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Passionate Nonfiction Writing Starts with a Question

Lately, I’ve heard teachers advising young writers to choose nonfiction topics “that you could teach someone about.” For instance, an avid soccer player might write about the rules of soccer. I have just one word for that kind of writing . . . BORING.

Why would a child want to rehash something he or she already knows backward and forward when there’s a wide world of ideas and information out there just waiting to be discovered?

I write about science because I’m fascinated by the natural world and how it works. I’m constantly asking questions. I listen carefully to other people’s questions too. We’re all so curious, especially kids.

When I hear a good question, I immediately want to know the answer, so I start exploring. The more I learn, the more excited I am to share my new knowledge with other people. That’s what fuels my writing.

Here’s an example. In March 2010, my parents took our whole family on a trip to Disney World. At the time, my nephew was 10 and my nieces were 6 and 8.

One day we decided to take a break from the rides and see some of the animals in the park, including the adorable cotton-top tamarins. The informational plaque on their cage told us where the monkeys live, what they eat, and the sounds they make. It said they bark.

My nieces and nephew were doubtful. And then, as if on cue, the monkeys started vocalizing.

That night my nephew asked a great question:

“Do you think there are a lot of different animals that bark?”

Some adults might have brushed off that question, but not me. I embraced it. We googled his question and started making a list. We were blown away by our results. Not only do lots of different animals bark, they do so for many different reasons.

I kept the list, and when I got home, I started researching other animal sounds. Eventually, I had a list of more than 300 animals that bark, bellow, chirp, chatter, grunt, growl, and more. That’s when I knew I had the makings of a book.

It took a long time and a wide range of techniques to find the perfect structure. . .

But I finally did. Can an Aardvark Bark? (illustrated by Steve Jenkins, published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster) will be published on June 13.

What insights can we take away from this process story?

  • Self-generated ideas are powerful.
  • It’s important to be open to ideas all the time.
  • It’s fun and rewarding to investigate things we’re curious about.

Kids are no different from me. When natural curiosity guides the research and writing process, and when nonfiction writers are encouraged to zero in on what we find most fascinating, our final piece is bound to burst with passion and personality.

Melissa Stewart  is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying. Her highly-regarded website contains a rich array of educational resources for teaching nonfiction reading and writing. www.melissa-stewart.com

6 thoughts on “Passionate Nonfiction Writing Starts with a Question Leave a comment

  1. Last week when I was helping my students navigate a non-fiction text about Orville and Wilber Wright, a conversation ensued about asking the right questions when we are reading non-fiction text. But it traveled further into the idea of asking questions because we need to value what makes us curious. My first graders spent the next 25 minutes composing questions. It was so refreshing to feel the energy in the room around curiosity.

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  2. I love Melissa Stewart’s books. She is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. I think this is powerful idea to begin with a question. It can even lead to different structures of a nonfiction books besides “All About”

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  3. I’ve been thinking about this off and on all day. We just finished up a non-fiction writing unit that started with me saying, “Write about something you know a few things about.” I felt like a jerk for a while today, but have made peace with my decision. I teach grades 2 and 3, and they are students new to a workshop approach without prompts and specific assignments. In part I did this because I want them to value their own passions and the information they have. I can see how starting with a new question would be very interesting and a fun way to get them writing. Doing the research will be a challenge. We have a few iPads to share and limited computer lab time, and the non-fiction section of our library doesn’t cater well to people who share our reading level. I am going to think about how to integrate this kind of writing though…the kind that starts with an inquiry question.

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  4. Melissa makes it sound so easy and natural. When I hear a student’s question, I often send them to Google. Let’s find out. Technology has made this possible. Last year I did a passion project with my students in which their own interests drove their research. School was out yesterday, but this post makes me want to be right back in the classroom sharing this with my students.

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  5. This is what it means to live like a writer… exploring the natural questions that come from being curious about the world around us. When students are just completing an assignment, we ask them to explain what they already know. Our curricular demands sometimes mean students are writing personal narrative when they really would rather be creating something different. Sharing stories like this and giving out students independent writing time that is truly their own to write whatever they want I think makes a difference. Thanks for a rich post to share with students.

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