I love nonfiction, both reading it and writing it, so I’m delighted and honored to be a guest today on Picture Book Builders, one of my very favorite blogs—thanks, Jill!
I have a deep love of the natural world and the creatures who live in it, and I aim to celebrate nature’s wonders in my nonfiction writing.
Today, I’ll be talking a bit about how I approach writing narrative vs. expository, in particular, STEM-based nonfiction. I have two titles out in 2020, Whoo-Ku Haiku, a narrative nonfiction picture book about a Great horned owl family written as a series of haiku poems, illustrated by Jonathan Voss (GP Putnam’s Sons), and Play Like an Animal, an expository nonfiction picture book about animal play, illustrated by Mia Powell (Millbrook Press).
In general, my narrative nonfiction books like Whoo-Ku Haiku, Hawk Rising and Coyote Moon tend to be more lyrical and poetic in voice and approach, using sensory language. My expository titles, Play Like an Animal, and Terrific Tongues, use more lively language and have more of an interactive feel.
For narrative projects, I tend to think more in terms of arc and scene, and all three have a time-based structure. Both Coyote Moon and Hawk Rising, for example, have a circular story and a nocturnal/diurnal structure, while Whoo-Ku uses a longer, seasonal structure. The story begins with winter nesting of the Great horned owl mates:
And ends with the autumn fledging of the owlets.
Each individual haiku is a contained scene—some are calm and quiet like this one:
Mama lays an egg.
In the starlight it glistens.
A moon of its own.
Others are full of danger and drama—a hawk hovering over the owlets before Mama owl saves the day:
My goal was to add dramatic tension both within an individual haiku, and cumulatively as a series of moments within the whole narrative structure, the climax being when one of the branching owlets falls from the nest, as a hungry red fox paces below:
Jonathan Voss’s gorgeous illustrations are highly atmospheric, and his insets and bold use of perspective add additional drama to the visual voice and storytelling.
Play Like an Animal, on the other hand, does not have a narrative structure. It’s a work of expository or informational nonfiction and its structure is concept-based, in this case focusing on the different ways that animals, and kids, by extrapolation, play.
As a whole the book celebrates play of all kinds and invites kid readers to imagine how they can play like animals using action-oriented verbs.
Race and chase like a monkey
Box like a kangaroo
Wrestle like a rat
Some of the spreads focus on one type of animal, such as those mentioned above, where other spreads show how different types of creatures play using the same kind of medium. For example,
And rhinos rub in the mud;
Ravens slip, slide, sled
River otters belly-slide, flip, glide in snow.
Mia Powell’s whimsical illustrations are cheerful and playful too!
Many expository titles, Play Like an Animal, and Terrific Tongues included, present readers with additional information and scientific explanations using layered text such as sidebars which both amplify and enrich the main text.
The sidebars for Play Like an Animal appear in playfully-colored orange boxes. Readers learn that when wolves and other canines play tug of war, it’s a way of practicing fair play, since they live in packs. When gorillas play tag, it’s also a way of practicing how to better communicate and cooperate.
Another thing I love about writing nature-y nonfiction is weaving in scientific vocabulary, details about diet, habitat, the predator-prey relationship, all kinds of things. Some of the vocabulary is poetic: when a Great horned owl mantles, it’s spreading its wings, to either protect its prey, or to appear larger to an enemy. Information can be woven directly into the narrative, as is the case with Whoo-Ku Haiku, or through the use of layered text in Play Like an Animal.
Nonfiction books also have the best back matter! I am a complete back matter nerd—I love to read back matter as well as write it. It’s also a great way to add cool facts and interesting information that didn’t quite make it into the main text. We’re lucky—we don’t have to completely let those darlings go!
The back matter for Whoo-Ku Haiku features more details on the great horned owl with fun headings like “Home Sweet Home,” explaining that it’s the most common owl in North America with a very wide range; “Whose Nest is Best” tells how Great horned owls use the abandoned nests of squirrels or other birds—they don’t make their own nests. My favorite is “Enormous Eyes”: though a Great horned owl is smaller than a toddler, it has eyes as big as an adult human’s. For the more fun comparison: if we had eyes as proportionately as large as they do, then our eyes would be as big as grapefruits!
The back matter in Play Like an Animal is a bit more subversive:it showcases the importance of play for intellectual, mental and physical health, and how play makes us all smarter—it helps us to problem solve, be creative, imaginative and empathetic, and learn to cooperate with each other.
It’s fun, and when we play, we are learning all kinds of things too. Play for homework, I say—especially now! With the current pandemic intensifying our collective anxiety, play is essential. It’s a natural stress reliever, it helps us to be present, and to feel more empowered and less overwhelmed, even if it’s just temporary. Play is medicine. So is nature, for that matter.
Keep playing! Keep reading and writing nonfiction!
If you’d like to learn more about nonfiction texts, I highly recommend Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science blog.
Be sure to comment to be entered into the giveaway: a copy of Whoo-Ku Haiku AND Play Like an Animal, courtesy of Penguin Kids and Lerner Publishing (US residents only due to postage cost—sorry!)
Maria Gianferrari is a picture book reading/writing, tea-drinking, dog-loving, birdwatching resident of Virginia. She writes fiction picture books that feature dogs, such as the forthcoming, To Dogs with Love (Roaring Brook) and nonfiction picture books about animals and nature like Be A Tree, to be published by Abrams in Spring 2021. You can learn more about Maria at her website.
Jill, here. Thanks, Maria. This was all just fabulous.
Meanwhile, I’ve randomly drawn THREE names to WIN copies of my new book, Where’d My Jo Go? Those names are: Dorothy Wiese, Susan Meyer, and Breanne Arnold. Thanks for entering, ladies!