What I’ve Learned Writing Children’s Nonfiction

by Stephanie McPherson

Most new children’s writers have their hearts set on a career in picture books, middle grade fiction, or YA. I was no exception. But early on, I lucked into the field of nonfiction. Ever since, I’ve lived a life of excitement and adventure – well, at least vicariously. It all began with a trip to Smithsonian when my children were little.

mitchellAt the American History Museum, I learned about Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in the United States. A librarian by day and stargazer by night, Maria discovered a comet from the rooftop of her parents’ home in Nantucket. Because this was an unheard of accomplishment for a woman, she gained instant celebrity. Visitors to Nantucket made beelines to the library simply to gawk at the woman astronomer. Although she never attended college herself, Vassar Women’s College asked her to be a professor of astronomy when the school opened in 1865. And what a professor she was – rousing students in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers, writing humorous end-of-the-year poems for each of her students, inspiring a generation of young women to consider scientific careers.

I could go on and on. But you get the message. I was and remain fascinated by Maria Mitchell. She became the subject of my first book, Rooftop Astronomer. Since then, I’ve written over thirty nonfiction books for children, many of them biographies. I’ve not given up on picture books and fiction, but I’m hooked on nonfiction. When you decide to write nonfiction (to borrow from Dr. Suess), “Oh, the places you’ll go!” Not literally perhaps, though your research may prompt some interesting trips. In your imagination you’ll experience the dawn of new inventions, battles for justice, deeds of breathtaking courage. There’s lots of truth in the old adage. Truth really is often stranger than fiction. In coming posts, I’ll recount some remarkable (not to say mind-boggling) true tales and share tips on researching and writing nonfiction.


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