Monday, October 25, 2010

The Challenges of Writing Nonfiction for Beginning Readers

As a children's book author, I write nonfiction mostly. Quite a few of those books are for beginning readers. The challenges of writing for this group are considerable. With a limited word count you have to write simply and clearly, while keeping your reader's attention. This is also true for those who write fiction, of course. With nonfiction, though, the writer has the added onus of having to distill complex ideas so that a six-year-old can understand them. Take biography. Imagine you are writing a bio of a United States president, say, Abraham Lincoln. You don't know what your young reader already knows about Abe, so you have to start from scratch. How do you cover Lincoln's beginnings, his early years as a lawyer, his presidency, slavery, the Civil War, and his death in under 2,000 words?

If you are author Martha Brenner, you don't. Instead of attempting a traditional biography, Brenner chose the conceit of Lincoln's stovepipe hat to frame her early reader of our sixteenth president's life.  I tip my hat to Martha Brenner and her wonderful biography Abe Lincoln's Hat. Although published in 1994, it still stands as a remarkable biography for beginning readers. Using anecdotes from Lincoln's life, such as turning his hat into a file cabinet where he kept important papers, Brenner leaves readers with an deeper understanding of Lincoln's character. The book focuses on his life as a young lawyer and politician before he became president. Children learn how at one trial he determined the true owner of a colt by setting it loose and allowing it to run to its mother. In another famous case, he freed a man accused of murder by proving that an eyewitness could not have seen the crime since there was no moon in the sky that night. The book ends with Lincoln becoming president. The last few lines state what he accomplished in that office and the final page features photographs of Lincoln and other characters mentioned in the biography. Readers are left with an excellent introduction to Lincoln, and, hopefully, the urge to learn more about him.

Plenty of other early-reader biographers focus on one unique aspect of their subjects' lives rather than trying to cram a whole life into 48 pages. George Washington and the General's Dog by Frank Murphy describes a little-known story about how our nation's first president rescued a British general's lost dog on the battlefield and had to make a difficult decision: Return the dog to the enemy or keep it? Eat My Dust! Henry Ford's First Race by Monica Kulling takes readers on an exciting 1901 car race between Ford and Alexander Winton. Ford took his winnings and used them to start his car manufacturing company.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted today by Sherrie at Write About Now 

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