With Non-Fiction, the Sky's the Limit

With Non-Fiction, the Sky's the Limit

“It’s all about the idea!” guest speaker Michael Hearst exclaimed to his Class 4 audience on a recent Thursday. In the front of the room, a slide of colorful books hinted at the theme of his animated talk: “Unusual Creatures,” “Extraordinary People,” “Curious Constructions” and “Unconventional Vehicles.”

Written by Mr. Hearst, the four clever books began as ideas and grew into something bigger and more lasting. If they followed a few important steps and stayed true to themselves, he told the students, they too can turn their amazing ideas into “awesome” non-fiction books guaranteed to capture the imaginations of readers.

“I put a lot of my goofy, silly personality into my writing,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m still in fourth grade!”

Mr. Hearst recalled his own childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. “I loved fun, weird books as a kid,” he said, especially the still-popular “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” and the “Guinness World Records” series. “I loved those formats and wanted to bring them back in my own books.”

The format he described was characterized by easy-to-read text broken up with eye-catching photos or illustrations. When the Brooklyn-based author embarked on his first book, “Unusual Creatures,” he knew he wanted to pay tribute to that winning layout while putting his own spin on the design. This recipe for success was carried through to his three other books.

In “Unconventional Vehicles,” for example, the design incorporated bright banners, lively language, sidebars of fascinating trivia, and realistic illustrations by the artist Hans Jenssen. Mr. Hearst showed the students the cover of this book, which featured an elaborate drawing of “The Turtle,” the first documented submersible to be used in wartime (circa 1775!).

“I get really interested in a subject and take a deep dive.” He reminded the students that they are free to write about virtually anything as long as their chosen topic is carefully researched using credible sources. Because non-fiction is a genre based on facts, real people and real events, “accuracy is important,” Mr. Hearst emphasized. “Before publishing, a fact checker makes sure my books are ‘legit’ and not fake news,” he said, adding that “my 9-year-old uses the word legit a lot.”

The first step is to make a list. “I love lists!” said Mr. Hearst. Another slide popped up, this one listing possible categories to explore. As he read the items aloud – people, animals, history, science, food, sports, entertainment, art, geography – the students chatted excitedly and contributed some thoughts of their own.

After learning as much as he can by reading, watching videos and talking to countless experts, Mr. Hearst is finally ready to start writing. “I’ll write in my own voice. One thing you don’t want to do is plagiarize. You could get in big trouble,” he cautioned.

Now it was time for the two sections of Class 4 to brainstorm ideas for their own non-fiction books. (The rest of the grade attended the talk later in the day.) To spark their creativity, Mr. Hearst, who is a musician as well, played an original song on his laptop that was based on “The Turtle” from his book. Then he asked the students to share.

Their ideas bounced around Room 604 like popcorn: “Weird fruit!”; “Disgusting desserts!”; “Sea creatures!”; “Fancy birds!” and many others. Even Humanities teachers Noreen Keller and Andrew Pagano got in the spirit by suggesting “Awesome teachers” (Ms. Keller) and “Strange sporting events” (Mr. Pagano).

“Next, you need to research, research, research, take notes and remember your sources,” said Mr. Hearst. For the final minutes, the students concentrated on writing the opening lines of their far-reaching non-fiction books. Guided by Mr. Hearst’s humorous and helpful lesson, they certainly weren’t at a loss for words.

Michael Hearst also treated the entire Middle School to a performance by his band, during which the trio played unusual instruments, including the theremin and the stylaphone, and sang other songs inspired by his books.