Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Nonfiction vs. Informational Fiction: A Former School Librarian's View by Kathy Halsey

During February. I've taken advantage of NF Fest, a new challenge for nonfiction picture book authors. It's a free deep dive into the genre created by the NF Chicks, Pat Miller, Linda Skeers, Lisa Amstutz, Nancy Churnin, Peggy Thomas, Stephanie Bearce, Susie 
The Facebook Discussion from NF Fest

Recently we've had an in-depth Facebook discussion about the nomenclature of "informational fiction" vs. "nonfiction." Melissa Stewart, who I consider an authority on the subject, has given us definitions and examples of each, yet confusion still remains. 

From our discussion, Melissa indicated, "An informational fiction book has some  documented information and some made up parts." She goes on to say that labeling a book as informational fiction alerts readers "to the fact that some of the info in the book is made up. We need to be honest with them." I agree. 

Some writers in the NF Fest suggested libraries create a separate section for informational fiction. However, this may be problematic for school librarians who have cataloging done by library jobbers such as Follett. (Note that many school librarians are in charge of several buildings and don't have the time to catalog.)

Another trend nonfiction writers need to know about is the "genrification" of library collections. To gentrify is to arrange a library by category to make book location easier, similar to bookstores. Some libraries may only genrify fiction (all dragon books shelved as a subgenre in fantasy.) Other school libraries may place all fiction, nonfiction, biographies and picture books together in genres such as war, sports or supernatural. (They ditched the Dewey Decimal system.)  School librarian and nonfiction author Marcie Flincum Atkins said, "Books that haven't moved in years are getting lots of love." It transformed her circulation numbers - data that administrators understand when determining library budgets.

Melissa Stewart and I continued our discussion privately where she shed more light on this topic.
  • First, wholesalers are already tagging informational fiction in their databases, so it's no longer a matter of debate as to whether people agree to the term "informational fiction." As Melissa states, "It's part of the landscape."
  • Stay tuned for Melissa's new book this fall from Stenhouse about the classification of nonfiction and the research showing that many kids prefer expository nonfiction. She does discuss informational fiction in this book, but it isn't a major focus.
  • Finally, here's a blurb from Stenhouse, a publisher that provides professional resources for educators. 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children's Books highlights more than 150 high-quality children's nonfiction titles for K-8. It provides strategies for building strong, diverse classroom and library collections and includes 22 innovative reading and writing activities that show teachers how to utilize the many wonderful nonfiction children's books being published today. This book will be a boon for writers, too.
NF vs. Informational Fiction Exercise
As a former school librarian, I'm sharing a process of determining whether these exemplary books are informational fiction or nonfiction. 

Both Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman and Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins are nonfiction. Check out these books, and follow theses clues with me yourself.
  • If one turns to the dedication pages and looks at the CIP, Cataloging-In-Publishing data, we see their Dewey Decimal numbers - 599.7695 for Sea Otter Heroes and 571.78 for Wait, Rest, Pause. 
    Patricia's book - DDC 599.7695

  • They are both by Millbrook Press, a well-respected name in nonfiction. 
  • They have back matter that includes further reading, web sites, photo acknowledgments, and acknowledgments of subject matter experts who have provided information or vetted the book. 
    Marcie's book back matter

Atlantic by G. Brian Karas is a lyrical informational fiction book. Follow the clues to see why.
  •  The writing uses extended metaphors and a first person POV to give facts about the ocean. 
  • From the book one can pick out the facts: "I am the blue water at the beach, the waves, mist and storms. That salty smell is me, too. / I stretch from the icy poles, North and South. I rub shoulders with North America and bump into Africa. I slosh around South American and crash into Europe. 
  • The Cataloging-In-Publishing data indicates no actual Dewey number but places it in "E" (a designator for picture books organized by author's last name). The cataloging summary indicate the text gives characteristics "as described by the ocean itself." The ocean is speaking. That is a fictional element.
    Can you find the "E" designator and heading "Fiction"?

Head over to the NF Fest and join in the Facebook discussion and go to the web site to read posts. You may want to try these exercises with students or for yourself asking questions like this: 1. Can you identify the real stuff and the made up parts? 2. Can you figure out why the author included them? 3. Is it NF or IF? Happy classifying.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Bones in the White House–Author Candice Ransom interviewed by Julie Phend

Thomas Jefferson: Third president of the United States. Author of the Declaration of Independence. Obsessive prehistoric mammal hunter?? It’s true! 

Bones in the White House, written by Candice Ransom and illustrated by Jamey Christoph, tells the exciting story of Thomas Jefferson’s hunt for the prehistoric mammoth. From first page to last, this book brims with mystery and the thrill of discovery. Bones in the White House is a fun and enlightening read for all ages.

