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Humanizing Nonfiction Writers: An Interview with Melissa Stewart

When the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced on Monday, January the 25th it was notable that Nonfiction had quietly inserted itself into a great many categories. Really, only the John Steptoe Award, Batchelder (sorta), Stonewall, and Geisel failed to have any nonfiction representation. But before you all start jumping on the nonfiction bus and acting like you were there the whole time, let’s pay a bit of tribute to a woman that’s been beating the drum for informational books for a great number of years. Way before a lot of us thought it was cool at all.

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. Melissa also co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing. In fact, it’s these anthologies that intrigue me the most. Particularly the latter. So as one anthology editor to another, I sent her some questions about the process of creating such a unique book.


Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you so much for talking about this anthology with me. Can you give me a general gist of the topic and the audience for the book?

Melissa Stewart: Thanks for having me, Betsy. It was such an honor to edit Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Children’s Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing.

The primary audience is educators who want to help students improve their nonfiction writing, but it’s also a great resource for adults who are interested in writing nonfiction for children.

The book is really about dispelling a myth. Many people seem to think that writing nonfiction is simple and straightforward—just do some research and then cobble together a bunch of facts. But nothing could be further from the truth.

To craft high-quality prose, nonfiction writers have to dig deep. We have to be personally invested. We have to get in touch with our passions and our vulnerabilities and use them to fuel our work.

The topics we choose, the approaches we take, and the concepts and themes we explore are closely linked to who we are as people—our personalities, our beliefs, and our experiences in the world.

We hope this book will help teachers transform their nonfiction writing instruction, so that it reflects what professional writers really do. We’re confident that students’ nonfiction writing will become richer and more engaging when they’ve got skin in the game.

BB: I was particularly impressed to find the book in full-color. That doesn’t tend to be cheap. Did you insist on full-color interiors or was that all on the part of the publisher?

MS: This is the first full-color book that NCTE Books has ever published, so it’s very exciting for everyone. I made a pitch for full color in my proposal, and editor Robb Clouse agreed right away. Everyone working on the book understood how important it is for readers to see the beautiful book covers and author photos in color.

One goal of this book is to highlight and humanize nonfiction authors. Most educators and young readers can easily name a dozen favorite fiction authors, but, in many cases, they can’t name a single nonfiction author.

This is partially a result of the way books are shelved in libraries. But it’s also because most author studies focus on fiction writers, and most read alouds feature fiction books. Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep gives nonfiction authors a chance to be seen and heard.

BB: I’ve edited pieces for a book before, so I’m extraordinarily interested in how other people go about it. How did you decide what authors to include?

MS: As a devoted blogger, you’ll probably appreciate that this book began on my blog. During the 2018-2019 school year, I invited 38 colleagues to write essays on this topic. Their posts appeared every Monday from September to June.

By November, educators began asking if all the essays could be compiled in one place, so they could be read as a group and compared. I liked this idea, so I developed a book proposal and started submitting it.

After many rejections, NCTE agreed to publish the book. Hooray! That’s when I started thinking about creating a sense of balance.

I wanted to include contributions from roughly equal numbers of science writers, history writers, and biographers. I thought a lot about equity and inclusion, and about balancing picture books and long-form nonfiction. Before I knew it, I was so close to fifty contributors that I decided to go for that nice round number.

BB: Were there any pieces that you received for the book that you had to say no to or reject for one reason or another?

MS: The first few essays came from people who I’d discussed the topic with in person, during meals at conferences, for example. So they understood exactly what I had in mind.

Later, authors could look at the essays that had already posted on my blog. But I also encouraged contributors to put their own spin on the topic. I was hoping for a variety of interpretations and perspectives, and that’s exactly what I got.

One thing I love about the book is that the essays can be read one at a time and used for specific purposes, but they can also be read as a kind of conversation. There’s so much we can learn from each other.

BB: How much editing did you have to do on the bulk of the essays? Were some perfect and didn’t need any help, or did they all have a little tweaking done to them here or there?

