First, the authors define the species: what is nonfiction? What sets it apart from other kinds of storytelling? They present many examples to give writers a feel for the diversity of this species (magazine writing, works for hire...).

Then they crack open the skull and go straight for the Brainstorming: where do ideas come from? What are kids learning about in school, and when? What's a slant and how will you know if you have one?

They spend two chapters on the skeletal system: the bones of the story. This is a deep dive into research, primary sources and where to find them, and the best way to net information from the Web.  There's useful information on photo research, building a bibliography, interviewing people, and even doing hands-on-research.

"Once in a blue moon, an unexpected event takes you to a whole new world," writes Margery. If that opportunity presents itself, grab on with both hands, she advises. Nothing beats firsthand research.

Once the bones are in place it's time to examine the heart and voice of story. This is where Peggy and Margery examine plotting, dialog, and finding a writing voice that kids will hear. Once those basic building  blocks are in place, it's time to assemble the "Story Skeleton", from an "oh wow" lead to a just as "wow" ending, back matter, and more.

The dynamic duo spend three chapters focusing on specific kinds of nonfiction: biographies, science and nature writing, and how-to pieces. Each chapter is packed with information, tips, examples, and resources. For example, in the science chapter there's a handy list of websites that provide accurate science information (NASA, MIT, US Geological Survey, and more). The best advice: think like a child.

"Take readers into the natural world with all their senses. Show the colors, textures, and smells that create the feeling of the swamp..." or forest or wherever you are taking this story, they write. Make sure it's true, accurate, and kid-friendly.

Concluding chapters focus on strengthening your story and finding markets. There's a great section filled with resources, and an index (for those of us who forget to tag pages with sticky-markers).

Check out Peggy's Anatomy of Nonfiction Writing website here. It's filled with insightful posts and discussions - plus there's a link for how to order your own copy of the book.


  1. We studied that book in the Word by Word book club. It's one I'm glad I own. Great a great review, Sue. TY.

  2. My copy is well-worn. A great review of an indispensable book!

  3. Great review, Sue! This book is a "go to" for writing nonfiction, and you clearly show why. Cheers!

  4. Thank you, Sue, for reviewing Peggy and Margery's book :) Sounds like a must for my library!

  5. Thank you for this confirmation.
    I am working on a nonfiction project and just ordered this book last week!

  6. This is a terrific book and I think it should be a staple in any writer's library. Glad to see you spreading the word.

  7. What a neat way to teach about nonfiction. Thanks for sharing!