It's a Natural WorldSusan Taylor Brown
The natural world invites many writers to explore and then share their findings with readers of all ages.
“Help kids connect with nature,” says Andy Boyles, Science Editor at Highlights for Children magazine. “We ought to lead them to love the natural world and appreciate even animals that aren’t especially charismatic before we try to enlist those kids to help save the environment.”
Erica Zappy, Associate Editor for Houghton Mifflin Books for Children says, “Nature can be both timeless and cutting-edge. It’s important to relay facts and information but it is also important to tell the stories of what is changing, what is being discovered, and what is being learned. ”
Although writers may be attracted to the subject of nature writing after reading about the loss of habitat for polar bears, it’s helpful to remember that they don’t have to travel to the Arctic Circle for story ideas. The everyday nature happening right outside their wind can be just as exciting.
Boyles encourages writers to, “Recognize the value of nature that young readers can see for themselves. There’s a tendency to emphasize exotic or endangered animals in articles for kids. Those are certainly valid topics, and we have published articles about tigers, platypuses, and so on. But kids are still learning about the nature in their backyards. There’s power in the experience of reading about an animal and then realizing that it’s not abstract–something far away that you may never see. It’s right outside the window. Robins may not seem very exciting to adults, but bringing them to the attention of a child can lead to a heightened awareness and a lot of spontaneous firsthand observation. Important ideas–such as an animal’s dependence on its habitat for food and shelter–are self-evident in everyday events.”
While many nature writers are experts in their field, you don’t have to be one in order write about the natural world.
“I think good research is key,” says Zappy. “If you talk to experts in the field you are hoping to write about, read their books or papers, find a viewpoint that interests you, as the writer, you then become able to impart that science knowledge (which might seem esoteric or difficult to understand to a layperson or a child) to a reader using the talent you have, which is the writing.”
“A strong bibliography that might include an interview with an expert always boosts credibility,” adds Jenny Gillespie, Associate Editor, Ladybug Magazine, “as well as polished, lively writing that has already gone through several revisions before being sent.”
Jennifer Urban-Brown, editor at Shambhala Publications, suggests that writers, “Be active as a writer and a nature lover—write articles for e- and print magazines; contribute to blogs; engage in local nature and writing groups; become an “expert” on a particular topic. Actively participate in expanding your writing community.”
Kevin Shank, Editor for Nature Friend Magazine, says, “Even when not an “expert” in natural history, one can learn from research, and can learn from personal observation. Write about what you learn to be true rather than writing about something you really have not done enough research on to confirm/deny the truth of what you are saying.”
Non-fiction is often a door-opener for many writers yet some of them steer clear of it because they think of textbooks from childhood that were often boring. Writers need to find a balance of facts and compelling story.
“Non-fiction should NEVER be boring!” says Susan Buckley, Editor of AppleSeeds. “AppleSeeds publishes non-fiction almost exclusively and we hope that all of our articles are high-interest and entertaining. The writing style is crucial in keeping the articles lively. When appropriate, humor helps too. Often, addressing the reader directly creates a greater sense of involvement.”
Randi Rivers, editor for Charlesbridge Publishing explains, “Many authors and illustrators have shown the reading public that you can have fun with serious subjects, whether it be through funny information and illustrations, fascinating (and funny) facts, or humorous asides. Charlesbridge authors, such as Mary K. Corcoran, Jill Rubalcaba, Fiona Bayrock, and many more, have found ways to make their books funny and interesting without compromising the veracity of the information in the text. In The Circulatory Story, Mary uses funny pop culture references in her text while the illustrator, Jef Czekaj, provides humor via a little green guy who floats through the circulation system making comments as he goes. In Every Bone Tells a Story, Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw explain how four hominins were discovered, including the first Neandertal, which was at first believed to be a Cossack solider with rickets! And Fiona Bayrock has critters make humorous asides in her book, Bubble Homes and Fish Farts (what a funny title, too!).”
