Building Connections through Nonfiction Storytelling: Award-Winning Author Candace Fleming
S1 E18 Adventures in Learning Podcast
Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor
Guest: Candace Fleming
How do you make connections and help young truth seekers have context so that they know that the facts they have are actually true? We are going to explore this and so much more with nonfiction storyteller extraordinaire Candace Fleming. Candace Fleming is the author of more than 40 books. Among her nonfiction titles are Giant Squid, Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and The Family Romanoff: Murder, Rebellion, & The Fall of Imperial Russia. Most recently, she's published The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindberg, which won the 2021 YALSA Excellence in nonfiction and Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, the winner of the 2021 Sibert Medal. She also just recently published Crash From Outer Space, which we're going to talk about. And there's the upcoming
Polar Bear, which I'm really excited about. Candace is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Orbis Pictus Award, and a two-time recipient of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for nonfiction, the ALA Sibert Honor, and SCBWI's Golden Kite Award. I had a wonderful time talking truth, fiction, and everything in between with Candace Fleming. What follows are highlights from our conversation.
Building A Diverse Body of Work -- How Do You Write for Audiences as Diverse as Preschoolers and High Schoolers?
[01:41] Dr. Diane: So I guess the first thing I want to talk about is you have written so many books. You've covered the gamut from picture books to history with Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindberg and science with the Honeybee and Giant Squid. How do you move across that wide breadth in children's literature?
[02:02] Candy: I always joke and say that it's my short attention span that sort of allows me to do all those different things. I'm not sure if it's necessarily like the super ability that I have to move from YA nonfiction to preschool fiction. I think really it's about what I'm curious about and what I feel like I want to write. And then I think about who I think would be the most receptive audience for those particular books. I'm thinking about, for instance, Bulldozer's Big Day. Here I was in the middle of working on The Family Romanoff, which was sort of a dark and very lengthy, really complicated process, really complicated project, and I really just needed some escape. And so I went for a walk and I watched a couple of little boys with their mother watching construction trucks in the neighborhood. And I thought, that's exactly what I need. I need to spend a little time with little boys and construction trucks. So I actually came home and it was almost sort of a relief. So I do that a lot. I'll be working on this big complex project and at the same time, I'll be working on a little bit of preschool. So for me, it's left brain, right brain, and it provides balance. I don't think I could write YA nonfiction nonstop all the time.
What inspires Candy's nonfiction writing?
[03:30] Dr. Diane: That makes sense. And I love the idea of the balance. I've been following your books for years, and I realized that so many of the things you write about are also things that I obsessed about or was curious about, which may be why I love following you. What inspires you for doing things as diverse as, say, the Romanoffs and Charles Lindbergh?
[03:52] Candy: You know what, here's the thing, and I love that you said that, because I'm writing about stuff that I was really interested in, you know, when I was in middle school or high school. I've sort of started doing that seriously and consciously and picking topics that I like. Of course, I have to be really interested in the topic, first of all, because those projects take two, three, four, sometimes five years. But I've been consciously picking projects that I was fascinated by when I was in middle school and high school. And I don't think readers have changed a whole lot since then. I also think that middle school and high school might have a lot of facts to hand that I didn't have, say, when I was obsessing about, oh, say, like the Lindberg kidnapping. I didn't have that device in my hand that I could just click, click and find some facts.
But here's what I think about nonfiction in the 21st century. The reason I write for middle school and middle school and high school nonfiction is because I think they have plenty of facts to hand, but they don't have any context. And I also think that that is an age group that are seeking facts. They're looking, actively looking. They are truth seekers. And so I thought to myself, I know that they are looking, and they're thinking about these very same ideas that I was when I was middle school and high school. So I'm going to go back and I'm going to pluck those ideas, one, selfishly so that I can delve more deeply into it and examine it myself and investigate, and two, because I think they'll appreciate the investigation.
How does creative nonfiction help build connections?
