Chapter 1: Discovering, Questioning, Talking and Imagining: Writing NonFiction
That’s all it takes – you find something. Then your curiosity and imagination take over. And you’re off. When I think of nonfiction, this is the process I have in mind: curiosity about some thing, place, or idea that incites a passion to learn more; that gives you an itch you need to scratch. Questions arise, the imagination is sparked. More questions may follow. You heap up facts, sort and sift through what you’ve discovered. You’re dying to share all of this with someone, to hear what your spouse or friend or colleague might think, what angle they will take, what insight they might offer. This process of discovery and questioning, talking and reflecting could lead you to write something -perhaps something in your writer’s notebook, maybe a poem or a text for a picture book because you want to share it with a larger audience. That’s the kind of nonfiction I want to read. That’s the kind I want to write, the kind I want children to experience as readers and writers. One that found its beginning with someone finding something intriguing.
What do I find interesting? What am I curious about? I feel especially at home in nature. I enjoy poking around my yard, dodging the poison ivy, while discovering moths, butterflies, spiders, frogs, dragonflies – especially ones I’ve never before seen. The same with weeds and wildflowers. Why did I never notice these before? Yes, I even stare at clouds and marvel at how, in all their variety, they move majestically across the sky, different from one hour to the next. On cloudless nights, I venture outside to look up at stars, constellations, planets, and try to remember their names. Weather phenomena, different kinds of trees, birds, mammals. I’m the same way with people – neighbors and friends I’ve known for years, or total strangers I encounter at an airport or along a hiking trail. I always enjoy those conversations that reveal something new through hearing about another person’s experiences. This way of being in the world, of giving attention to the life going on around me, brings deep pleasure and joy, but it does require that I take things slowly and allow time for reflection. Of course, in a hectic world, this is an ideal to strive for, but one that repays the effort. Whatever is around me, I notice and appreciate.
I often wonder if such curiosity can be taught – the kind that brings you up short for just a moment, stops you in your tracks, so that you need to look for some answers. Some people seem to lack this inquisitive sense. Perhaps it was there in their younger years, but has been dulled by adult responsibilities and routines. Yet I believe that being inquisitive and curious, being a person who feels compelled to ask questions, is a stance you can take in the world. It is the kind of person you can learn to become. It seems that taking this stance is essential for being a writer, as well as for being a teacher. As an educator, I try to bring inquisitiveness and curiosity to every part of my job, even before the teaching day begins. I wonder about those small mounds of heaped-up earth poking through the snow-covered playground that I pass on my walk to school (the work of moles? voles?). I’m intrigued by the plastic duck figures that first-grader Amira has attached to her backpack. “Do they have names?” I ask her. I notice a photo on the desk of my colleague, a scene of snow-capped mountains. Was that from a recent vacation? Call me nosy. I can’t help it. I’m just curious. Being engaged with all aspects of life is a privilege of being alive, as well as an obligation, whether one is a spouse, parent, friend, teacher, citizen.
The family members, community members and teachers in the lives of young children have a critical role to play in ensuring this way of being in the world for the young. I model inquisitiveness. I provide books that offer answers to many of their questions. These books serve as examples to show children that people, who are curious and passionate about something, sometimes want to share with others what they’ve learned and experienced through writing.
My curiosity and need to keep learning about the world found a new outlet when I became interested in nonfiction picturebooks in the 1980s. My children were young, and on our weekly trips to the public library we would return with stacks of books on topics of interest to two young children – big machinery and trucks, dinosaurs, volcanoes, baseball and basketball, outer space, snakes, wildcats. We enjoyed poring over these books together, reading and talking and learning things we never knew before. I especially enjoyed alphabet books constructed around a particular topic – butterflies, early American history, Japan, mammals. These nonfiction titles were so different from the ones I remembered from my childhood. There didn’t seem to be a topic that didn’t have its own picturebook. In reading to my children I was getting my first real introduction to the riches of children’s literature. In particular I came to realize that reading nonfiction picturebooks was a fun way to learn new things. My children responded to this reading by doing their own drawings of dinosaurs and spaceships. They also made lists of their favorite mammals, baseball players, rocks. Reading nonfiction picturebooks together was a natural way to foster not only the sense of wonder and curiosity of my children, but also my own. I was excited not only by the great variety of topics that was being covered, by also by the amazing variations in design and the differing formats of presentation. I had not yet become a classroom teacher, but I had already developed a passion for nonfiction picturebooks.