Monthly Archives: June 2010

Writing Children’s Non-Fiction

 “My book appeals to older generations who remember zoo history, and children who like animal stories with pictures–so I’m an oddball at conferences for children’s writers,” I said.     

 That comment started a conversation about other children’s books that don’t fall into the blanket categories of Picture Books, Early Readers, or Young Adult Novels.  Following that conversation, Anna Myers, Gwendolyn Hooks, and a few other writers formed a small committee to plan a Non-Fiction Writing Retreat. 

 In June 2010, fifteen of us gathered at the Mount St. Mary’s retreat center in Oklahoma City to focus on this specialized type of writing.  Our presenter, Melissa Stewart, has written over 130 science books for children (see http://www.melissa-stewart.com).

Melissa Stewart. Source: http://www.melissa-stewart.com

 Stewart’s mission?  To get kids excited about the natural world. 

 “So many kids today don’t have chance to be outdoors,” Stewart said.  “If my books get them curious enough to chase after a butterfly or look under a rock, then they will take a closer look at the world around them.”

 She offered compelling reasons for writing non-fiction…

  1. Studies show that kids prefer to read non-fiction.
  2. Exposure to non-fiction increases the likelihood of long-term reading.
  3. The field is becoming more creative (layered text, multiple storylines, interactive features).

 So, what’s the good and bad news for writers?  Authors must work harder to present interesting stories.  The Internet is an easy source for facts—so authors must dig deeper and find new angles. 

 What’s working these days?  Well, books with titles like, Poop Happened, and Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, and Stewart’s own Do People Really Have Tiny Insects Living in Their Eyelashes?  

 Of course, bodily functions aren’t the only non-fiction topics that interest kids.  Animal books, sports, heroes, and unusual historical characters are also good topics.   

 Stewart suggests that writers…

  1. Surprise readers with gross, silly and unexpected words.
  2. Use alliteration, rhythm, puns and rhymes.
  3. Choose creative comparisons (ex. an eyeball feels like a peeled grape). 

 It’s no surprise, however, that breaking into the market is difficult right now.  The economy has caused book publishers to tighten their budgets.  In addition, many publishers are now “closed houses,” which means that they only look at manuscripts submitted through an agent–not those submitted by writers who mail in their books unsolicited.  Agents are reluctant to take on non-fiction writers because the profit is minimal. 

 In other words, non-fiction writers should go into the field knowing that they will be fighting the odds. 

 So, Stewart, remind us again why we want to write non-fiction?

  1. Non-fiction sells well in the school market.
  2. Researching non-fiction is easier than ever now that the Internet helps writers connect with field experts. 
  3. Starting with non-fiction articles in smaller magazines can be a fairly easy way to break into print. 

 And, oh yes, writing non-fiction can fulfill a writer’s personal mission to share a message; whether it is natural science (such as Stewart’s books), or space robots, or Presidential pets, or recycled art, or the origins of ketchup.

 So, if you have the writer’s passion and a love for information, you might choose to write children’s non-fiction.  It will take patience and perseverance (and maybe some gross and gooey research)–but it is rewarding work.  And that’s a fact!

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Hollywood Costumes Left Me “Seeing Stars!”

“It’s rare to find an art showcase that appeals to all age groups, but the Oklahoma City Museum of Art seems to have pulled it off.  Sketch to Screen: The Art of Hollywood Costume Design is for anyone who has ever seen a movie…at least in the last 100 years.”

 That’s the opening paragraph to a story I recently wrote about the costume exhibit. (Link to “A Star-Studded Cast of Hollywood Costumes)  http://distinctlyoklahoma.com/content/view/615/62/

 And I believe it whole-heartedly.  Why?  Because I spent hours watching museum visitors react to the new costume exhibit.  Women hovered near the opulent dresses, children raced to the cartoon characters, and men flocked to the superhero costumes.  The words, “I saw that movie!” rang through the exhibit hall.  Favorite movie scenes were retold.  And no one rushed through. 

Brian Hearn (Film Curator), Sandy Schreier (Collector of over 15,000 costumes) and Jennifer Klos, Associate Curator). Photo from Leslie Spears.

Such reactions were exactly what the museum curators, Jennifer Klos and Brian Hearn, hoped for when they assembled this one-time collection.  It took three years just to find the costumes, secure permission to use them, raise the funding, and market the exhibit.  Three years of work for a 3 ½ month display—but the overwhelming response has been worth it. 

“Employees are saying that the museum has come alive!” said Klos. 

 “We have a hit on our hands!” said Hearn. 

 My own involvement with Sketch to Screen began in the Fall of 2009.  I was taking a Museum Studies class, and Klos was a guest lecturer.  With great passion, she shared how her background in textiles had prompted her to see costumes as an art form. 

 “Art is looking at culture and history, not just paintings,” she explained. “Costume design is a vital, creative aspect of 20th century film, worth elevating to the level of fine art.”

 As she outlined her plans to include both male and female garments, and talked about the huge span of movies that would be represented, I sensed the excitement of the other students (of all ages) in the class. 

 Hmmm…here was a story that needed to be written.   

Source: Oklahoma City Museum of Art webpage at http://www.okcmoa.com

Klos and Hearn kindly granted me several interview sessions and invited me to the grand opening.  Their obvious enthusiasm and knowledge was compelling, and I felt privileged to hear their behind-the-scenes stories; traveling to Hollywood to see the collections stored in boxes and discovering photos that had never been placed into context with the costumes before.  No wonder they struggled to write the short text panels—they had so much more to say.     

 When I saw the costumes for the first time, I realized that the garments themselves hold a special power that only comes in the seeing. 

  • How teenie-tiny the women were a century ago. 
  • How fake some costumes look in real life—but oh-so-sensational on screen. 
  • How worn out Fred Astaire’s tap shoes were from hours of dancing. 
  • Audrey Hepburn really wore that! 

 This exhibit attests to the power of movies in American culture.  As I said, “Sketch to Screen: The Art of Hollywood Costume Design is for anyone who has ever seen a movie…at least in the last 100 years.”

 Klos and Hearn truly brought this off-screen production to life. 

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