Writing MG Nonfiction: Top Researching Tips

I think half the fun of writing MG nonfiction is done before ever beginning to write. It all begins with research. I love to do research. I can spend hours just searching for that one really weird fact that sends me down another research rabbit hole. Those strange and little-known facts are what grab kids attention and what makes your book stand out from the rest. So research is not work to me—it’s really fun. And what it ultimately leads to is the story behind the facts. You want to get to that story . . . it’s what really hooks young readers.

Through working in publishing as an editor and solo as a freelance writer/editor, I’ve gathered some very reliable resources of interesting information that I either use on the book I’m writing or that I tuck away in my “future book ideas” file. I write a lot of science- and history-focused books, so here are some of the best resources I’ve found to help me with that research. Feel free to add some of your top research resources in the comments.

 

Library Databases: Free to access (with a library account) and filled with a wealth of information, library databases can be accessed either online or onsite at your local library. You can search academic journals, historical newspapers, scientific collections, historical collections, government publications, maps, music, and much more. Onsite databases offer even more than what libraries have online. Most writers wouldn’t be able to afford one or two of the subscriptions to these databases each year, but libraries can offer them free to the public. You just have to know where to look on their website or on computers in the library—and librarians are always willing to help you find the best databases for your research needs. Here are just a few of the many databases available through my local library’s online resources:

  • Birds of North America Online: Life histories of bird species breeding in the U.S. (including Hawaii) and Canada, including maps, images, videos, and audio files of songs and calls.
  • EBSCO Megafile: Magazine and journal articles, reference books, and images. Provides general and academic coverage of multiple subjects including science, technology, religion, philosophy, psychology, and business.
  • General Science Collection (from GALE): Full-text articles from journals on physics, mathematics, nanotechnology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more.
  • National Geographic Virtual Library: Full-text magazine articles. Includes books, maps, images and videos. Goes back to 1888.
  • New York Times, Historical: Digitized images from the original newspapers, New York Daily Times (1851 – 1857) and New York Times (from 1857 on, except the most recent 4 years).

 

An LOC image of Wilbur Wright gliding in level flight, moving to right near bottom of Big Hill; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Library of Congress: I am constantly findingnew treasures on the Library of Congress website. Whether it’s a historical photograph that helps me describe a hunting scenes and near-extinction of buffalo and bald eagles in North America or Civil War maps that help me understand more about the history of the war, this site is packed with primary sources that can be used not only for research on the topic, but also for free historical images that can be used in your book. It contains digital images, music, and manuscript collections; reference guides for researchers (like this one on natural disasters); great backmatter inclusions, like this list of sites for kids and families, turn-of-the-century films of San Francisco before and after the great earthquake and fire ; articles with links and images about important inventions, like the Wright brothers’ airplane and first flight; or the America’s Story site for student use.

 

Google Alerts and GoogleScholar: If I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll set up a Google Alert on the topic. This is particularly helpful when writing about current topics that are affected by daily events. The alerts send me links to the latest news articles and research papers on the topic. For example, I found this really useful when writing a book about exoplanet discoveries, as new planets are being discovered on a daily basis. I use Google Scholar to search academic journals for the latest research.

 

Research Papers (Lead to Interviews and Much More!): Not only great for primary source information and data to support your arguments, research papers are a goldmine for interview leads. They always include author information, sometimes even email addresses for the scientists who led the study and wrote their analysis. If not, by digging a little further, you can usually find contact information through a scientist’s listing on the university website of where they work. I have gotten many interviews with top scientists in their field this way, and the majority are thrilled to speak with me. Many will even send me other papers relevant to my topic, or not-yet-published results from some of their studies.

I found this incredible photo through a research paper on earwigs and their intricate wings.

Research papers may also include photos and diagrams related to the study. Some include a release for media professionals or contact information for media inquiries. I’ve never had a problem getting permission to use these images in the books I write, and since they are so specific to the topic, they can show exactly what’s described in the text (rather than the typical stock images, which is often what publisher’s use when specific images are not available). Authors of these studies will often send me laboratory photos to use in my books as well, which cannot be found elsewhere. For example, for a book on animal and plant longevity, a scientist studying Greenland sharks sent me the most amazing photos of him tagging the sharks for further study and of the shark’s eyeball (which is used to determine its several centuries-old age). Scientists rock! Their willingness to help authors educate others leads to some of the most interesting angles and stories behind the data of their studies.

And just a few more . . .

Digging deeply into your research will lead you on pathways you had no idea existed for your book. So have fun and dig as deep as you can as you work on your nonfiction. Kids will notice your work!

Karen Latchana Kenney
Karen Latchana Kenney writes books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Born in Guyana, she moved to Minnesota at a young age and began writing in third grade. Now she's a full-time children's writer who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son. Visit her online at http://latchanakenney.wordpress.com.

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