05:27] Dr. Diane: I was thinking over the last ten years or so, I know that google and the cell phone and all of that, just from what I've seen as a teacher, we have the facts. They don't necessarily need us for to say this is the fact. But what I'm finding kids do need is to have us help them build the connections to figure out how do these things connect and how do you know what's true and what isn't right? How can you work through all of this stuff that's out there on the internet, right?
[05:55] Candy: How can you work through it? And I think even more importantly, with history, why is it important because I never pick a piece of history that I'm just going to chronicle it because I think kids should know about Charles Lindbergh. That would be, I think, a waste of everybody's time.
What I always think about in terms of those nonfiction stories that I bring to those readers, I ask myself, what does this piece of history have to say? What does this piece of history have to say to how we live today? What echoes? What hooks? What can we see about ourselves in the present day that can be found? What can we find about ourselves in the present day that can be found in those stories from the past? And so that's another reason why I pick certain stories and why I choose to tell them, I think, the way that I do.
I think it's interesting that you talked about how can we help kids. How can kids know they have all the facts at hand and how do they know which are the correct facts or which is the right information or how to connect that to the base of information that they already have so that they can think about that in deeper ways? And I have a book, and I know it's sort of a surprising book for me, and it just came out. It's called Crash From Outer Space, and it's for solidly middle school students. But while it supposedly looks at flying saucers and alien life and that whole conspiracy that we've heard about for the past 30, 50 years, I don't know now about Roswell, while it looks sort of like an examination of that, in truth, it’s, what it's really about is why do we believe conspiracy theories? Why do we believe extraordinary claims without any extraordinary evidence? And how do we go about determining what's truth and what's not? And that's what that book is really about. So it's really like a gigantic question mark. I laughed. I thought to myself, oh, my gosh, I've just given kids 160 pages of questions. But it was really important to me to talk about the critical thinking process in terms of a subject that I thought they would be fascinated by, which is, of course, flying saucers and alien life.
[08:20] Dr. Diane: That sounds like a really powerful book for our times, especially when you think about all of the conspiracy theories that are out there.
[08:26] Candy: Right. And in this way, like I said, it's palatable. They go into something they're naturally interested in, I think. And I was too, of course, at that age. And yet then they really get to look at that evidence and really ask some serious questions. Is it true? Is it not? And I think it's fascinating. All of a sudden, it has real connections. I mean, it certainly has connections to conspiracy theories. And our problem anymore with determining what is truth, what is good evidence, what is a good verifiable source, what is really a witness? We might not seem to even understand that anymore. But interestingly, suddenly I've noticed all these things in the newspaper or I've heard on the radio. Like, NASA suddenly formed a group, they did it just last week, to investigate what the US. Government is now calling UAPs instead of UFOs. So suddenly it's become relevant news wise as well, which is interesting.
How do you structure nonfiction to keep readers engaged while still providing them with the confidence that what they are reading is factual?
[10:18] Candy: Oh, I love that you asked that. So I'm writing narrative nonfiction, or what some people call creative nonfiction, although sometimes people get that confused and they think creative nonfiction means that you created facts or situations or scenes, and that's not true. Creative means that you presented the information in a creative way as opposed to an encyclopedia.
Here's the thing. I do a lot of research, first of all, and I gather up a lot of details and a lot of descriptions and a lot of minutiae when I'm doing research, which means that I'm going to research some of those stories three, four, five years, right? Which is another reason to be writing something short at the same time, of course. And what I do is I gather up all that information, and then I began to think about my story in terms of scene, just like a fiction writer would. So I think about it in terms of scene. What's an important scene? What's the next important scene from beginning to the end? I also know the story that I'm trying to tell before I actually sit down and write it, and I actually call it my vital idea as opposed to theme. And it's that thing that we already talked about briefly, what do I have to say to readers of the 21st century with this particular piece of history? And that helps determine the course of what goes in the book and what does not, because you do research and you have so much and you'd like to share everything, right?
Building Creative Nonfiction Through Vital Ideas
[11:56] Candy: If it doesn't speak right to what my vital idea is, I don't include it. So here's the deal, I never know what that vital idea is until I've done a bunch of research, and then the story sort of tells me how it wants to be told.
