Picture Book Nonfiction: What Do You Wonder?

Good morning, and welcome to Teachers Write! I’m so glad you’re writing with us this summer. Together, we’ll be working on our craft through five amazing mentor texts this summer. We’re going to start with a focus on informational writing.

Sometimes, when we’re trying to help writers choose a topic, we ask them questions like “What are you good at?” or  “What do you know a lot about?” Nearly every writer has heard the age-old advice, “Write what you know,” and while that can be a great starting place, perhaps a better question for writers of non-fiction is “What do you wonder about?”

Every one of my informational picture books has started with that sense of wonder, that big curiosity that makes us ask more and more questions. And then the answers beget more questions still.

The spark for one of my first picture books came on a school field trip. I was snowshoeing in the Adirondacks with my seventh grade students when our naturalist guide  pointed to a set of a tiny tracks that led to a hole in the snow and whispered, “Look! We’ve had a visitor from the subnivean zone!” I listened, enchanted, as she described the secret network of tunnels and caves under the winter snow. On the bus ride home from the field trip, I scribbled the beginnings of picture book, and many drafts later, Over and Under the Snow was published, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.

Another flash of wonder hit one afternoon while I was reading a book about Charles Darwin that included a quote from the famous naturalist’s autobiography.

“One day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

If you’re anything like me, this passage fills you with questions, not the least of which is, “What kind of person thinks it’s a good idea to keep a beetle in his mouth for safekeeping?” But I had other questions, too. What kind of beetle was it? And how exactly did it get Darwin to spit it out?  Question led to question, and I discovered that later experts thought it was probably a bombardier beetle, which is known to shoot a hot chemical mist out its rear end when it’s threatened or annoyed.  Pretty neat trick, right?

That made me wonder even more. Just how many insects had secret super powers like that beetle? Lots of them do, it turns out, and that’s what my November 2019 picture book is all about. It’s called Insect Superpowers: 18 Real Bugs that Smash, Zap, Hypnotize, Sting, and Devour. Jillian Nickell brilliantly illustrated insects-with-powers that can rival any comic book superhero. And yes…Darwin’s beetle made the cut.

Talk with any author of nonfiction and deep down inside (or not so deep, for some of us) you’ll find a curious kid. And that’s very much the case with the creators of our mentor texts for this week, Traci Sorell, author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, and Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor.

Traci Sorell, who is an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen, moved from Oklahoma, where her tribe is located, to Southern California. That’s when she realized how invisible the Cherokee and other Native Nations were to most Americans. “No one in my new community knew or understood that I was a dual resident of the Cherokee Nation and the United States,” Traci shared in this Celebrate Science nonfiction post.

 “Even the tribes from the San Diego area didn’t figure into the local news or community events, and they certainly weren’t included in the school curriculum. Talk about identity crisis.”

Hungry to learn more about her tribe’s history and contributions, Traci majored in Native American Studies in college and pursued advanced degrees to learn more. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheligaillustrated by Frané Lessac, is a book about the Cherokee tradition of gratitude that certainly fits into that “Write what you know” category. But it was also fueled by Traci’s curiosity,  and that same sense of wonder has led her to the two picture book biographies of Native women she’s writing now. 

Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor (illustrated  by Felicita Sala) is a scientist as well as a writer, and curiosity has served her well in both callings. Her book started with the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo.

“My family visited him often at the zoo, and I read articles to learn more about these fascinating reptiles,” Valdez writes in this Kidlit411 interiew. “One article briefly mentioned that Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s. I immediately had to learn more about this woman. I found out that she cared for reptiles her entire life, since she was a little girl. She also designed a state-of-the-art Reptile House at the London Zoo, which is still in use today. Plus, she pioneered new techniques to perform surgeries and care for the reptiles. She even took a Komodo dragon for walks around the zoo and helped dispel the myths surrounding these animals.”