Candice Ransom is the author of more than 150 books for children and young adults. She began her career as a self-taught writer, but went on to earn an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in children’s literature at Hollins University, where she currently teaches in the Children’s Literature Graduate Program. 

I was excited to interview Candice about Bones in the White House, recently released by Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Here’s what I learned:

How did you come to write Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mammoth? What makes this book special?

In 2008, I read a new nonfiction book called Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology by Stanley Hedeen. It’s about an amazing fossil site in Kentucky, where the earliest settlers came upon giant bones of a mysterious animal we know as the mastodon. Re-reading the book in 2014, I lasered in on a sentence near the end: “The delighted Jefferson had the Lick’s fossils laid out in the White House storage area that later became the elegant East Room.”

Thomas Jefferson had Ice Age fossils in the White House? That single sentence triggered my four-year journey. The first germ of a book makes it special—it’s the question that sets you on a road to follow, sometimes getting lost, sometimes down dead ends, until you find the answer.

What makes this book special is the lesson I learned: At heart, Thomas Jefferson was a scientist. He preferred natural history to politics, served his country while studying meteorology, zoology, and botany. He believed the fledgling United States should take its rightful place on the world stage of scientific discoveries, one of the main reasons he formed the Lewis and Clark expedition.

I know you researched extensively for this book. Can you talk about the process?

Writing nonfiction isn’t done on a whim. Be prepared to travel on your own nickel, devote months to reading, taking notes, and understanding what you learn. My first stop was the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia, near Monticello. 

 I quickly discovered that I couldn’t just paw through Jefferson’s papers because his massive collection of letters, journals, and documents are in 900 depositories around the world. I was steered toward Founders Online, a National Archives site that gives ordinary people like me access to the correspondence of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and thankfully, Thomas Jefferson.

I also traveled. First to Saltville, Virginia, to view Ice Age dig sites and mastodon bones in the Museum of Middle Appalachia. The mastodon was a new species to people studying its bones in the late 1700s—they called it the mammoth, after the mammoth that had been discovered in Russia.  Even after the mastodon was officially named, Jefferson continued to call it the mammoth, I think because of his 30-year obsession with the creature.

Next, I went to Philadelphia to the American Philosophical Society to interview the director, who is a paleontologist and Jefferson scholar, and view a special exhibit of Jefferson artifacts. I went to New York to discuss mastodons with the paleontologist curator at the American Museum of Natural History. I went to the Jefferson Studies library and Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the Virginia Historical Society.

Tell us about Jamey Christoph, your illustrator.

When my editor told me that Jamey Christoph had agreed to illustrate Bones, I was thrilled. I had seen Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, with Jamey’s lovely illustrations. I liked his quiet, un-showy palette and interesting compositions.
Jamey loves the same things I do—vintage art, old buildings, and history. I sent him an annotated bibliography, postcards, photocopies, and other materials. I think he did a wonderful job!

Can you tell us a little about your writing journey?

I began writing for fun when I was seven. By the time I was eleven, I decided I’d become a writer, but wasn’t sure what kind (playwright? poet?) When I was fifteen, I knew I wanted to write children’s books.

I didn’t go to college after high school but became a secretary, keeping my dream in sight. I learned to write the hard way, by making mistakes. I began submitting at sixteen, so I experienced rejection early. I wanted to be a best-selling children’s writer by the age of twenty-five. I sold my first book when I was twenty-nine (hardly a best-seller) and I was off.

You’ve written so many books in your career. Does it ever feel “rote”? Do you still get that buzz of excitement when a book comes out?

I’ve had a long career, nearly 40 years and 160 books. I wouldn’t say it feels rote, but more like I know what I’m doing, especially with non-fiction work-for-hire projects.

But I always get a buzz of excitement when a book comes out! When you’re slogging through research and fact checking, writing and revising, you tend to lose sight that your project will become an actual book. There’s nothing like holding the finished product, the culmination of your fuzzy idea, in your hand.

To what do you attribute your success?

Believe it or not, to being a secretary for seven years! I learned to show up at a desk every day, all day. To type correctly and quickly, to organize and establish a work ethic. While working as a secretary, I also pursued my writing dream. I figured that 100% wouldn’t be good enough, but 110% might do the trick. People know me as disciplined, driven, even. That’s because I didn’t go to college when most people do and always felt ten years behind. One day I looked up and realized I’d published 50 books. I put my head back down and kept going.

I also learned to be flexible. Yes, I wanted to write a wonderful MG novel that would sit next to Charlotte’s Web, but my first published book was a paperback YA mystery-romance. Editors asked me to do projects, and I did them, working on my “heart” projects on the side. 