I'm really interested in people. I think people drive history, so I'm really interested in what they say, what their motivations are, what other people have said about them. I really want kids to feel like that history is really, really close and that those are real life people, not people on pedestals like we oftentimes get in history class.
These were people that made decisions, one day in their lives, that affect you today. And they made it because their back was sore or they had the stomach flu or they just had a fight with their wife. They were people. And thinking in terms of all of that, that's sort of what I try to bring to those books. I also, for a very long time, thought about nonfiction for middle grade and high school. As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts about nonfiction for middle school, but I've often thought that I wanted to write nonfiction in a way that would give them the exact same experience as when they read a novel, so that they're going to fill in with their imagination.
I'm going to give them as much of the setting as I possibly can without making anything up, and so that they have that very same experience. So as they read along with the nonfiction writer, me, they are doing what they would do if they were writing, if they were reading fiction. So they're grappling with questions and they're grappling with moral issues, and they're asking themselves, would I have made that choice? And the only way you can write that is to write it narratively, like a novel.
That said, there's limits to that. For example, if I say somebody walked across the green carpet, that carpet better be green. Nicholas Romanoff, I think in almost every scene, he's smoking. I know that's true because I don't know how many firsthand accounts I had that he was a chain smoker, and they said the only time that he didn't smoke was when he was chewing food or sleeping. So you can bet that he always had a cigarette during conversation. So you can add that so it feels more like a novel.
What happens when research shifts the vital idea?
[14:25] Dr. Diane: Have you ever, as you've been writing, thought your vital idea was going to be one thing and then just had a huge shift as research developed?
[14:34] Candy: All the time. And I think the perfect example is The Family Romanoff, and I went into that knowing that I was probably going to bust a couple of middle schoolers’ ideas of that sort of fairy tale that we have, particularly about Anastasia, right? And I knew that that was probably going to happen. So I wanted to go in, and I thought my vital idea was simply to tell readers who this family really was and what really happened that led to that terrible tragedy in that basement. Okay, so I researched for years and years, seriously, and I have no kidding, I have 16 pages of notes about Faberge eggs because, Diane, I love them. They're beautiful and they're interesting, and they're like this extravagant, amazing gift. I want one.
And then I went to Russia. I was invited to go to the archives in Moscow. And so I went to Russia, and I got the opportunity to follow sort of in the footsteps of the Romans. And I got to visit that imperial estate that they moved to. They left St. Petersburg and the seat of government and escaped to this place 15 miles away, where no one could get into, this huge estate that had several palaces on it. And they picked the small palace, only 120 rooms, and they moved. And no one can come to visit them unless they have an appointment, which, when you think about that, is really an isolation from government. And I thought that was, like, crazy. Here's Nicholas, he's head of this country, but he doesn't want to be where everything is happening, where his ministers are, where the Duma is, he doesn't want to be there. He wants to be far out in the country. And I thought, well, that tells me a lot about him.
So I get there, and what I had thought I knew was he had isolated himself, but I thought it was purely physical isolation. I get there and I discover that this palace that I thought must have been in the middle of this enormous imperial park so no one could see them, I discovered they have picked the palace right up against the gate, the perimeter fence. And right directly on the other side of that fence is the village. Not only that, they have picked rooms on that side of it, on that side of the palace, their personal rooms, which means every single day they could look out their windows and they could see their people. They could hear them talking, they could smell their food cooking, they could hear their babies crying. And it still didn't seem to make any difference to them. And I thought to myself, wow, this is not a physical isolation. This is a psychological isolation, and that is entirely different.
And so then I actually stood there at the gates from the palace looking into this village, and I realized that I could not tell this story about the Romanoffs until I told a story of first hand accounts of villagers, peasants, workers, revolutionaries, soldiers. I had to actually focus on the people that Nicholas was supposedly ruling, that I couldn't tell the story without it. And so that vital idea suddenly changed. It was, how did it happen? You know, the vital idea was, how did the Romanoffs die? But suddenly the question is, what happens when a ruler doesn't pay attention to the needs of his people? What happens when a ruler isolates himself? What happens when a ruler and his ruling class own 97% of the wealth and they're one and a half percent of the population? And suddenly that changed. So I had to do more research, and sadly, my 16 pages of Faberge eggs. I defy you to find a single mention of those eggs in the book.