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at where that curiosity led the authors of our mentor texts and how exactly they worked to craft books that inspire that same sense of wonder in their readers. But we’ll wrap up today’s post with a short assignment:

What do you wonder about? Spend ten minutes making a list. It can be anything from Komodo dragons to how babies learn to what happens in our brains when we cry. Anything you’ve ever wondered about. Because wonderings can be the best beginnings for writing. Ready…set…wonder!

7 Replies on “Picture Book Nonfiction: What Do You Wonder?

  1. I noticed that most of the things I jotted down were things that I wonder about my city. Lately, I have been super interested in understanding and unearthing historical nuggets about African American history in Buffalo. There’s so much to uncover.

    I also wondered about all of the yummy independently owned and operated restaurants in Buffalo. Our city often comes up as a destination that has amazing food.

    Lastly, one weird thing that I wondered about is why exactly my body drains batteries? I’ve never been able to keep a watch for instance and last night for the first time ever, I fell asleep with my phone in my bed. It was right under me apparently and this morning it is completely dead!

    What things did others wonder about?

  2. I wrote these wonderings yesterday in a rush.
    This morning’s wonderings:
    What kind of snake did I accidentally grab while I was weeding last week?
    How do you tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly?
    Is there a brain chemistry connection between people who become addicted to drugs and people who attempt or complete suicide?
    Might I publish a book someday?
    What led John Laurens, a child of privilege in South Carolina, to become an ardent abolitionist in the 1770s?
    Why do we sometimes have days when a whole series of crazy coincidences arise?
    Why are some people more prone to procrastination than others?
    What is the feature of Comic Sans that makes it a writing stimulant (prosodisiac)?
    Why is there a rabbit population explosion in my neighborhood this year?
    How is it that some nice people actually like Trump?
    Do most great athletes have an obsessive personality?

    Later, I tried to write about one of the them in a bit more detail. I hope it’s okay to post a link to my blog in here. https://humbleswede.wordpress.com/2019/07/08/todays-wonderings/

  3. After attending TCRWP’s Writing Institute in June, I was inspired to start my own writer’s notebook. My 8-year-old son also has a writer’s notebook. Last night, we both wrote a list of 10 things we wonder about. I wasn’t sure if he would struggle with this or not. I was shocked when he quickly whipped out a list of 10 questions. Some were silly, some were serious. One really caught my attention. We adopted our son at birth. We have always been honest about his adoption and he has met his birthmother a handful of times. One of his questions was, “I wonder what my birthmother would have named me.” It was a quick insight into his little brain! Thank you for the suggestion! Can’t wait for today’s activity!

  4. Hi everyone -These are my wonderings.
    Whenever I travel, I find out interesting things about places or things. I just got back from Ireland, and one of the places we visited was Trinity College and saw the Book of Kells. I have seen this book one other time and bought a book about the Book of Kells. I find it very fascinating, and it is considered the FIRST bound book that the world has. Monks copied the first Four Gospels onto calfskins that had been scraped. Anyway, it is beautiful and interesting to me.
    Other things that I find interesting:
    -The Irish have over 50 names for rain
    -I have an interesting grandma who eloped at 17 with a ranch hand instead of marrying her fiancé who she was promised to. Her life is really interesting.
    -I have a lot of pioneer heritage and we have a few journals with interesting stories that I have wanted to fictionalize.
    – I read an article about Korean’s Jeju Province (Marado) where only women free dive. They can hold their breath for more than two minutes bringing up treasures such as sea cucumbers, conchs, and abalone. The diving might have started with men, but by the 18th century the discipline became women alone.

  5. I wondered some weird things, like why ears never stop growing, and where animals go when it’s raining, and what a headache looks like neurologically.
    I’m a day late, but I love that this camp is making me carve out time just for writing!

  6. I spend most of my life caught up in my curiosity. I wonder about insects. I was at my blueberry farm yesterday and saw caterpillars that I had not seen before, so I had to come home and look them up. I also found a birds nest on the ground in the middle of the grassy row between bushes. I wondered what bird thought that was a good spot.