Why do authors write what they write? I’ve thought about this question a lot lately. Authors explain their purpose in prologues, epilogues, introductions, or author’s notes. For me, these parts of a book are often as interesting as the main text.
This month’s Celebrating Diversity in STEM– Book List reminds me of why it’s important to have perspectives from diverse authors. As nonfiction authors, we always put ourselves — our passions, our personalities— into our books. Our race and cultural background is part of what makes us who we are. It can influence what stories —and whose stories — we choose to tell. And it also affects how we write our books, adding authenticity and heart.
A Closer Look at Author’s Purpose
Let’s look at what four of this month’s authors say about their purpose for writing.
In HIDDEN FIGURES, Margot Lee Shetterly writes that growing up she “assumed the face of science was brown,” because her father and people in her community worked in science, math, and engineering. Shetterly soon learned the world was very different when her father was a child. And when Shetterly discovered African-American women mathematicians had worked at NASA Langley Research Center for decades without recognition, she was determined to spotlight their contributions to American history. As Shetterly writes in her prologue, “The contributions made by these African-American women have never been heralded, but they deserve to be remembered and not as a sidetone in someone else’s account but as the center of their own story. …This is their story.”
In WHAT COLOR IS MY WORLD, Kareem Abdul Jabbar also aims to inform readers about overlooked historical figures: “Unfortunately, many of the greatest American inventors have been ignored by history textbooks based on the color of their skin or their gender. …By telling of their unsung but vital contributions, I hope to celebrate these overlooked role models so that we can all appreciate one another in meaningful ways.”
William Kamkwamba (THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND) writes to persuade other youth, especially Africans, to pursue their dreams, “I want you to know your ambitions just as important and worth achieving, however big or small. …Think of your dreams as tiny miracle machines you can tough. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take them with you. (Epilogue)” In her introduction to PATH TO THE STARS, Sylvia Acevedo has a similar purpose for telling her story, to inspire young people to “dream big dreams and make those dreams come true.”
Whether the book is a biography or an autobiography, each author’s deep personal connection and passion shine through in their writing. They’ve crafted stories only they can tell.
FINDING YOUR PURPOSE – Story Sparks
That deep, personal connection that ignites our writing is something every good writer aims for. And it starts with the stories or angles we choose — our story sparks. So pull out your writer’s notebook, and let’s get going.
Turn to a clean page in your notebook, and title it “STORY SPARKS.” Now let’s fill it up with ideas.
- First, what subjects excite you? They could be school subjects like biology, hobbies like knitting or building robots, pets, or your favorite sport.
- What kind of books do you like to read? What about TV shows, movies, and music?
- Are there certain news stories you find most appealing?
- Maybe there are special places you like to visit, like the beach or a quiet forest.
- Next think about themes and ideas that interest you. Is it underdogs? Bullies? Being the youngest? Are you interested in social justice or the environment?
- Finally, like the authors on this month’s book list, think about your personal history, traditions, culture, and community. Do they give you inspiration for stories to tell? If so add them to your list too.
As you make your list, see if you notice any patterns, similarities, or connections that fire up other ideas. If not, try smashing two ideas together like environmental issues plus your favorite spot— the beach? After a little digging, you add ocean pollution to your list.
Here’s the good news. You can use your story sparks to find focus even if your teacher assigns topics for informational writing. Have to write a presidential biography? Is space your jam? Why not pick John F. Kennedy, who launched the U.S. into the Space Race?
Whenever you learn something new and find yourself thinking, “Hmmmmm, that’s interesting,” jot it down. You’ll never run out of ideas. Happy writing!
- Humanizing Nonfiction Writers: An Interview with Melissa Stewart
- Learning to Write Engaging Nonfiction: A Middle School Partner Writing Study
- Book Recommendation: FINDING THE HEART OF NONFICTION by Georgia Heard
Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.