Giant Squid, Honeybees, and Polar Bears
[23:27] Dr. Diane: So I want to shift out of history and move into the world of science for a few minutes. So I absolutely love Honeybee and I love Giant Squid. I use them both in work I've done with kids. I worked at the libraries this summer on some of their programs. We used Giant Squid to create and build structures that would allow us to get to the bottom of the sea to go exploring. And the museum I used to be at had an observation hive. And so I got to go out and help tend to hive and tend the bees. And so I have lost my copy of Honeybee. I've literally gone through three copies of your book because people keep taking it. It's that good.
[24:07] Candy: What a shame.
[24:09] Dr. Diane: No, I don't mind because people are reading, but what moved you to sort of explore those particular topics.
[24:17] Candy: I'll be really honest. With Giant Squid, that was not my idea. That was Eric [Rohmann]'s. He wanted to, he was obsessed with giant squid, and he actually had a book contract to do it. And he had a really hard time coming up with a text that he felt worked as a picture book. And so finally he came down to me, like he always says, oh, gosh, what was I thinking? I had a nonfiction writer in the house and I should just utilize her. So he came down and he said, you know, look at this. And I said, yeah, the text is a mess, but he already had some really amazing sketches for what he thought he was going to do with the book. And so I took on the project for him. And then I discovered when I did the research, that I was absolutely fascinated by them myself.
And what I found most interesting was the fact that we know nothing about them, that we share our world with hundreds of thousands of these creatures, that some can grow to be the size of the school bus, and we never see them. Andthat just sort of blew me away that we could know more about the surface of Mars than a giant squid or know more about dinosaurs than a giant squid. It's just crazy, isn't it?
So I realized that sort of the vital idea for this book was how much we don't know about giant squid, that they're just so mysterious. And that became sort of the thing that I followed when I looked at science books at the time. I went and looked at science picture books, and to be really honest, I did not like them because they were so often a fact and a page picture, turn the page, a fact and a picture, turn the page. And sometimes they might have had a lead in like imagine you are there….
And I've always come from that picture book place where picture books are written for the musicality of the language, for it to sound beautiful when it's read out loud, and for there to be some emotional heat to it. And so often science books have no emotional heat. And I don't think that's the best way we can connect with readers, or at least that I can connect with my readers. [26:10] Candy
So once I realized that it was the mystery that I wanted to kind of focus on, I decided to write this lyrical, mysterious writing sort of story. The language got that atmospheric feel to it. And I remember I sent it to our editor, Neil Porter, and I said, I know this is not like anything that you have seen out there when it comes to science books, but I just feel like I have to tell it this way. And of course, he loved it and it did really well.
And so we were asked to do a second book. And so we had done a big animal that nobody sees, so we thought we would do a little animal that everyone sees, a little creature that maybe we don’t know anything about. And I remember when I told Neil I picked the honeybee, he said, oh, that's a really important story. And it was so funny because I was immediately put off by that because I thought, oh, he's thinking about the fact that it's in danger, that it's how we live today, right? We can't live without honeybees. 70% of everything we eat is connected to their work. But I thought to myself, this book is for third graders. And I don't think telling third graders those sorts of facts does anything, that doesn't connect. And if I want kids to take some sort of action, I have to have to, again, emotional heat, right? I have to have that personal connection. I have to find something they can connect to.
And I really believe that action requires empathy. And so I thought to myself, if I can get kids to fall in love with one bee, they will love all bees. And so that's why suddenly I'm writing a biography of just one bee. And I discovered they have this amazing life that I didn't even realize that in this 35 short days they do all these tasks and they don't fly to the very, very end. And I thought, well, there's my tension.