MS: When the posts appeared on my blog, I wasn’t too worried about word count. But in the book, we wanted all the essays to be roughly the same length. That meant some authors needed to do a fair amount of cutting.

We also wanted to feature recently published books as much as possible, so some authors updated their original essays to highlight their newest titles.

Even though the authors, NCTE editors, and I read the manuscript many times, it was amazing how many small but important questions the copyeditor asked. That’s one job in publishing that doesn’t get as much attention or appreciation as it should.

BB: As editor you are most certainly NOT allowed to have favorites. Instead, let me just ask what essay topics you’d particularly recommend to folks coming to this book. If they were just going to dip in out of curiosity, where would you direct them?

MS: It really depends on the reader’s purpose. The book is divided into three chapters—Choosing a Topic, Finding a Focus, and Making It Personal. These are the three steps that nonfiction writers struggle with most as they conceptualize a piece.

Each chapter begins with an overview that introduces key ideas and provides tips for navigating the author essays. Following 16 or 17 essays, each chapter concludes with an In the Classroom section. It provides strategies and activities that help student writers as well as adult writers apply the ideas in the essays to their own writing.

Based on early feedback, people are loving the Teacher Timesaver Tables in each chapter overview.

Inspired by the “Peek” technique Cynthia Leitich Smith uses on her fabulous blog, Cynsations, these tables allow readers to quickly get a sense of what each essay is about and whether it will be useful to them at that moment.

Each table entry lists the author’s name, the grade level(s) they write for, the format of their books (picture book, long form, or both), and the content area(s) they explore. It also provides a very brief description of the essay’s content. These tables make the book much easier to browse.

BB: What would be the ideal use of this book that you’d like to see the most?

MS: While the essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep can be used by educators in many ways, from serving as mentor texts for writing personal narratives to enriching author studies, our fondest hope is that this book will influence the way nonfiction writing is taught in schools.

The best nonfiction writing happens when students (or adults) choose a topic they’re excited about and then spend time synthesizing their research and viewing the information through their own personal lens. But right now, most students jump straight from research to writing.

Because every instructional minute is precious, teachers may be reluctant for students to take more time at the beginning of the process. But it’s time well spent because it will reduce the need for big-picture revisions later on.

For adult writers, we hope that reading the essays will be like sitting down to have a cup of coffee with a good friend. As each author opens up about their process, their craft, their truth, readers will develop the ability to identify their own truth and their own voice. They will feel empowered to craft the book that only they can write.

BB: Any plans for similar books in the future?

MS: Not right now. Because educational publishers like NCTE Books don’t pay advances, I spent a lot of time applying for grants to pay the contributing authors. Unfortunately, all the foundations felt this book fell outside their purview. In the end, I paid the authors out of my own pocket—$200 each.

After I (hopefully) recoup that money in royalties, all the book’s proceeds will be divided among NCTE, SCBWI, and We Need Diverse Books. For me, this book was a labor of love, something I felt had to be in the world. But it was also a lot of work for no pay at all. I’m not sure I would or could do it again.


I can’t help but thank Melissa profusely for taking the sheer amount of time that she did to answer my questions. Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep is available for purchase. And here, to wrap things up, is the book trailer. Enjoy and thank you!

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Ann Clare LeZotte says

    This looks fantastic! Thanks for highlighting it. I will certainly add it to my collection. Gratitude to Melissa Stewart and all the contributors

  2. As a NF writer, I highly recommend this book for other writers. It is, indeed, like chatting with some of kidlit nonfiction’s best and brightest! All hail the NF Queen Melissa Stewart for all she does to promote NF and NF writers! 🙂

  3. Beautiful interview. I like how you got into the nuts and bolts of how the book was compiled and published. A long process! All of us writers of NF for children can learn how to dig deeper from Melissa Sweet’s volume.

  4. Sorry, meant to write Melissa Stewart above, but Sweet is a wonderful NF illustrator, as in “Some Writer!” about E. B. White.

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