Pump up the info

From my Serendipity talk, and in continuation of last week’s excerpt, here are my top five ways for making non-fiction interesting. They work if you’re a writer (and a few more writers for adults could stand to adopt them). They work if you’re presenting information in the classroom. And they’re techniques to look for if you’re buying books for kids.

1. Use the Unexpected
By the time they’re seven or eight years old, kids have learned to expect certain things from their books:

  • They expect science experiments to be safe and adult-approved.
  • They expect history to be dull.
  • They expect important people to be respected.

So, give them some baking soda and a film canister and let them blow stuff up. Tell them gruesome stories, like the one about the ancient Chinese emperor who buried all the scholars… alive. Give your Mayan queen a Valley Girl accent, and treat historical icons like real people.

Who doesn’t like a surprise?

2. Question Everything
Questions are the language of children. I have two kids at home – they’re seven and five. They must ask me six billion questions a day. By three in the afternoon, I have no idea what I’m answering anymore. Then I find them eating chocolate cake a half hour before dinner and they say, “We asked… and you said yes!” This happens because they’ve asked me so many questions that my brain is no longer functioning.

Kids and questions… they’re like chocolate cake and ice cream.

There are three kinds of questions to incorporate in non-fiction:

  • Rhetorical questions, a matter of style
  • Questions that reflect exactly what the reader is wondering – the type of questions Jian Gomeshi uses in a great celebrity interview
  • Questions that can never be answered

You know all that CSI stuff about blood spatter? The spatter is on the left side, and the teardrop shapes are long and thin, so the guy was hit on the head quickly, on the right side.… You’ve seen it on TV, right? Well, ever ask yourself how scientists learned all that? The first guy to research it — he’s regarded as a rock star in CSI circles. And he learned by bopping rabbits on the head, and tracking the blood.

Justifiable? Well, that question is well outside the scope of Seeing Red. But I couldn’t resist at least raising the issue.

Questions are central to writing for kids. Ask the questions that interest them, then inspire them to ask more questions. You don’t need all the answers. Kids can decide for themselves. The important part is to keep them wondering.

3. Embrace the Ridiculous
Anyone can be silly. Write a list, and add something goofy to the middle of your list. Or simply point out the crazy parts of reality.

Want to hear how King Mithridates made his universal poison antidote, 2000 years ago? Here’s a possible recipe:

  • Squeeze poison from 50 plants
  • Boil a legless lizard
  • Extract musk from a beaver’s scent glands
  • Mix all of the above
  • Add honey ’til tasty

Mithridates was so worried about assassination that he spent years building up his immunity to all sorts of poisons. Then, when his Roman enemies finally attacked him, he swallowed poison to kill himself. And, of course, it didn’t work.

Point out how strange some people’s decisions are. When Alfred Nobel was researching dynamite, he blew up his brother, gave his dad a stroke, got kicked out of Stockholm, and kept working. Who does that?

In World War II, the Americans sent soldier to fight in the Pacific and issued them white jockey underwear. Well, flapping on a clothesline with a nice dark jungle in the background, their underwear was the perfect target for enemy fire. Jockey quickly switched to olive green undies, so clotheslines could go camouflage.

There is plenty of ridiculousness in history, and plenty in our everyday lives, and it’s not our jobs as adults to defend it. We don’t have to be serious. Why can point, and laugh, and say, “I know! It’s crazy!”

4. Use the Techniques of Fiction

  • Give your historical figures some character
  • Set the scene
  • Write dialogue

Now, I know that some books get slammed for fictionalizing historical figures with dialogue. You can check out the Mayan queen in Seeing Red and you’ll understand that I like to make it completely obvious when dialogue isn’t real. In 50 Poisonous Questions, there’s a prison doctor who tested poisons and antidotes on his prisoners. He did write poetry, but the “roses are red, violets are blue” verse which appears in his illustration is not one of his works.

The point is that incorporating narrative, or storytelling, in non-fiction will help kids absorb facts in a way that a list or a graph will never do. A story draws us in.

5. Be Inspiring
In all my books, my favorite stories are always about the people who changed the world.

In 50 Poisonous Questions, there’s a lady who found out that her neighborhood school was built on top of a toxic waste dump and she started a campaign, organized the local parents… she got the whole town moved. And she was a mom! Kids have no idea that moms (or kids) can change the world.

You know, you can even create change with your underwear.

My husband likes to ask people this question: Imagine you’re offered a free round-the-world trip, for as long as you want, as many stops as you want. There’s only one catch: anytime you’re actually travelling, on a plane, or on a boat, or on a train, every time you go through customs or flag a cab, you have to wear your underwear outside your pants. Would you take the trip?

(You would? Representatives from Flight Centre will be contacting you soon.)

Alright… an unrelated question. Are you wearing – right this minute – a corset and a floor length skirt?

No one?

How interesting. That might be because of Amelia Bloomer, who shocked all of New York by wearing her underwear in public.

I’m inspired by people who change the world. And I hope the kids who read my books get equally inspired.

There are enough boring things in life. We all have to brush our teeth and wash our faces and tie our shoes. That’s plenty of routine for anyone.

Learning should never be boring.

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