You know, I knew I had succeeded when right before COVID, I went to a Christian school in Texas, and I got to share the book. But the first time I shared it, third grade, the next day they went to their school. They had a school worship service, and every class was asked to give something to pray for. And those third graders actually asked the rest of the school to pray for honeybees. And I thought, yes! It worked even better during COVID which was really when the book came out. And I would share it online with kids when we were zooming and they're at home. And I had a group of third graders that I was sharing with. And as you know, the book is no, she doesn't fly. No, she doesn't fly. No, she's stuck in this dark hive. And finally when that part was, she says, and yes, she flies and she leaps out of the hive, and then you turn the page and she's out in the sunshine and the sweetness of the flowers. And I actually had a third grader unmute himself and he goes just like us. One day, we'll leap out of our hives and all of his friends like unmute, unmute, and they're like, Yay. And I'm like trying not to cry. And I said to myself, it's amazing.
There's this alchemy you never know what kids are going to find in your work. You never know what they're going to connect to. And who would have thought that Honeybee would connect them to the possibility of there being a better world eventually when they were stuck in their little hives?
So now we have Polar Bear. It is that same sort of idea. So we're going to follow a mother and her two cubs from the day they step out of their den to the day they return to the ice. And it really is a story about their struggle, how important it is to have ice, and how our warming climate, our warming world, has made their life, which is always so hard anyway, made it even more difficult. Again, I'd love to, in the book, address climate change straight on, but I don't think that serves at least my third grade readers for that book. I don't think it serves as well. Again, if you care about bears, then you can say what can I do?
What is it like collaborating with real-life partner Eric Rohmann?
[32:10] Candy: It's easy. He's really easy. Here's what we do. I kind of write my text and then I send it upstairs to the studio and he does his illustrations. And then we will come back and we'll look at words and pictures together, decide what words need to go or often, once we put the words, once you see the words on the picture, you realize it's a little too texty. And these are text heavy books anyway. I realize that. But even now you get a text heavy one, you go, oh, that's too heavy. So we'll do that together and we'll look at it and change a few words. Or I'll make some suggestions illustrative wise, although I don't do that too often because he's usually right. It's actually really easy. It's really easy. I know we served out a panel not too long ago where the title was “We Wrote a Book Together and We Survived.” And I thought, yeah, it's not too tough. It's actually really fun because I know that, one, I’m getting a really great illustrator, but I know I'm going to have somebody that listens. We listen to each other and value each other's opinions, and that really makes the project much, so much better, and easier.
Origin Stories: Candy's "I'm a Liar" Story
[34:57] Dr. Diane: So let's move back just a little bit. I had read an interesting story about how you entered into storytelling as a preschooler. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that? Because I thought it was just a great story as a former preschool teacher myself.
[35:12] Candy: You mean my I'm a liar story?
[35:25]: Dr. Diane: It’s a great story.
[35:35]: Candy: All right. So when I was a kid, very young, I discovered that people would believe me if I told my stories, one with real confidence, but two, with a lot of detail, right? So I told people, like, in kindergarten, I had a series of stories that I told about my three-legged cat named Spot and the adventures that we had in my backyard with, like, tigers and bears and snakes in northern Indiana. And it's basically a bedroom community of Chicago, but I was talking to my friends in kindergarten, so they actually believed me. And of course, when they came over, they would learn that I didn't have tigers or bears or snakes in my backyard.
[36:08] Dr. Diane: How disappointing.
