Guest Posting by Author Susan Casey
Being a non-fiction writer has opened up the world to me. It’s fun! It gives me the license to explore lives and cultures in a way not usually experienced by others. During author visits I try to convey the excitement of that to students.
“What is non-fiction? I ask as I start my presentations. While most students will pop up with answers like “real life” or “the Civil War” or “George Washington,” most don’t mention the many people, places and things that make up the fabric of their own lives.
As I take them through the process of non-fiction writing, I prompt students to understand that it can be fun to write about their world—their homes, pets, hobbies, favorite or not so favorite foods, vacations, or birthday parties and more.
We do an exercise that prompts them to understand that asking questions is the number one tool of a non-fiction writer. At one school I asked students to raise their hands if they had a dog. Hands shot up. All the dog owners stepped up front. The other students came up with questions to ask them? What is the color, size, type of your dog? What does your dog eat? What’s something funny that your dog does? Where does it sleep? Then, together we used a sheet of butcher paper as our tablet and wrote about the dogs of the kids in the class. As part of the rewriting process, we consulted the dog owners with follow-up questions to add some interesting details.
Description matters. At every school visit, I project photographs I’ve taken of places and people I’ve written about–monkeys in Malaysia, a kinetic sculpture race, a young girl in Mexico learning from her grandmother to make carpets. I ask students to tell me what they can discover by simply looking closely at the images. They usually start by being very general and then we get down to the specifics—colors, mood, attitude.
At a recent presentation I showed a drawing included in my newest book, Women Heroes of the American Revolution. It is of a teenage girl running, holding a type of keg, towards a man with outstretched hands. One by one students described what they saw. “Yet how can you find out what is actually happening,” I ask. Then they began asking me questions and found out that the girl, Betty Zane ran across a battlefield to retrieve much needed gunpowder for settlers fighting in Fort Henry in one of the last battles of the war.
Students are usually wowed by the image of teen inventor Krysta Morlan who is one of the inventors profiled in Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors. Krista waves to them as she sits in a swimming pool astride a water bike she created. Students are equally delighted when they see a photo of an ingenious way to get kids to want to mow the lawn: a bike mower created by a middle school student.
When I’m presenting my book, Women Invent! I show them a photo of Rose Totino, the inventor of the process to freeze pizza crust. She smiles back at them, a large pizza displayed in front of her. She and her husband wanted to discover how to freeze pizza and when they did, Pillsbury bought the rights to her process. To this day the company uses the Totino name on its products, i.e. Totino’s pizza rolls. It helps them discover that even ordinary products like pizza and pizza rolls have a back story that can be discovered with a little research and a few questions.
Writing, though, is not all observation and questions. I show images of myself in my office: on the phone interviewing, typing, or sitting on the patio looking through a book, a stack of other books piled on the table. It’s my goal to show them the basic things that writers’ do—things they also can easily do.
And then there’s rewriting. I show them images of clean, nicely typed pages I’ve sent to editors along with the heavily edited pages I received back. I ask students if they like it when they receive papers back from their teachers with lots of corrections. Most admit they don’t. When they see that I deal with the same situation, it somehow levels the playing field.
In another exercise I ask students to think of an object, a person or a pet that means something to them. It is an exercise that allows them to inject an emotion into their writing. One student spoke of his cell phone. While one might suspect the phone would be important because of games or music, he revealed that before he had his phone his parents didn’t always know when to pick him up from school, that he was often standing outside the school waiting for them for long periods of time. It was an answer that surprised me and interested the other students.
When I first heard kids say at the end of my presentations, “Hey, I can be an inventor too!” I was pleased. What I’ve also begun to realize, though, is that they are also absorbing the idea that they could be non-fiction writers. I’ve heard them say: “Hey, I can write about all the funny things my cat does.” Another said, “I can write about the lady who made the first frozen pizza.”
But I realized something more: that the students understood that not only could they write about others and their accomplishments but that they, too, could be accomplished.
About Susan Casey
Susan Casey is the author of Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors and Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World. She is also a journalist and her articles and photographs have appeared in Fast Company, Family Circle, Americana, USAir, Women’s Sports, Soap Opera Digest, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inventors Digest,Electrical Contractor and many other publications. She now lives in Southern California. In her free time, she loves to read, listen to audio books, visit art museums, go to the theatre and to concerts, row, play paddle tennis, and take photos.