I’ve been writing all kinds of nonfiction books for a long time. I like history and science and the ways words and language work. My books are for kids of all ages—they can be long or short, fat or thin, but they almost have something funny in them (if they’ll let me). The truth is, my favorite subject is always something I haven’t learned a lot about. I did a book for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week™ and suddenly I was pulling my kids to so many aquariums and shark exhibits my 2-year-old finally said “All done sharks, I want tigers.”
I get inspired all the time, just like everyone. What people do with that inspiration is the difference: Some people sing, some dance, some collect things, some bake apple cakes. What really inspires me is an idea that I’ve never had before. One time I wanted to do an alphabet book, but how could I do it different? They all start with A. Actually, they all start with apple, for some reason. Then I thought, could I do my book using the last letters? What word ends with A that’s fun? Aha. Zebra ends with A. It also begins with Z, which is even weirder. Plus, everybody likes zebras. So my book could be called A is for Zebra. (The subtitle: A suberB alphabetiC backwarD experiencE). So, once I had my title, and it worked, I had the inspiration to write the whole book!
For me, research is fun. I get to read books, magazines, websites, and look at old pictures, go to museums, things like that. In the movies, researchers know what they’re looking for. I don’t. I am looking for interesting stories, coincidences, weird facts. Things that kids will find fun and different, but still tell a story. For Abraham Lincoln, I found out he’d been a semi-pro wrestler. And that his political opponent, Salmon Chase, tried to put himself on the one dollar bill to become more famous. Lincoln stopped that.
What were my subjects thinking? Fortunately, they would write letters often, or give speeches, and I can quote those. When I do, their balloons are have a yellow background. Otherwise, I just have to use good, solid sources that check their facts well, so I’m sure of what I’m saying. BUT… to be really honest, sometimes I tell the stories I read and make up my own words, which give you the idea, but not the quotes.
Writing a graphic novel, fiction or fact, is much more like writing a movie than a book. It’s fun, but it’s hard work. First of all, it looks a lot like a script. Instead of chapters, we have scenes. There’s dialog and there are descriptive paragraphs so the artist and the editor can know what I’m seeing. To add details I add links to photos and illustrations online. That can be for the building or room they’re in, or what someone was wearing. If there are special props, dated from the era of the book, like the boat Abe Lincoln took down the Mississippi as a teenager, it’s good to have reference. Most important, Sam and Libby run the show, taking us from place to place and explaining (or interfering) with the story and occasionally the characters.
I’ve been visiting schools as an author since before paper was invented. Kids and teachers like my presentations because I’m a) funny, b) actually have useful tips for writing nonfiction and stories, c) am not boring, d) have written a lot of different kinds of books kids like to read e) make good jokes and f) write (and present) for all ages and also g) am not unfunny. Anyone who wants to learn how to think like a writer, or write like a thinker, or be funny, likes my presentations specialized for their age group. I even help teachers, too.
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