Good morning, and happy Monday! Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up is here…
And our guest author today is the amazing Sarah Albee. Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9. Forthcoming titles include POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines (September 5, 2017) and George Washington, First President (December, 2017). Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. Note: Sarah is off doing research in Europe right now, so her replies to comments may be delayed a day.
If you were to play a word association game with your students, chances are “ELECTRIFYING FUN” is not a phrase you’d hear them pair with the word “RESEARCH.”
But I’m here to tell you, Teacher-Writers, that research can be electrifying fun. And not just for those of us who write science and history. Every professional fiction writer I know does some research in order to add depth, realism, and nuanced details to her writing. Many do a lot of research. For instance, I know for a fact that my friend Kate Messner is a research geek.
And while starting with a Google search is generally the way most students (and let’s face it, most of us) start exploring a new topic, there’s so much more to research than internet searches.
Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite aspects of research. I broadly call it “talking to experts.”
What kids may not realize—what adult writers may not realize—is that an expert can be anyone with knowledge about your topic. While an expert can be an esteemed professor at a fancy university, it can also be an older member of your family. It can be a person who hails from the place you’re writing about. It can be an elderly person in a nursing home, or someone who maintains your school building. Don’t be shy about approaching these people, because people love to tell their stories.
When researching my Poison book, I interviewed many people, but I want to tell you about two “talking to experts” experiences I had in particular.
I discovered that Cornell University has a poisonous plant garden. Who knew? The garden is at the veterinary school, and was created as a living reference collection of “natural toxicants.”
After a quick internet search, I contacted a professor there, Mary Smith, who agreed to meet with me. I drove up to Cornell on a sparkling September day. The poisonous plants were in full bloom—the garden was having a fantastic hair day. She showed me around and pointed out plants I’d been reading about in books—deadly nightshade and jimsonweed and poison hemlock and aconite and nicotine and lots of others. She spent several hours with me—we shared an enthusiasm for toxic plants. Here’s Dr. Smith showing me a castor plant…
I had a disquieting moment when she placed two castor plant seeds into my ungloved hand as I was standing in an open field, far from any emergency shower station. I knew that the plant, Ricinus communis, contains the potent cytotoxin called ricin, one of the most poisonous naturally occurring substances on earth—one milligram can kill an adult. In 1978, a shadowy assassin used ricin to kill Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian journalist living in London. Markov was shot in the thigh with a ricin pellet fired from a tricked-out umbrella.
But Dr. Smith reassured me that the tough seed coat would protect me from the ricin. “Might want to wash your hands before you eat lunch, though,” she said casually over her shoulder as she marched off toward the next specimen.
Also in my Poison book is a section about the dark chapter in our twentieth century history when watch-dial-painting factories sprang up and employed young women to paint glow-in-the-dark numerals on wristwatches, using …radium based paint. These so-called “radium girls” were hired for their keen eyesight and nimble fingers.
Above: Radium girls at work
They were taught to lick the end of their paintbrushes to get a nice pointy tip. At the time, no one knew radium was poisonous. But soon these young women began falling sick with devastating illnesses. As I was researching this chapter, I stumbled across a reference to a watch-dial-painting factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, four miles from where I live. I’d had no idea there had been a factory here. After scanning some old newspapers at my library’s database and making a few phone calls, I found myself interviewing two grown children of two different radium girls. They were both in their 80s and still living in Waterbury. Our conversations were powerful and emotional, and both shared poignant stories about their mothers’ illnesses. I’ll never forget these conversations.
So here’s your assignment, dear Teacher-Writer-Researchers: Brainstorm five people you know, or know of, or know slightly, that might help deepen your understanding of the topic you’re writing about. If you don’t yet have a work in progress, then just pick a person, any old person, and ask her to tell you something about her life. Ask a lot of open-ended questions, and then listen. You’ll be amazed. Because everyone, everyone has a story to tell. Note: tomorrow my good friend, Loree Griffin Burns, is going to carry on with a related post about electrifying your research!
As always, feel free to share a little about your experience and continue the conversation in the comments!