Saturday, July 20, 2013

Non-Fiction Author Steve Sheinkin -- on Writing 'Interesting" Non-fiction for Teens

YA Non-fiction author Steve Sheinkin has won a Newberry Honor Award, two Yalsa Awards, and he's been a National Book Award Finalist -- all for his great non-fiction books that bring U.S. history full of spies, complicated crimials, and notirious politicians to life for young readers today.  Some of his recent, award-winning books include Bomb - the race to build - and steal- the worlds most dangerous weapon, Lincoln's Grave-Robbers, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery.   

If you haven't had a chance to read Steve's fascinating true accounts of the making (and attempt to steal) the atomic bomb, or of the money-launderers turned grave-robbers who tried to dig up and steal Abraham Lincoln's body, click the links to hear the audio versions of the beginning of each book on last writermorphosis post!  They're brilliant!

Steve used to write textbooks but he now writes "interesting" non-fiction because he says "textbooks don't work."  it's "interesting non-fiction" that makes young people want to read and learn.  

So thanks, Steve, for being here with us today to share your thoughts and tips on how other authors can write "interesting nonfiction" for young people too!

Let's jump right in with our first question:

Steve, you talk about the need for "Interesting Non-fiction" for kids and teens.  Why do you believe it's important for young people to have interesting non-fiction books to read that are not simply text books? 

First of all, textbooks simply don't work. They're so boring that they're not effective teaching tools. I think engaging, exciting nonfiction is not just fun to read, but a great way to impart information and get conversations going.

That definitely makes sense, Steve!

So, what, in your opinion, makes a non-fiction book interesting to middle graders or teens. (In other words, in your experience with the children's market, what differentiates an "interesting" and successful middle grade or teen non-fiction book from a "boring" or less successful one? Does it relate to theme or topic, book format - sidebars and visuals, other things?) Can you give specific tips?

To me, it's all about telling a great story in language that is clear and direct. Sidebars can work in nonfiction, but I don't like to use them. I try to weave all the information into the story. Basically, I try to set up an interesting story, and then keep the action moving, just as you'd want to do if you were writing a novel or a screenplay.

So, just like all those non-fiction books for adults (Eat, Pray, Love/Stories about War Heroes/etc) that hold our attention and get made into block-buster movies later, your books Steve are bringing true stories from history to life in an action-packednovel format that teen readers seem to love. 
One great excellent example of this is the intro to your book "BOMB."  So readers, If you haven't done so yet, check the audio version of it out on last week's post!
It's worth the read!
I also love what Kirkus had to say about Steve's Benedict Arnold book below:
"A brilliant, fast-paced biography that reads like an adventure novel... one of the most exciting biographies young readers will find."  - Kirkus, starred review

So Steve, what do you recommend for writers who want to write an interesting non-fiction book for children or teens but who are not sure how to come up with interesting topics, themes, or people to write about?  How did you come up with the Characters/topics for your recent books like The Notorious Benedict Arnold, The Bomb, and your newest book Lincoln's Grave Robbers? (I find there's often a story behind how authors come up with topics for their books.)

Pretty much every day that I spend reading, I find amazing stories, not because I’m so good at finding them, but because there are so many incredible stories out there! Magazines are a great place to learn about little known stories - I've found great stuff in Smithsonian, for instance, including a story about a really obscure spy in the Manhattan Project. I didn't end up writing about the guy, but researching him led to the idea for Bomb. I'm also an obsessive reader of source notes. Find a good nonfiction book on a topic you find interesting, and the source notes will probably have dozens of leads on places to look for related stories/characters. I think of each source as a clue, and follow it to find more clues. I never know where the search will lead, but that's part of the fun.

Do you think it's important to keep national or state school curriculums in mind when writing non-fiction for youth -- or is that only when writing for the "school market"? 

No, I don't think about specific standards or curriculum issues anymore - that's all I did back when I was a textbook writer. Now I just try to tell important and exciting stories, and hope that students and teachers will find them useful and fun to read.

Steve, I'm tacking one more fun question on the end. One thing I've noticed is that you have creative ways of marketing your books (like taking a guy dressed up as Benedict Arnold with you to your book signing for that book!)  Can you share a brief example or two about how you creatively market your non-fiction books so that other writers can learn from you? 
Yes, doing the book signing with Benedict Arnold was a real treat. I can't always arrange anything that cool, but I've done other fun stuff, like comics in which I interview other writers, and, recently, an online interview with my six year old daughter:

Basically, I try to do fun stuff, and then throw in a bio mentioning my work. I'm not that good at using Twitter or other social media - but I'm trying to figure it out!

Thanks for a wonderful interview Steve!  These are some great and specific tips for those of us who want to consider writing non-fiction for teens!  

Readers, don't forget that the Writermorphosis "Comments Contest" is ongoing through-out this summer too!

See you all next week for more great writing and illustrating tips and opportunities on Writermorphosis!


Linda A. said...

Great interview. I like the idea of reading exciting nonfiction books like Steve's before studying related historical units.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Thanks Janelle and Steve! I'm really eager to read these books and reflect on the writing style.

I like history (and all those hidden stories) so much that I should probably be writing exciting non-fiction. But I'm uncertain about that since I do love telling stories through the experiences of fictional characters.

But I'm contemplating...

Janelle said...

Thanks for your comment, Joyce!

I had to smile at your comment because I can absolutely see you writing nonfiction as well!

Your fiction books are so clearly based in the real, non-fictional historical world that I think many readers probably "feel" as thought they ARE reading nonfiction. : ) I think that's a sign of great fiction!

Rachel Kovacs said...

There is also a literature unit based on this book for teachers. It is geared toward high school English or social studies classes and is based on Common Core standards. It can be found at Curriculum Aids or on Amazon.

Debbie Allmand said...

Love the interview. I met Steve at SCBWI LA conference. I also has a manuscript critique by him. Very generous with his time and comments. I have been all his books but still reading about the bomb

Janelle said...

Thanks, Rachel, for pointing out that great resource!

Janelle said...

Thanks, Rachel, for pointing out that great resource!