Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: An Exclusive Interview with editor and project creator Melissa Stewart

Here's the brand-new book trailer:

And here's the interview...

Lee: Hi Melissa, thanks for talking about this new nonfiction book you've conceptualized, edited, and championed!

Let's jump into the first question. Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children's Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing seems all about breaking down the myths about nonfiction, and what it takes to write it well. Is that where the inspiration came from?

Melissa: Yes, many people seem to think that writing nonfiction is simple and straightforward—just do some research and then cobbling together a bunch of facts. But nothing could be further from the truth.

To craft high-quality prose, nonfiction writers have to dig deep. We have to be personally invested. We have to get in touch with our passions and our vulnerabilities and use them to fuel our work.

The topics we choose, the approaches we take, and the concepts and themes we explore are closely linked to who we are as people—our personalities, our beliefs, and our experiences in the world.

As far as we’re concerned, putting the information we collect through our own personal filters and making our own meaning is the secret to creating engaging nonfiction.

We wanted to bring this message to teachers and students—and also aspiring children’s book authors. It’s a critical part of our writing process that often goes unseen and unappreciated.

Lee: I'll just say now that I'm completely honored to be one of the contributing nonfiction writers! But 50 contributors is a lot of coordinating - and selecting! Tell us about the process of putting this all together.

Melissa: Thank you for contributing, Lee. Your essay is SO powerful!

The idea for the book traces back to a panel I did with authors Candace Fleming and Deborah Heiligman at the 2017 NCTE conference.

During our discussion, we dove deeply into what fuels our work and why we routinely dedicate years of our lives to a single manuscript.

As we compared our thoughts and experiences, we came to realize that each of our books has a piece of us at its heart. And that personal connection is what drives us to keep working despite the inevitable obstacles and setbacks.

Several other nonfiction authors were in the audience, and afterward, they praised our insights. That conversation helped us all understand our creative process in a new and exciting way.

I wanted to explore this idea further, so during the 2018-2019 school year, I invited 38 colleagues to write essays for my blog. After the first few appeared, teachers began asking if all the essays could be compiled in one place. That’s when I began thinking about a book.

Once a publisher accepted my proposal (and there were a lot of rejections), I thought carefully about creating a sense of balance.

I wanted to include contributions from roughly equal numbers of science writers, history writers, and biographers. I thought a lot about equity and inclusion, and about balancing picture books and long-form nonfiction. Before I knew it, I was so close to fifty contributors that I decided to go for that nice round number.

Plenty of people warned me that editing an anthology with 50 contributors was an act of insanity, but my colleagues never let me down. Despite their busy schedules, they met all their deadlines. The nonfiction community is a tight-knit, supportive group, and everyone was committed to making this a great book.

Lee: It seems there are multiple audiences for the book - teachers, students, adult writers of nonfiction... How do you see the book impacting each of those audiences? (And, if I've missed one, let me know!)

Melissa:I’d add librarians too. School librarians play an important role in helping students with the nonfiction writing process.

While the essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep can be used by educators in many ways, from serving as mentor texts for writing personal narratives to enriching author studies, our fondest hope is that this book will transform the way nonfiction writing is taught in schools.

The best nonfiction writing happens when students (or adults) choose a topic they’re excited about and then spend time synthesizing their research and viewing the information through their own personal lens. But right now, most students jump straight from research to writing.

Because every instructional minute is precious, teachers may be reluctant for students to take more time at the beginning of the process. But it’s time well spent because it will reduce time spent revising later on.

For adult writers, we hope that reading the essays will be like sitting down to have a cup of coffee with a good friend. As each author opens up about their process, their craft, their truth, readers will develop the ability to identify their own truth and their own voice. They will feel empowered to craft the book that only they can write.

Lee: The book also includes "a wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas from editor Melissa Stewart to help students (1) choose a topic, (2) focus that topic by identifying a core idea, theme, or concept, and (3) analyze their research to find a personal connection. By adding a piece of themselves to their drafts, students will learn to craft rich, unique prose." Tell us more about those, and how they're integrated with the rest.

Melissa: The book is divided into three chapters—Choosing a Topic, Finding a Focus, and Making It Personal. These are the three steps nonfiction writers struggle with most as they conceptualize a piece.

Each chapter begins with an overview that introduces key ideas and provides tips and tools for navigating the author essays. Following 16 or 17 essays, each chapter concludes with an In the Classroom section. It provides strategies and writing activities that help student writers as well as adult writers apply the ideas in the essays to their own writing.

Lee: Proceeds from sales of the book will be split between SCBWI, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and We Need Diverse Books. That's amazing, and generous, and very cool. Can you tell us what's behind that decision?

Melissa: Financing a book like this was tricky. Educational publishers like NCTE Books don’t pay an advance, just royalties. But it’s not possible to split a royalty among fifty people.

Because I feel strongly that writers should always be compensated for their work, I paid each contributing author $200 out of my own pocket. After I’ve earned back that money through royalties, I’ll donate the rest of the proceeds to non-profit organizations that support all children’s book authors and the young readers we serve. For me, this book is a labor of love, and I want it to help as many people as possible.

Lee: Is there anything else about the book you'd like to share with the SCBWI audience?

Melissa: It’s worth mentioning that SCBWI played an important role in the creation of this book. The money I paid the contributing authors came from an unexpected special sale that occurred because one of my books was on display at the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Book Fair a few years ago. Without SCBWI, this anthology probably wouldn’t exist.

This organization has made my writing life richer in so many ways. I really can’t thank Lin Oliver, Sarah Baker, Tammy Brown, Kim Turrisi, and the whole SCBWI team enough.

Thanks, Melissa!

You can learn more about Melissa Stewart and her nonfiction books for kids at her website here and about Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children's Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing here.

Illustrate and Write On,

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