I'm baaaack--from a great 3-day weekend in Santa Fe, NM, that is. I had a wonderful time attending the New Mexico Women Author's Book Festival where I presented my talk, "Researching the Children's Book."
The subject is especially important to me as five of my books are for young readers, and I've never written any book for any age group, fiction or nonfiction, that I haven't had to research. Convincing other people that this is even necessary, though, is a whole 'nother story. Only a few days ago someone asked me, "Why would anyone research a children's book?"
Comments and questions like this can make authors for children want to overcompensate and tackle far more research than is actually necessary or required for the book they are writing. But too much research can be as bad as not enough. Staying mired in endless research can be a convenient excuse for not writing anything at all.
My three rules for researching the children's book are: keep it light, keep it fun, and keep it as accurate as possible because chances are that whatever you put in a book could stick with a young reader for life. I know I believed everything I read growing up, and I still can't believe there are no tigers in Africa. In line with my three rules, I have five steps to keep my research on track:
Step One. I only research or write on subjects that I love or find interesting. I've never chosen a subject because it was "hot" or because I thought it would be a quick sale. Sometimes editors will suggest a topic to you. Be wary about saying "yes" too quickly. If you don't hold much passion for that subject, not only will the research process be long and tedious, but it will show in your writing.
Step Two. Once I've settled on a topic, I ask myself three questions: What do I already know about this subject? What would a child want to know about it? And what are the things I need to know for this particular project? These questions keep my research focused. They also help me to think in terms of "kid-sized portions."
Step Three. Once I've brainstormed my answers, I start my research, often starting with the encyclopedia followed by the children's section of the library. In today's info-driven world, the choice of resources can be overwhelming, a dilemma made even worse by the Internet, which I have to say is not my favorite place to acquire facts. The information found there is often too subjective and in some cases, downright wrong. That said, the Internet is great for finding leads and links to sites and book titles I feel I can trust.
Whatever your preferred method, though, the worst thing you can do is check out 50 library books and set out for a "course of study." Perhaps the most cumbersome part of this process is accumulating so much good information that you feel compelled to add it to your book whether it fits, is required, or is even interesting to anyone else but you. This is particularly true for fiction. Novels can be ruined by research. Information-heavy stories often seem contrived and can ring false, especially for younger readers.
Step Four. Now that you have your basics in place, you will want to add the flavor, the spice, those specific and unique details that make you and your reader feel "I really was there!" My favorite research technique is to travel, which I admit is not always the easiest to do, but travel doesn't always have to be out of the country. It can be as close as visiting the next town over. If you can take a trip, take your journal, make dated and continuous entries, and go to all the places that have nothing to do with tourism: grocery stores, schools, suburbs, post offices, banks, malls, apartment blocks, recreation centers, toy stores, houses of worship...in other words, all the places that make up a child's world in that particular setting. Record details with your five senses, especially if you visit any kind of local industry. And stay honest: if someplace is stinky--say so! Inquiring kids love the worst of details.
If long-distance travel is impossible, I've often found foreign consulates and embassies to be great sources of information. Not only do they have dozens of free publications they will happily give you, but many of them have excellent libraries and and photo banks for you to use as well.
Magazines, my source for all sorts of things such as collage and found poetry, are also pretty good when they're used the way they were designed: to be read! Writer's Market can be a starting point for finding industry-specific magazines with topics ranging from ice cream making to tropical pets to motor racing. And don't forget to clip out, arrange, and study the accompanying photos for details not included in the actual articles.
Step Five. Beyond the reference book. Sources such as cookbooks (children love to learn about weird food); foreign newspaper classified ads (What's for sale? How much does it cost? What kind of jobs are being offered?), and local chambers of commerce can all point you in a new and unexpected direction.
And then there are blogs. Here's where I think the Internet comes into its own. Sometimes it seems the whole world is keeping a blog, and that's not such a bad thing. Blogs, especially those written by young people and children, can be good sources for personal, day-to-day tidbits that you would never have been able to access in the past. Written by real teens and families, blogs tell real stories about aspects of life you could never make up.
Step Six. Round-up. Once your facts are in place, sift through and don't be afraid to discard anything that's boring or puts you to sleep. As a writer for children, always think in terms of, "What would I have loved knowing as a child?" As soon as you start thinking, "Children need to know..." or, "Children should know..." you're entering dangerous territory, one that borders on the moral tale: "And after her disobedience burned down the entire street, little Suzie never played with matches again..."
The best advice I've ever heard came from my first editor when I wrote my first book on New Zealand: "We want a nonfiction book that children will choose to pick up and read because they want to, not because someone told them they had to." Goes for pretty much everything we want to write, don't you think?
Tip of the Day. More than anything, children want to know about other children. They want to know what happens during a school day, what games children play around the world, what are the jokes, what pets do they have, the clothing, what do their houses or rooms look like? When reading for pleasure, children rarely care about how many tons of export products come from where, or the precise dates that mark the beginnings and endings of long ago wars. Keep your information interesting and you'll keep a child reading.