Guest author Sarah Albee is visiting Teachers Write to talk nonfiction and images today. I got to spend a few days writing with Sarah at our retreat on Lake Champlain recently, and she is the sort of person you wish lived next door all the time instead of just for a few days a year. Sarah wrote POOP HAPPENED: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BOTTOM UP, which immediately tells you that a) she is a history and science geek, and b) she has a great sense of humor. You can get to know her a little more at her website. Now…here’s Sarah!
Hello, teachers and librarians! Welcome to Nonfiction Friday! (I just made that up. Hope you don’t mind, Kate.)
I am honored to have been invited by Kate to participate in this virtual summer writing camp. I’ve been following your daily postings and am amazed at the high-level discussions about craft, character, and setting. If you’re up for putting on your nonfiction-writers’ hats today, I thought I’d launch the discussion by talking about how I approach nonfiction—and particularly history.
I’m going to start by sharing with you the shrewdest career move I ever made: *drumroll* I married a history teacher. I have learned a lot from my husband about how to make history fun, and interesting, and relevant. My goal as a writer is pretty close to his goal as a teacher: to reach that ever-elusive group of kids who think they don’t like history, and to get them excited about it. Wait. We’ve gone too long without a visual. Here’s a picture of my husband:
Photo by Gaby Hoffman
Here’s another thing I’ve learned from my history-teacher-husband: there are always going to be those self-motivated, naturally-curious, superstar kids who are born loving history. But by the time kids land in his high school classroom, the vast majority of them have decided that history is boring. These are the kids he has to win over. As a middle-grade writer, my goal is to start converting them earlier.
I’m constantly scheming up ways to snag the attention of a reluctant reader, to get him or her to open my book or read my history blog. I try to approach my topic from an offbeat angle, something a kid will relate to. Like the history of how civilizations from the Stone Age to the present have dealt with their waste. Or how bugs have affected human history.
I also try to use humor wherever possible. Kids of all ages love to laugh. Maybe this approach stems from my Sesame Street background (I worked there for nine years). We subversively disguised our preschool teaching curriculum in the form of game shows, TV commercials, silly songs, and parodies. (My book Brought to you by the Letter B! is still one of my proudest achievements!)
But my most effective attention-grabbing strategy is to use visuals to enhance my topic. This will come as a surprise to none of you, of course—you’re all educators. But you’re wearing your writers’ hats today.
I’m constantly asking myself, what makes a compelling picture? What will draw kids into the book?
On my blog, I like to lead with the coolest picture I can find. Like this one in a post about what babies used to wear.
Or this one about how little boys used to be forced to wear dresses.
Do the pictures catch your eye? Snag your interest? Let’s face it: like it or not, as writers, we’re also salesmen. We’re luring readers toward our writing. And kids these days are savvy consumers. As teachers, you know better than anyone that there’s a lot of competition out there, calling for their attention.
That’s the challenge—and the fun—of using pictures to enhance your writing. And one of the best parts of being a nonfiction writer is that we writers get to play a big role in choosing the pictures that will accompany our text.
I absolutely love finding images. Sometimes you can acquire a picture just by asking. People can be so gracious. I’ve gotten permission to use incredible pictures taken by contemporary photographer-scientists. And I’ve found other images through fellow-writer friends.
Here’s one of a “zombie bee,” a phorid fly parasitizing a honeybee.
Photo by Christopher Quock
It was snapped by an undergraduate at USC named Chris Quock. I tracked Chris down by contacting his professor, and Chris then sent me his picture to include in my book (and in this post).
Here’s another. My fellow NF writer, Loree Griffin Burns, author of The Hive Detectives and Citizen Scientists, had this blog post about this amazing photo of a bee stinging someone. Everyone knows a honeybee’s insides get torn away when she stings you, and that she dies in the endeavor, but have you ever actually seen it happen?
Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey
I tracked down the photographer, Kathy Garvey, who granted me permission to use it in my book (and in this post). Kathy told me the back story. A colleague of hers, a fellow entomologist, directed her to whip out her camera because he could tell the bee was about to sting him. Her camera can snap four frames in a second.
Many public domain images are digitized and available for download online. But it can be even more fun to find pictures yourself. I wrote about my recent research trip to DC here, where I visited the “still pictures” divisions at both the National Archives and the Library of Congress. It’s such a thrill to find a photo that has never before been published. It can take hours to find that one picture, but it’s worth it.
As educators, you have all kinds of image resources available to you that can help your lesson plan come alive for your students. As writers, our job gets slightly trickier securing permission for pictures we’d like to use in a book. But it’s totally worth it.
If you’re working on a nonfiction book and need assistance figuring out where to start with image research, I am happy to help. Please stop by my website and leave me a comment, or leave a comment here, or email me directly at albees AT taftschool DOT org (and include “Teachers Write” in the subject line).
I’ll check in with you today from time to time, so please feel free to post your comments and questions about all things nonfiction. Happy writing!
Today’s regular Friday Happy Hour Post is up, too, so when you finish chatting with Sarah, click here to share your progress for the week and enter to win a book.