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.