A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Welcome to “Navigating Nonfiction!” In this new monthly column we’ll explore the strategies and techniques that can have a positive influence on your writing career. We’ll look at the elements of outstanding nonfiction literature, interview experts in the field, and respond to your questions and concerns. In fact, if you have a topic or query you’d like addressed in this column, let me know and I’ll be happy to address it in a future post.
So, what really makes up a good nonfiction book? It’s a question we’ll consider over the course of the next several columns. But, for now, let’s take a look at one critical element of nonfiction writing – fascinating facts – and how they can add substance and dimension to your writing.
As writers, we know it’s one thing to have a child pick up a book and begin to read it; quite another to have a child stick with the book all the way to the end. But, the inclusion of fascinating facts sprinkled throughout a nonfiction book piques children’s’ natural curiosity and provides them with insights that might not be available in more formal information sources. The liberal use of mesmerizing details help keep a reader glued to the pages – learning new stuff and continually searching for the next tidbit of data. Fascinating facts keep interest levels high and motivation constantly stimulated.
In writing the book Desert Night, Desert Day, I wanted my audience (kindergarten to second grade) to understand basic facts about nocturnal and diurnal animals in the Sonoran desert. By the same token, I wanted to offer readers some unusual bits of information not often found in science textbooks or on internet sites. So, along with each poetic stanza, I included some complementary details in the Field Notes in order to add some spice to each animal’s story. Here’s what I wrote about a typical nocturnal critter:
Whip, and dash.
In a flash! (p. 8-9)
Then, in the Field Notes, I supplemented that stanza with an unusual insight:
Scorpion – Scorpions rely on their sense of touch to locate prey. Often, a scorpion walks around with its claws spread apart until it bumps into a spider or insect. Then it grabs it! Sometimes it uses its stinger. A scorpion’s stinger is a hollow tube connected to a poison gland near the end of its tail. (p. 32)
As another example, J. Lynett Gillette’s Dinosaur Ghosts: the Mystery of Coelophysis (1997) focuses on a cache of hundreds of Coelophysis (SEEL-oh-FIE-sis) dinosaurs that perished together at a place now known as Ghost Ranch in New Mexico (just north of Santa Fe). The discovery of numerous necks, tails, arms, and legs of these Triassic creatures in 1947 baffled scientists. “Why were all these dinosaurs buried in one place?” was a question that perplexed and stumped the experts.
Gillette goes into several explanations proffered for the demise of these critters. She offers some scientific reasoning and then challenges that reasoning with basic facts from the site. But, she also offers several little-known facts in order to keep her readers “up to speed” on all the science involved in this unique paleontological mystery.
Scientists Walter and Luis Alvarez of the University of California have suggested a reason why dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago. The Alvarezes said that maybe a huge asteroid falling out of orbit from outer space struck the earth. The collision would have sent great clouds of dust into the air that blocked sunlight and cooled the earth. A cooler earth couldn’t support the same kinds of plants and animals. Many species that needed warm temperatures would die. (Gillette, 1997, p. 21)
These fascinating facts are like adding a dash of spice or a dollop of flavoring to a favorite recipe. The recipe is good, but it can be made just a little more interesting (and a little more tasty) with the addition of a unique zest or seasoning. Dig, Wait, Listen (2001), for example, describes the desert spadefoot toad’s unusual underground living conditions: “…the young and adult toads dig back underground to wait until the next heavy rain. It can be a long wait indeed – as long as eleven months – until they hear the rain again.” (Sayre, p. 30). Another example can be found in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave where we are introduced to a slave in the mid-1800s who teaches himself how to make pottery: “With a flat wooden paddle large enough to row across the Atlantic, Dave mixed clay with water drawn from Big Horse Creek, until wet and stiff and heavy.” (Hill, 2010, p. 11).
Salt your manuscript with several fascinating and little-known facts and you can keep readers coming back for more. You can also highlight some of the interesting stories to be found in nonfiction books.
Anthony D. Fredericks (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former professor of education at York College (now retired) and an award-winning children’s author of more than 50 titles. His latest children’s book –Tall Tall Tree – received the 2018 Outstanding Science Trade Book Award from the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council. Tall Tall Tree is currently a finalist for the 2018 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in the Children’s Picture Book category.