What piece of advice would you give to budding writers that you wish someone had given you?

Don’t give up, keep working--clich├ęs that ring true. No one ever told me to keep at it, but I did it anyway. I was too stubborn to give up.

Advice I wish someone had given me? Don’t expect it all at once. Writers often want to be published right away. Does one violin lesson earn you a concert at Carnegie Hall?
Take the time to learn your craft. Then get in there and make your mark.

Thank you, Candice. Bones in the White House is a fascinating read for all ages!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

ANYWHERE—The Place Ideas Live, Part Two by Carol Coven Grannick

It's lovely to be in a physical or emotional place in which ideas float in and take hold. As I wrote in my previous GROG post these new thoughts "turn us suddenly onto a new path..." And all we have to do is receive them and use them. Anywhere we are, our brains can be in Receiving Mode.

But there are times, plenty of times, when ideas do not float in. 

Not a single idea floats, materializes, or even smacks itself into our brains.

Then what do we do? We're stuck.

We walk. We take showers. We brainstorm. We ask, what if...? But not much materializes. We mistakenly call it writer's block.

We do not need something better. We need something different.

A number of years ago, I discovered the work of Edward deBono, who developed techniques for challenging the brain to think creatively. While his framework was business-oriented (Six Thinking Hats), I found the techniques applicable in my private practice as a clinical social worker, in my writing, and in my life. DeBono calls his approach 'Lateral Thinking'.

Lateral thinking, as opposed to 'Vertical Thinking' (a logical step-by-step thinking through of a problem), provokes deliberate challenges of logical ('vertical') assumptions and the usual paths of thought we pursue.

Some of us may be natural lateral thinkers for whom asking, What enough of a nudge in order to create new pathways, patterns, or ideas. Others of us can really benefit from this more deliberate practice. 

While I find deBono's early books complicated to digest, I latched onto his idea of 'Provocation' to signal: 
  • challenging and disrupting established patterns or assumptions.
  • liberating beliefs associated with labeling and classifying.
  • encouraging different ways to 'arrange' information. 
I particularly enjoy the technique of Reversal, a way to negate, turn upside down, and flip backwards, common assumptions.

It's a way to generate all kinds of ideas—nonsensical, funny, matter-of-fact, terrible, and wildly wonderful—that may lead to a completely different way of looking at a situation in which you and your story feel stuck.

I made use of the Reversal technique while writing and revising my upcoming middle grade novel in verse, REENI'S TURN (September, 2020). I'd practiced the technique for so many years that it came naturally. I used it to create a "Provocation" in relation to the absence of obstacles in the middle of my novel in verse.

REENI'S TURN is the story of a shy, self-conscious girl's search for courage and self-acceptance as she journeys to become the girl she wants to be while still being true to the girl she already is. It occurs in the context of the epidemic of diet experimentation among fourth and fifth grade girls (and increasingly, boys).

While I'm not a writer who outlines my work, I did have a couple of assumptions: 
  1. Reeni must find courage to perform a solo. 
  2. Reeni must find a way to accept the body she has. 
While those seemed admirable goals for a middle grade story, I couldn't find the obstacles I needed. So I challenged the assumptions by reversing them: 
  1. Reeni never finds the courage to perform
  2. Reeni never accepts her changing body size and shape.
The reversal challenge leads to this: If the reversals were really true, then what things might happen?

The question popped open my brain.

I generated a whole list of possible internal and external events and experiences, some pure nonsense, some too awful, and some—finally—that felt organic to my character's personality, longings, and vulnerabilities. In fact, allowing my brain to consider the worst possibilities (that Reeni would never accept her changing body—something that horrified me—and never perform), allowed me to develop obstacles that caused her pain. And caused me pain, too.

It's a technique worth a try, and it's meant to complement, not necessarily replace, other "vertical" ways of problem-solving.

Working in tandem with your usual problem-solving methods, slightly simplified 
lateral thinking may increase your creative solutions for writing problems—and may even add a little bit of fun as you turn common assumptions upside down during your journey to find an answer that feels just right.

So there's our brain again, ready to help us generating new and unusual ideas, whether they're floating in ready-made or whether we need to do some more deliberate work. Our brains and their neuroplasticity make ideas from "Anywhere" possible—and grant us what is possibly our greatest gift.

Carol Coven Grannick is an author, poet, and chronicler. Her debut MG novel in verse, REENI’S TURN (Fitzroy Books, September 13, 2020) handles issues of courage, self-awareness, and self-acceptance in the context of preteen body changes and the epidemic of dieting in younger children. Her poetry and fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Cricket, Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, Hello, and Hunger Mountain. She is a regular columnist for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind, a reporter for Cynsations, and a member of the GROG Blog.