[36:09] Candy: How disappointing. Well, then even worse, I don't have a three-legged cat. In fact, I don't have a cat. And so there were years where people would go, oh, Candy's a fibber, right? I had a second grade teacher, Miss Johnson, and I told her that we went to Paris, France for the long weekend, our vacation weekend probably was like Columbus Day or something. I told her we went to Paris, and I had told her that we ate a lot of French bread and we had a lot of pastries, and we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and my father had bought me a new yellow hat, and it blew away. You can tell what I was reading at the time, Madeline, but I told it with so many details, like, that hat blew off while we were at the top of the Eiffel Tower and my dad bought me a new one, that she actually believed that story. And she called my parents and wanted photographs of her trip to Paris, France so the other second graders could learn about Paris, France. And of course, my mother going, she didn’t. We didn’t. Candy told another story. And you would think that everybody would have been really mad, but in fact, all of them, including Miss Johnson, really encouraged me to tell those stories. I got a little older. I was able to write them down. The head and the hand went almost the same speed, and I was really encouraged to write them down. So I had teachers after that that knew I was writing those crazy stories and would ask me to share them with the class. They would ask me what I was working on right now. So they were really treating me like a writer. I had that reputation as a fibber, but really, I was just a storyteller. And that's what Miss Johnson said. Candy is not a fibber. She's a storyteller and should write them down. Or if you're going to tell me a story, just tell me it's a story.
Playful Learning, STEAM Connections, and Encouraging Storytellers Today
[38:18] Dr. Diane: How would you encourage other storytellers today?
[38:22] Candy: Tell those stories. You can get first and second graders to play. You can get them to tell you a story, and you can write it down for them so that they don't feel completely terrified by the fact that they actually have to create words and sentences. If you just toss the conventions aside, you tell me a story and I'll write it down. They can create astonishing stories, but by fourth and fifth grade, it’s just like suddenly I keep saying to them, we're just going to play, right? And they're so worried about what it looks like on that page. So I'm all about, just tell me a story, and you don't have to write it down. You don't have to finish it. You don't have to start it from beginning and work to the end. And not everything that you write down or you tell has to be a project. It's not to be turned in. I always call it just taking a few sentences out for a walk.
[39:30] Dr. Diane: I like that.
[39:31] Candy: Sentences out for a walk. It doesn't matter. Just play around with the language. It doesn't have to be something that needs to be assessed or graded or turned in.
[39:41] Dr. Diane: And playful learning is sometimes the best learning because then you're open to other things.
[39:47] Candy: And it's interesting how they've like, by fourth or fifth grade, they've forgotten how to play or how to pretend. We're going to do an exercise with point of view. And first I'm going to ask you to be like a poet describing the sunset or the sunrise, and then I'm going to ask you to switch, and we ask you to be a vampire describing the sunrise. And really, I just want you to pretend. I want you to fall into those characters, be the vampire, be the poet, be the whatever. And it's amazing how really hard it is for them to just let go.
[40:25] Dr. Diane: And I think that's where the importance of the arts in STEAM education comes in, too. Because when you can continue to keep the arts in, then you keep fostering that playful learning as well.
[40:35] Candy: Right. And I love playful learning. I love that. Yes, that's exactly it. It's like, let's just play around a little bit.
What currently brings Candy joy?
[40:48] Candy: Hiking. Traveling. Since we're back to traveling, we do a lot of traveling where we do a lot of hiking. We just came back from a big trip in Croatia, where we went sailing. But that's what brings me joy these days. And I do like being home with the dog. He's here in my office on the floor.
[41:06] Dr. Diane: I've got two behind me, and they’re actually behaving.
[41:08] Candy: I hope no UPS guy turns up because, you'll know he's here.
[41:13] Dr. Diane: Exactly.
[41:14] Candy: But yeah, I like being at home. I like walking the dog. We've been going to the woods a lot right now. It's gorgeous in Chicago. It's fall and it's like one of the most beautiful autumns that we've had in a long time. Just sort of walking and being out in the world. It feels like I'm catching up for time. It feels like we haven't been out in the world.
[41:35] Dr. Diane: That makes sense to me.
[41:37] Candy: Yeah. And I'm really looking forward — NCTE is next month, and I'm really looking forward to that because I have so many friends that I see at that conference or I used to see that I haven't seen in years. I know I should be way more interested in those panels and what I'm going to say, but my focus is definitely on seeing friends.
[42:02] Dr. Diane: Well, reconnecting with other people is a huge part of being human, and we've missed that the last couple of years.
[42:09] Candy: We really have. Yeah. I'm