Urban-Brown adds, “Let what excites you about the topic shine through in your writing. What details interest you? What questions are you interested in following? What unique observations can you make? What experiences have you had? By making readers aware of why you’re interested in a particular topic, you’ll make the readers more interested, too. Share your enthusiasm.”
“A lack of expertise sometimes steers the writing into vague areas,” says Gillespie “Be sure you know the subject very well. Don’t rely just on Wikipedia and non-government or non-educational sources. Don’t say ‘Imagine a world’…we receive tons of submissions that begin this way. It is a cliche and doesn’t present the subject in a new way. Kids will yawn at this.”
Editors offer a few tips for writers to keep in mind when crafting stories about the natural world.
“Spend a day (or two, or ten) at the library or a bookstore in various nonfiction sections,” says Zappy, “and see what appeals to you and what doesn’t. See what narrative perspectives seem to work for you (nonfiction can be written in first person, third person, or the “you are there” perspective). See what images strike you, and which ones don’t. Just because a book is filled with maps and charts doesn’t make it boring; it’s how the information is put out there. What I like about nonfiction is that you can really write about anything that interests you – anything at all – and share it in a way you find appealing. I never want to publish a book that looks like a textbook – I’ll leave that to my textbook counterparts – but I DO want the accurate information to be there. It’s the matter of finding your voice as a writer, and I’d say that’s the same for just about anything you’d write, nonfiction or not.
Urban-Brown agrees about the importance of voice. “It’s important to know your audience so that you can shift your voice and the content accordingly. In particular, when writing about nature for children, it’s important to make the vastness of nature relatable on a smaller scale, and to also give a sense of the wonder of nature—to share in the joy of discovery and the awe of the natural world.”
“For the young readers of AppleSeeds (7 to 10 years old),” says Buckley, “it is important to focus on specific aspects of the natural world and to describe them carefully. We want to avoid vague discussions of “nature” or “the environment.” Keep a tight focus; describing scientific and environmental factors simply enough for young readers; avoiding both platitudes and complexities.
“Certain topics contain so much interesting information that authors sometimes try to cram it all in,” says Rivers, “often to the detriment of the story itself.” She adds, “It’s important to do proper research. When you send in your manuscript, include a bibliography and source notes, mention if you’ve have the manuscript read by an expert in the field, and let the editor know if you have credentials that relate to the manuscript’s topic. Keep your audience in mind; while it’s great to build vocabulary, don’t get too complex with terms and explanations.”
Shank points out that, “It is always valuable to consult the publisher’s writers’ guidelines for any specifics they address there. It is appreciated when writers respect an editor’s time by educating themselves on the publishers needs prior to sending inquiries and manuscripts to the publisher. Secondly, do thorough research and keep facts accurate. It can be valuable to document where you learned your information.”
“Try to approach the article from a special angle that threads throughout the article,” says Gillepsie. “Don’t just do a broad overview. For example, we accepted and published an exploration of where ladybugs go in the winter–a specialized angle. Think about the natural process as a poetic thing and let the language reflect that. If detailing an episode in an animal’s life, use narrative devices to make it more entertaining and engaging. If you are naturally a fiction writer, let that ability shine.” She adds, “Don’t be afraid to be descriptive, even poetic, but also keep it simple and clear enough fora child to grasp. Ask yourself what about this concept is intrinsically exciting, unusual or new to YOU—and try to capture that for a child.”
Whether your topic is the shrinking ozone or the life cycle of a moth, the heart of it all is story.
“Many writers try to write about a topic without having a story,” says Boyles. “A topic is not a story. Writers often ask me if we’d be interested in an article about a particular subject–roadrunners, bees, grizzly bears, and so on. None of those topics is out of bounds for us. We may already have done quite a few articles about one subject and now have less appetite for it at the moment, but the most important question is, What is the story? “Story” is a deep subject and deserves more attention than I can give it here.
I cannot emphasize enough how important story is.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.