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

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

Recently, Laura Purdie Salas, Chris Barton, and Sara Levine talked a little about their reading habits. You can find that post here. Today I’m pleased to share three more contributions to this series!

Miranda Paul

Miranda’s first picture book, One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, came out in 2015. Since then she’s written many more titles including Whose Hands Are These? A Community Helper Guessing Book.

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul

Miranda: My recent nonfiction reads include Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefil.

I’m also a big fan of memoirs and some that have stuck out for me recently include: Wide-Open World by John Marshall, It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario, and How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana.

When I’m researching, I like to look at science studies as well. Those aren’t as exciting to read, but they’re packed with information—therefore making them useful and sometimes the only place I can find an answer to a question that comes up while writing.

I find that science and travel generally top my list of topics, but reading outside the categories/formats I write helps me appreciate both little details and the big scope of any work—no matter its length or topic—and how a good book always boils down to coupling interesting content with a relatable-yet-remarkable delivery.

John Coy

John Coy has covered a range of topics in his books, from the early days of basketball in Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball to exploring immigration with photographer Wing Young Huie in Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land.

Their Great Gift by John Coy

John: I like reading fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As a boy, one of my favorite things to read was nonfiction, particularly biographies. I devoured whole biography series, feeding my curiosity about other people’s lives as I tried to figure out my own.

Some excellent nonfiction books I’ve read lately include Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young. One of the things I like about good nonfiction is that it can take the reader in so many different directions and open up more areas of interest.

I also enjoy reading books, magazines, and newspapers. I particularly value physical magazines and newspapers because I end up reading articles I would not normally select. Reading outside areas of familiarity is one of the best ways to encounter surprises and learn new things.

Another way I like to develop nonfiction ideas is to talk to people. Many people have interesting stories, and talking is the way we humans shared information for thousands of years. Talk to people you don’t know. You never know what amazing story you’ll hear—or where it will lead you.

Patricia Newman

Patricia Newman has a special talent for connecting with scientists and bringing their stories to middle-grade readers. Her recent title Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators that Saved an Ecosystem received a 2018 Sibert Honor.

Sea Otter Heroes by Patricia Newman

Patricia: For me, breadth of reading material is key, both in terms of content and the mechanics of writing. I scan magazines, newspapers, and online articles for new book ideas and to stay abreast of certain issues I’ve already written about. And like Laura Purdie Salas, I read signs at museums for factoids. I especially love to look at museum timelines—not only for big picture, but also to see how they’re formatted.

Because I write about science, I also wade through scientific papers to find fascinating details  in the methodology section and cool graphs in the results and discussion sections. In fact, a graph from one study became a sidebar in Sea Otter Heroes. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I skip the statistical analysis!)

Emotion is also a big part of my environmental nonfiction. I want my readers to care enough to become a voice for conservation. So I turn to novels (most recently The Nix by Nathan Hill) and narrative nonfiction (most recently Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo) to absorb how other writers make me care. How is the dialogue constructed? What’s included or left out of descriptions? In what order are plot points revealed? How does sentence structure reveal feelings in as few words as possible? Because my books are for middle-grade readers, I have to be as concise and precise as possible.

Finally, I believe it’s important for nonfiction writers to “read” photos. They really are worth a thousand words and usually offer up great details or emotions a writer can use to grab readers!

What are you reading?

Thank you to Miranda, John, and Patricia 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 in the comments.

Check out Part One of the series here!

7 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer: What Authors Read for Inspiration [Part Two]

    1. carolhinz

      Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m always surprised by at least one thing in each author’s response.

  1. Lisa Idzikowski

    I’m always on the lookout for new books about Darwin and his contemporaries, so I’m reading Darwin’s Fossils, by Adrian Lister.

    1. carolhinz

      Interesting! I love that the book includes photos and illustrations along with the text.

  2. lydialukidis

    I’m always interested in what authors are reading themselves, Speaking of which, I keep hearing about the book One Plastic Bag so I think I’m going to have to get it!

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