When I was a kid, I read fiction with two very limited exceptions: I read books about dogs and ballet. As an adult, it was pretty much the same story. So when I started writing for children, naturally I wrote only fiction. Then, a number of years ago, I was asked to write a series of nonfiction books about civil rights figures in Virginia. Hmmm. I didn’t think there would be a lot of dogs or ballerinas involved. And it sounded a little like homework.
I thought about it for a while. I didn’t mind the research. In fact, I was ready to learn new things. But it was the thought of note taking on small white index cards, one thought and source to a card, made me feel faint. I absolutely hated doing that in school. But fortunately, before I said, “NO,” I had an epiphany: I can take notes in a way that works for me.
I realize that piles of index cards with one or two lines on each one may be a great organizational tool for some. But for me, a visual learner, that stack, with all that wasted space, is totally overwhelming. If I could take notes in my tiny handwriting, on colored legal pads, with page numbers in the margins, I would be much happier. Then I could star things that I liked, use pink highlighter on facts I wanted to be sure to include and annotate others with cross-references. I could even color code things. It worked. In fact, I kept writing nonfiction and I haven’t looked back.
Writing nonfiction teaches the writer so much. So why not encourage your students to write nonfiction?
GETTING STARTED: Before setting children to the task of writing nonfiction, it’s important to have them read nonfiction. Next, pick topics that they can research easily. Writing about animals is a good starting place, because animals, in general, are less mired in conflicting information. Then consider moving into cultural and biographical subjects. I would suggest that you save history, especially long-ago history, for later, as it is hardest area in which to verify facts.
RESEARCH: This is a great time to teach children that not everything they read is true. It’s not about finding three sources that say the same thing anymore, like when I was a kid. And not all internet sites are reliable. Finally, sometimes it’s a question of saying “experts differ.”
NOTETAKING: Obviously it is crucial to keep track of where a particular bit of information comes from. But it doesn’t have to be done on white index cards. I would suggest providing children with several options.
OUTLINING: It’s a good idea to ask students to outline their stories, but only in a general way to give the story some structure. Then comes the really fun part. A writer I really respect told me that when you are researching a topic and come across something that makes you say, “Wow!” include it in your story. If it surprises you, it will surprise others as well. I encourage you to share this idea with your students. And then let them put pencil to paper!
BIO: Moira Rose Donohue has written over 20 nonfiction books for children. The Invasion of Normandy from North Star Editions came out in January 2017. Dog on a Bike from National Geographic was released in February 2017. Moira offers a school program called "Writing Interesting Nonfiction" that she loves to present to elementary schools. And she still loves dogs and ballerinas. Visit www.moirarosedonohue.net