Category Archives: Cross-Curricular

STEM TUESDAY: Zoology – Craft & Resources

Reading Like a Writer

I am a student of nonfiction. If you hope to write nonfiction well, you have to be. When studying a book, I prefer to read it three times:

That first read is for pure enjoyment: letting the writing wash right through me and learning cool facts – did you know that venom is used to control diabetes!?!

On the second read I focus on the craft and writing techniques I can learn from.

By the third read I’m looking for specific examples of a technique that caught my eye on the second read, like how the author used sidebars to include material that is supportive but not critical to the main text.

This approach is not much different from my scientific approach to observation. When I recently came across two beetles wrestling, I first watched from above, impressed by their phenomenal horns and robotic legs; then I knelt to get a closer view and wondered why the smaller one was winning; finally, I held each one in my hand to use a magnifier. When I felt the little one’s extra spiky legs grip my finger, my questions were answered.

Want to read like a writer?

Focus on one element at a time. Reading the STEM books the first time, I noticed that many included dialog.

I wondered: Why does an author use dialog in a nonfiction book?

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To get a closer view, I focused in on Sy Montgomery’s Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

 

  • Chapter 4, page 21, starts with a direct quote, “Codfish Base from Lisa’s nest.”

That quote caught my eye and had me asking questions: What is “Codfish Base?” Who who is Lisa? Why does she have a nest? It’s a fantastic hook and has me diving into the chapter.

  • Chapter 5 includes dialog at the beginning as well, from page 29:

    “There’s a penguin in the freezer,” she announces.”

    “Really?” asks a volunteer. “What kind?”

I wondered: Who says that? Where is it “normal” to have a penguin in the fridge? If that doesn’t have you wanting to get to know these characters, I don’t know what will!

  • The dialog on pages 44-45 is entirely different. It is a tragic scene – the death of a kakapo chick.

I wondered: Why did the author choose to use dialog to show this particular scene? For me, the words of the characters played out the scene so well that I was reacting emotionally right along with the characters.

Compare how other authors use dialog. Just like with the beetles, my next step was to put texts from two different authors under my magnifying glass.

I asked myself: What are the most effective ways to use and frame quotes?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFirst I read the “Wild Rhinos” section on page 8 of Emi and the Rhino Scientist which uses snippets of quotations embedded within a paragraph:

How do you describe a rhino?

You’d probably start with size. “Rhinos are really big animals,” says Terri. Only elephants are bigger land animals. Their wide bodies are propped up on short, thick legs that end in three-toed hooves. Rhinos have thick necks with giant heads and one or two horns. A rhinon may look like a slow-moving tank as it lunmbers around, but don’t be fooled. “Rhinos can move quickly,” says Terri. They can whip around in an instant and run as fast as deer. Rhinos share speed with their close relative the horse.

I noticed how Mary Kay Carson has used dialog but the paragraph is also chock full of other information. What impact do the quotes impart? Why did Carson use quotes here instead of pure expository?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI compared Carson’s technique to other texts which make use of quotes in a similar manner. An example is the passage about bearded lizard venom on page 92 of Caitlin O’Connell’s Bridge to the Wild.

I listed ways in which O’Connell’s and Carson’s use of quotes were similar.

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI contrasted those texts with a different framing, a full scene played out using primarily dialog. An example can be found on page 55 of Pamela Turner’s Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes.

I asked myself: How did the framing of the dialog change the impact? In what ways were the techniques similar? Different?

What did I learn? When an author uses direct quotes from an expert, the quote often provides information and lends authority to the text, but quotes can also work to generate curiosity, create rounded characters, add humor, etc. and, how an author frames those quotes can dramatically change their impact.

Try it Yourself!

After reading and analyzing other writers’ use of dialog, try it yourself.

  1. Audio record a conversation.
  2. Write a text using quotes from that conversation.
  3. Write a different text using the quotes in a different manner.
  4. Compare the impact of the two texts. Compare to a friend’s draft.

Many people don’t think about the craft of nonfiction, but I learn heaps when I study works of gifted writers who carefully craft their text. Happy reading! Happy Writing!

What other STEM texts have great examples of dialog techniques? Share in the comments below!

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. Visit her at: www.HeatherLMontgomery.com

 

 


The O.O.L.F. Files

One way to really understand STEM is to illustrate the subject of interest. Our Out of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) STEM Tuesday topic this month is science illustration. Visual science allows accurate interpretation of an object by combining knowledge of the subject, visual and tactile study of the subject, and artistic skill. Learn more about science illustration and careers, see some cool examples, and even explore a free online course at the links below.

