Elizabeth Rusch is the author of numerous acclaimed nonfiction titles for youth, with topics ranging from volcanoes and asteroids to the invention of the piano. I discovered her books several years ago with THE MIGHTY MARS ROVERS, which I loved for its clarity and strong storytelling. I am delighted that she has agreed to share her perspective on writing nonfiction for kids.
How did you get started writing nonfiction for kids?
ER: I’ve been a magazine writer since college, working on-staff and freelance. (I’ve published more than 100 magazine and newspaper articles.) My favorite articles to write are narrative nonfiction and profiles, which are basically short, vivid biographies. So my first nonfiction project for young readers was the book GENERATION FIX: YOUNG IDEA FOR A BETTER WORLD, which is basically a collection of profiles of young people who saw a problem in their community and did something about it. Because it was my first writing project for kids, I visited classrooms and asked students for feedback. So in a way, kids taught me how to write for kids!
What has been one of your most fun projects to research and write about?
ER: For my new book IMPACT: ASTEROIDS AND THE SCIENCE OF SAVING THE WORLD, I accompanied scientists on a hunt for meteorites (space rocks), I stayed up all night for two nights in a row at a mountain-top observatory searching for asteroids (we discovered 10 new ones) and hiked into Meteor Crater, a deep crater in Arizona formed by an asteroid strike long ago.
For a book is due out in October, AVALANCHE DOG HEROES: PIPER AND FRIENDS LEARN TO SEARCH THE SNOW, I spent time up at Crystal Mountain ski and snowboard resort with two dogs Piper and Darwin, who were learning how to search the snow for people buried by avalanches. The photographer and I rode the gondola and ski lifts up with the dogs and their handlers and followed them around all day in the snow as they did their training and work. I think a day spent in the snow makes a great work day!
What are the most challenging / most rewarding parts of writing children’s nonfiction?
ER: Perhaps the most challenging and the most rewarding part of writing nonfiction for children is telling true stories that read like fiction. I want my books to be so gripping and so interesting that readers don’t want to put them down. It’s a challenge to do this while staying within the confines of what really happened, but so rewarding when I get it right. I love it when reviewers say that a book I wrote brought them to tears or made them laugh or cheer. That means I made the reader feel something, which is what good literature – fiction and nonfiction – can do. I also love it when readers ask: “Is this story really true?” because they can’t believe that true story could be so interesting. I want my books as a body of work to say: The real world is a fascinating place full of the amazing, compelling stories.
What is your research process like? Are you ever surprised by what you find out?
ER: I read everything I can get my hands on about a topic, I interview experts, and I try to get out from behind my desk and away from the office to experience something related to a topic. So when I write about volcanoes, I hike on volcanoes. When I write about music, I listen to music. I go to museums and plays, read poetry, and look for any experience related to a topic that might inspire me. I especially love reading primary sources like family letters or newspaper articles from historical times. Those are always full of surprises and insights.
Do you usually have more than one project going at once? How do you decide what your next project will be?
ER: Oh yes, I have a number of book projects at different stages going on at once. I currently have three books with publishers that are in the design phase (so the manuscript is done and edited and the book is being laid out); two in the editing/revision phase (working with an editor to refine the manuscript); and I’m working on first drafts for three new books. The topics span from the northern lights and glaciers to art and activism.
To decide what to work on, I make lists of book ideas and rate all the ideas on things like how fun it would be to research and write, how important it would be to the world, what chance it has of being published and read. Usually a few projects rise to the top and I focus my attention on them. But sometimes a book idea will fascinate me and I’ll put all that analysis aside and just go with my passion.
What do you think are the most important aspects of good nonfiction for kids?
ER: We owe it to young readers to be up-to-date and accurate and to document where we get our information. We owe it to them to be honest about what we know and don’t know about a subject. We owe it to our readers and our subjects for the writing to be lively and engaging and infused with emotion and humanity. Nonfiction books for young readers should be compelling and leave a lasting impression.
We live in a golden age of nonfiction for kids. There are so many wonderful nonfiction books for young readers being written by the most talented writers. I am honored to be a part of it.