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Late last year, Scholastic Reading Club’s editors released a list of top trends in children’s books for 2017. When I read the list, I cheered. In the number four spot: “The importance of research will grow.”
“Yay!” I thought. “I’m trendy!”
Trendy is not an adjective often used to describe me or my work as a children’s book author. But I love research, and research underscores so much of my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. To me, research is so much more than the trips to the library I took as a student or the web searches so common in classrooms today. Research for me is an adventure.
I have three new books out this year that demonstrate how vital research is to my work as a children’s book author – and how fun it can be.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2017)
In this picture book/comic book hybrid for kids ages 4-8, two children (Anna and Oliver) give readers inside information and advice about what it’s really like when a new baby joins the family. I suppose I could have written this book by trying to imagine what the experience of welcoming a new baby is like for a child. But I really wanted the book to feature a kid’s-eye view: what they expected, what surprised them, how they responded. So I interviewed them.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I asked my then-toddler son all about his experience waiting for, meeting and living with his new little sister. When I met anyone expecting a second child, I chatted with their children and jotted down notes. By the time I was ready to write READY, SET..BABY! I had pages and pages of wonderful material such as:
“Waiting for the baby is worse than waiting for pizza.”
“Everyone always yells: Support the head! Support the head!”
“You won’t really have someone to play with. Playing with a baby is like playing with loaf of bread.”
Interviewing experts (in this case, kids!) is one of my favorite research methods. In addition to learning so much about any topic, people always give me little gems that make me laugh, or cry, or tingle with amazement – and really help my writing come to life.
(Atheneum, April 18, 2017)
I wish I could have interviewed the person who invented the piano for my biography of him. But since Bartolomeo Cristofori lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s that was not possible. I did find a wonderful expert, instrument maker Kerstin Schwarz, who restores and builds replicas of Cristofori pianofortes. She invited me to her workshop to see how Cristofori put together his groundbreaking instrument. While that gave me a deep understanding of the problems Cristofori had to solve to create a keyboard instrument that could play both loudly and softly, it didn’t tell me much about the inventor’s life.
For that, I delved into primary source materials. Scouring primary sources is a little like searching for clues to solve a mystery. I found Cristofori’s baptismal record and death notice, notes from a 1709 interview, and diaries from court musicians at the time. But surprisingly, the most fun and illuminating primary sources were invoices to the treasury of the Medici, the wealthy Florence family that employed Cristofori. It was here that I read about how his house was furnished – “a small pine desk”; “eight backless stools of pine, painted green”; “one fine pillow with a taffeta cover.” I learned the odd materials he used to repair and built keyboard instruments (“vulture features” and “fish glue”). And I learned where he worked (in the Medici workshops and later in a quieter home workshop) and where he transported instruments for performances. That research allowed me to a walk in Bartolomeo Cristofori’s footsteps when I visited Florence, so I could see for myself what he saw and what might have influenced him.
It still amazes me that primary sources helped me reconstruct the life and work of someone who lived three hundred years ago. Primary sources were so essential to THE MUSIC OF LIFE that I feature some excerpts in the main text. And in the backmatter, I describe in detail how I pieced together Cristofori’s story from primary sources in the hopes that budding young historians might find it inspiring. (Plus I think a story is much more interesting than a boring bibliographic listing, don’t you?)
Primary sources kicked off my research for this narrative nonfiction account of how asteroids threaten our planet and what scientists are doing to avert catastrophe. I begin the book by telling the story of the Chelyabinsk asteroid that exploded over a Russian city in 2013, which I reconstructed from newspaper and online articles, videos and even social media postings. But to show what scientists are doing to track and understand asteroids and to prevent one from striking our planet, I joined the scientists in the field.
Doing on-site research gives me insight and experiences that can make a subject real for readers. To research IMPACT, I hiked into Meteor Crater with the scientist who linked dinosaur extinction to an asteroid strike; I walked the rolling hills of Creston, California, with a team of meteorite hunters searching for rocks dropped from space; and I stayed up all night at an observatory on the top of Mount Lemmon scouring the night sky for near-Earth asteroids. (We found 10 that night.)
While middle grade readers cannot share this experience with me until IMPACT publishes in November, I take a similar approach in the other books I’ve written for the acclaimed Scientists in the Field series: The Mighty Mars Rovers: The incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity; Eruption!: Volcanoes and the science of saving lives; The Next Wave: The quest to harness the power of the oceans. Actually all the books in this series feature this on-site research approach and are worth getting into the hands of budding scientists ages 8 and up.
If you would like to explore more of my “trendy” research-driven books or see some photos of my research adventures, please visit my website (Photos are under the Fun Stuff button.)
Happy reading and happy research!
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Parents and teachers will find book-related activities under the Guides button.
Elizabeth Rusch loves sharing her research and writing methods with students. Learn more about her school visits here