Reading Like a Writer: What Authors Read for Inspiration [Part One]

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of reading in shaping a person’s writing skills. Before we can write well, we first have to see good writing and then absorb it through a mysterious osmosis-like process. This is certainly true for authors and editors, and I believe it’s likewise true for teachers and students.

Authors regularly are advised to read within their genre, which is great advice, but I became curious about what else the authors I work with enjoy reading. I got a wonderful range of responses, and I’ll be sharing them in groups of three over the next few weeks.

Laura Purdie Salas

Laura’s books with Millbrook include A Leaf Can Be . . ., If You Were the Moon, and Meet My Family. She specializes in bringing together poetry and nonfiction in clever ways.

Meet My Family by Laura Purdie Salas

Laura: Because I write many expository nonfiction picture books, I am often writing very small chunks of text that I’m trying to stuff full of both meaning and fun. The same part of my brain that loves that kind of writing is also a little bit addicted to signage at zoos, museums, and historical sites. I always look for the signs, object labels, etc., to help me put whatever I’m seeing into context. (And I am so disappointed when they are absent or just poorly done!)

I read as a reader first—I’m naturally curious and want to know what I’m looking at and WHY it matters. I love learning nifty nuggets—quirky, unexpected facts that wow me. But then I read as a writer. When I come across exceptionally well written signage, I think about why it works so well. The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik are a few places I’ve visited in past years where the signage not only explained the exhibits but made me feel more deeply about the subject.

Settlement Museum
From the Settlement Exhibition

So I read the signs and study several things: How does the sign orient the visitor immediately? If there are several signs in a series, does each follow a similar format? How do the writers balance meaningful information with nifty nuggets to keep me engaged while increasing my depth of knowledge? What basic knowledge do the writers assume on the part of the visitors? Thinking about the answers to these kinds of questions really comes in handy when I’m working on main texts or sidebars or end matter. I’m sure that the sidebars and end matter in Meet My Family have more than a few museum signs in their ancestry!

Chris Barton

Chris Barton is the author of The Nutcracker Comes to America and Dazzle Ships, among many others. Many of his books shine a spotlight on little-known people or innovations.

Dazzle Ships nonfiction picture book by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai

Chris: I think of my pleasure reading as primarily consisting of nonfiction books about popular music, and it’s true that so far in 2018 I’ve enjoyed books about David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, the history of the song “Hallelujah,” and musical rivalries.

But interspersed among those, I’ve been reading nonfiction books about a string of Osage murders in Oklahoma in the 1920s, Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, and the modern evolution of nonviolent protest movements, as well as Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race, which is the book I’ve been recommending the most.

I haven’t consciously been reading any of those with an eye toward improving my own writing, but it’s all input that can’t help but shape in some way my own output. And So You Want to Talk about Race has definitely affected how I think about my profession, my place in our industry, and my interactions and conversations with people I encounter through my work.

Sara Levine

In addition to being an author, Sara Levine is a biology professor and veterinarian. Her books Bone by Bone, Tooth by Toothand Fossil by Fossil offer innovative ways to compare human anatomy with that of other animals.

Fossil by Fossil by Sara Levine

Sara: My reading is a bit all over the place in terms of genre, age group and topic because I have a wide variety of interests. I definitely read within my genre to learn about writing nonfiction science picture books for kids. I read the books nominated for the Cook Prize and for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize, and any other science books for kids that either pique my interest or are on a topic overlapping with one I’m planning to write about.

In the adult book category, I read about a book a week, though the majority of the books I gravitate towards are fiction. But I’ll often mix it up with a good science-focused book. Ones that I particularly enjoyed recently include The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Gulp by Mary Roach, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

I also read nonfiction on non-science topics I’m interested in. Recent important books I’ve read include Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Brian Stevenson, Tomorrow Will be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride, and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Kahn-Cullors and asha bandele.

In terms of journals, I read articles in Science and in the New Yorker. I also enjoy perusing field guides (to plants and animals) and textbooks on science topics I’m interested in. How all of this informs and shapes my writing of science books for children is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure that it all does.

What are you reading?

Thank you to Laura, Chris, and Sara for sharing their reading habits!

What sort of writing inspires you? And teachers: what sorts of mentor texts do you provide to your students when working on nonfiction writing projects? Please feel free to share favorite reads (or favorite museum exhibits!) in the comments.

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