Links:


 

 

Traveling Africa in Pursuit of Research

Most authors spend many hours researching topics before they begin writing. For fiction, getting details right is important, but for nonfiction it’s essential.

I recently returned from Kenya after gathering material for a story I’m writing. Yes, I saw many different parts of the country, but my goal was getting background material for a biography on one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion, when Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain.

To do this, I traveled over back roads to meet the man’s son, who was a schoolboy at the time his father was arrested. When I say back roads, I don’t mean the usual country roads. These were roads typically traversed on foot or motorbike. While we jounced along, huge chunks of rock and piles of dirt scraped the underside of the van. At times we could only pass by driving with two wheels in the ditch at the side of the road. Sometimes the van tilted so much, it seemed as if we were riding on two wheels rather than four. This harrowing ride was made more difficult when we needed to pass an occasional vehicle by a hair’s breadth.

After more than an hour, we came to the remote village in the mountains. We took a tour of the extensive farm, then settled in for the interview, while his wife cooked beef stew over coals in a small metal fire pit in the kitchen. Chickens wandered into the screened-in porch, while a goose pecked at the screen as his story unfolded. He began with the family tree, so I would know his father’s history. He rattled off names and dates. What an incredible memory! And I left his farm with a full stomach and many memories of my own.

The next day we visited the prison where many Mau-Mau revolutionaries were held. Because the prison is still in use, we had to wait for the guards to clear all the prisoners from the areas we would be touring. And we received special permission to take a few pictures. The prisoners watched from behind barbed wire fencing while we entered the older buildings on the grounds. It was an emotional day for the independence leader’s daughter because this was the first time she had seen the cells where her father was held for seven years. Throughout the tour, the guards were very respectful of the descendant of a man who’d helped secure Kenya’s freedom.

I spent one day at the area considered the “Eden” of the Kikuyu people and heard their origin story and history, and viewed historical artifacts, granaries (pictured), and homes. The fight for independence mainly began with the Kikuyu, who wanted to stop British settlers from taking over their land. Ancient and modern history combined later when I got to hear about politics from an official in the present-day government who is Kikuyu.

Another stop was the archives in Nairobi, which has a museum on the first two floors that added to my knowledge of history. My main goal, though, was to look at official records. Although they could not pull the specific records I requested, they did bring me a file from 1954 titled “Information and Propaganda,” which contained British records of the revolts, arrests, and killings. It was jarring to read the British accounts after hearing the Kenyans laud the Mau Mau as freedom fighters. The British called them “terrorists.” Interesting to see how people with opposing points of view can describe the same events so differently.

Before I’d left for Africa, I’d read books about the period recommended by my Kenyan friend, and those accounts by Kenyan writers gave me a greater understanding of the culture and history. In addition, I had a long, handwritten account of family stories from the man’s son. Armed with that knowledge, I returned home to begin my library and online research. Having firsthand experiences and good official records will add richness and detail to the story that I would not have had otherwise. When the book is written, the manuscript will be sent to all the sources to check it for accuracy.

Reading about my travels and research might give some insight into how much background work can go into writing a children’s book. Stories come from the heart, but they need to be backed up by extensive research. Once the book is written, I hope sharing this small piece of history and one man’s commitment to Kenyan freedom will inspire children everywhere to dream big.

Winners of the STEM Tuesday Book Blast!

 

THANK YOU for all of the wonderful comments about STEM!  We are thrilled to hear of your excitement for our new blog and hope you will join us this Tuesday, November 7th, for our very first post.

As a reminder, you can sign up to follow us  on the left-hand side of this page, down at the bottom. That way you get not only the STEM Tuesday posts, but all of the other posts that keep you up-to-date with what’s happening in the Middle Grade book world from our awesome host blog, From the Mixed Up Files!

Also, look for us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Now let’s get to the really important stuff:

WHO WINS THE BOOKS??

Marjorie L. wins    by Nancy Castaldo

 

Kimberly M. wins   by Mary Kay Carson

 

Molly S. wins   by Amber J. Keyser

 

Eleanor G. wins  by Jennifer Swanson

 

Niccole wins  by Michelle Houts

 

Lauren M. wins  by Heather Montgomery

 

Jennifer O. wins  by Carolyn DeCristofano

 

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL OF THE WINNERS!!!

You will all be contacted shortly by the authors of the book to coordinate receiving your prizes.

Again, thanks everyone for your enthusiasm for STEM Tuesday.

SEE YOU… well, this TUESDAY

#STEMROCKS