A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
I absolutely love traveling to schools around the country to share the joys of authorship with kids. Like many visiting writers, I am well prepared to answer the four most frequently asked questions of children’s authors: 1) “Where do you get your ideas?” 2) “How much money do you make?” 3) “How old are you?” and 4) “Is your wife really an enchanted princess?”
But, the question that got me thinking about the craft of writing nonfiction literature was the one posed by a young girl in San Diego a few years ago. She asked, “What feature do you try to include in all your children’s books?” After some thought I responded that one of the most important features for any nonfiction book is the inclusion of the “WOW! Factor.”
I define the “WOW! Factor” as those elements of a book that cause readers to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” or “Wow, that’s really cool!” However, the “WOW! Factor” is much more than the simple reporting of amazing information or incredible facts. There is a host of books that abound with isolated tidbits of information. However, a well-crafted book also embeds those facts within the context of a story. Stories put science (for example) into a meaningful context – one that engages the reader through personal connections. So, too, must the passion and excitement of the writer be evident to readers or a book becomes nothing more than a compendium of random data.
The idea for my book – Under One Rock (https://amzn.to/2GR6X4T) – came about quite unexpectedly. During a visit to a school in southern Illinois, one student told me about how he loved to go into his backyard and look under rocks. I’m not sure if it was the enthusiasm in his voice or the way he told his story, but I found myself saying “Wow, that’s really neat!” I immediately wrote “under one rock” in my pocket notebook.
It wasn’t long before I was walking around my own neighborhood upending rocks to see what I could discover (apologies to all my neighbors for my strange behavior). I would carefully turn over a rock and stare at the various creatures that emerged or disappeared into the soil. I was transfixed by the wonderful array of discoveries that any child could find there as well (“Wow, look at that!”). I took pages of field notes and spent hours in library research. I knew that some of the best children’s books are those that tap into the background knowledge of youngsters. So, I decided to create a story about one boy (perhaps me at a younger age) and his personal discoveries.
The book tells of the community of critters discovered beneath a rock – millipedes, ants, beetles, crickets, earthworms and a spider (“This is the spider with her eight-eyed face/Who builds a home in this cool dark place….”). The story concludes with an explanation of how different creatures often live together in harmony. My primary intent was to help youngsters appreciate the wonder and excitement of nature right in their own back yard. Wrapping those potential discoveries around one boy’s adventures allowed me to share information in an informative and personal way.
The “WOW! Factor” also played a prominent role in my latest endeavor: Tall Tall Tree (https://amzn.to/2JELNVo). This book describes various creatures found in the canopy of iconic redwood trees. Chattering squirrels, roosting bats, busy bumblebees, and dancing ladybugs all inhabit this elevated ecosystem (“A single soaring eagle/Against a sky of blue/Searches for his dinner/And now comes number…”). Again, I wanted readers to experience the discoveries that could be made in a small ecological niche – in short, the never-ending story about a collection of creatures and how they live together more than 200 feet above the forest floor. In this instance, the “wow-ness” of nature was presented via a counting book that invites reader engagement and participation.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 6, Tall Tall Tree was awarded the 2018 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal in the Children’s Picture Book (4-7 years) category.]
When children read “WOW! Factor” books they gain a true appreciation for science in their everyday lives. When combined with the elements of good storytelling those facts become personal and intensely meaningful. Children begin to sense that learning about the world in which they live is a passionate affair – one that puts all the senses on full alert – and one shared by the author as well as the reader. To offer less is to deny children the joy of discovery and the thrill of adventure that waits under one rock or up in a tall tall tree!
So, the next time I visit a school and am asked about the most important element I try to include in all my children’s books, I’ll know how to respond. Now, if I can just figure out how to answer the third grader in South Carolina who asked me, “Hey, Mr. Author, have you ever written anything good?”
Anthony D. Fredericks (www.anthonydfredericks.com) 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 writing instruction book – Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2GOr0AF) – will be released shortly.