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Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Now we're digging into a topic I'm passionate about. SMILE.

Everything I said about writing picture books holds true here except that there's one more thing--RESEARCH.  It's key.

I love the detective work: the figuring out what I need to find out and who I need to ask, ferreting it out, and making sure I've examined the information from every angle. People have asked me how I research my books, which reminded me of my friend who wanted a tour inside my brain to see how I think when I work. So here goes.

Open Heart Surgery I suited up to observe.

Ultimately, for me, it's all about talking to people: experts, researchers, scientists, people with real-life experience being there, doing that, seeing for themselves. 

But to find those people and, frankly, to be worthy of their time talking to me, I read about whatever subject I'm tackling: bats, honeybees, traumatic brain injury, open heart surgery, you name it.

I read books, journals, newspapers, every website with any related snippet (that I trust because there is frankly a lot of crap posted by unreliable sources). I try to think of all the nuances of the subject I should examine. And I look for WHO the people are studying, investigating, observing. I also take note of what school or organization they're affiliated with because that's usually key in tracking them down. Although I have to tell you finding people can be a journey and bring surprises. One of my favorite stories is about interviewing William Shockley, one of the three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor. 
William Shockley

I was determined to interview all three of these men and had already interviewed the other two: J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchley. In fact, Unisys (the company that bought the company Eckert founded) flew me to Philadelphia just to lunch with J. Presper Eckert. TALK ABOUT A MEMORY! 

However, try as I might, I couldn't get a lead on contact information for William Shockley. So I decided to back door it. By that I mean I started digging for the man's hobbies and interests. Anything that could connect me to people who were in contact with him. I finally found one. 

William Shockley was an active sponsor of the Repository for Germinal Choice (also known as the Genius Sperm Bank). I contacted them and eventually set up a phone interview. William Shockley began by saying, "I never do interviews." 

I said, "Okay." And started asking him about everyday things. Eased into his work and inventing the transistor. He talked for an hour. It was fascinating. Like holding hands with history. 

And probably the best complement I've ever received was when he said good-bye he added, "You can call me any time." We did talk several more times.

In fact, I'd say I learned my interviewing strategies from William Shockley: 
Always be prepared (know the subject and have meaningful questions). 
Always ease into what you really want to know. 
And when the person is hesitant to share ease around that subject and slip back a little later. 
Always check any quotes to be sure it's what they want to share.

And here's the WHY I always seek out the experts. Years ago when I was working on OUTSIDE AND INSIDE BATS (Atheneum), I wanted to include information about the different ways bats move around. I mean flying is obvious but some hop on the ground and I found a photo in a respected magazine (won't name it for obvious reasons) that showed a bat swimming. I also found reference to bats swimming in a couple of books. So I tracked down a bat researcher and asked him how common swimming was for bats. 

His response was, "PLEASE, don't say they can swim. I know about that photo but it's wrong!"  He went on to tell me he was there when the photo was taken. To his dismay, the photographer threw the bat in the water. So what had appeared to me to be a look of determination on the bat's face was, in fact, panic. To this day, I never tackle any research without thinking, "I have to be sure I find the ultimate source who can tell me the truth."

Children deserve nonfiction  to be absolutely accurate.

Researching my nonfiction picture books has allowed me the privilege of talking to amazing people around the world. Sometimes from remote places. I remember interviewing Scott Powell for ANIMAL SCAVENGERS: ARMY ANTS (Lerner). 

 It was by satellite phone while he was in the jungle watching army ants in action. And Nikita Ovsyanikol in Russia  told me such great stories about his experiences studying polar bears on Wrangel Island that besides ANIMAL PREDATORS: POLAR BEARS (Lerner) I also wrote WAITING FOR ICE (Charlesbridge).  

And there was the day Dr. Melissa Behr shared how she climbed down a frozen waterfall into a mine to try to figure out what could possibly be killing hibernating little brown bats for THE CASE OF THE VANISHING LITTLE BROWN BATS (Millbrook/Lerner). Wow! What dedication to research.

My daughter Holly has often said I should write a book called SANDRA MARKLE'S PEOPLE just telling about all of the fascinating people I've been blessed to talk to and sometimes meet in the course of researching my books. Even better, some I continue to touch base with from time-to-time to hear what they're doing now. A few, I'm even blessed to count as friends.

This was one of several penguin books inspired by my Antarctic experiences.

Of course, I have to admit to having an explorer's soul. So some of the research I've enjoyed most is when I've had a chance to do it myself. Like my three trips to Antarctica. I spent two summers camping out with 160,000+ Adelie penguins watching them raise their chicks. 

And I spent a 9-month long winter in Antarctica working at McMurdo Station and experiencing firsthand the coldest, fiercest winter on the planet. The record was -149F but trust me anything below -50F is COLD. I had to wear goggles if I went outside because my contacts would freeze to my eyes. BRRRRRR!

I was able to be in the water with a dolphin, touching it and looking it straight in the eye.
The phone call I received from June Scobee, wife of the Challenger pilot Francis Scobee, was the most touching
moment in my writing life.

I climbed through the Shuttle training module at NASA, stood under the real Shuttle, was with the press and felt the ground shake the day Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space, held a moon rock, and lots more wonderful NASA experiences.

I've helped dissect a giant squid. Been in the operating room watching open heart surgery.

It would take days--months--to list all of the amazing experiences I've had researching my nonfiction picture books.

After the research, the process for writing nonfiction picture books is the same as what I wrote as tips for writing picture books in general.  However, I would add two more key challenges.

Share what's true and factual in a picture book in a way that grabs readers every bit as strongly as any fictional story.

Make it worthy of being read aloud.

One of the biggest complements I've received in a letter from a child was that one of my books was her favorite bedtime read aloud. I also love that nearly every letter I receive from both children and teachers includes ideas for other subjects they'd like me to write about. That's truly special.  

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