Reading Life: No Heart, No Moon

I’ve been making my way through the 2019 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Sy Montgomery, and as is the case every year, it’s like taking a master class in communicating life and living and all the ways those two things happen in this world. I try to read a couple essays a week, but often pause, struck dumb by a piece that begs for a deeper study. That’s what happened with Matt Jones’ No Heart, No Moon.

Originally published in The Southern Review, the essay is available in its entirety at Jones’ website. It’s a stunning example of literary nonfiction, of taking the facts of a story and weaving them into something that is informative and also deeply meaningful. Art. I read the essay before bed, and re-read it the very next morning, out loud, with my morning tea. It’s gorgeously written, layered with connections that surprise and worry. I’ll be studying it for a while, sharing it with students and friends, pondering the mechanics and the message.

Can We Save the Tiger? (Part 3)


Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

If you’ve been around this week, you know I’m in the midst of a self-directed study of structure in children’s nonfiction books. If you missed them, you might want to check out my previous two posts (here and here) on CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER?

The book is structured like a collage, a collection of several short narratives that are impressive alone but which together tell a deeper story. (I got into the nitty gritty yesterday.) There are other more subtle structures at work in this book, though, and I want to be sure to mention them before I finish my study.

Jenkins starts by exploring the ways humans have visibly changed the world, and then he leads us, animal-by-animal (snapshot-by-snapshot) to the less obvious but equally dangerous invisible change we humans are engineering: climate change. This progression from visible to invisible is logical and probably unnoticed by most casual readers. But it’s effective in that it adds another layer of movement—logical movement—to the piece.

There is also a subtle but palpable emotional arc from the opening question (Can we save the tiger?) to the author’s feeling that a world with “no tigers or elephants, or sawfishes or whooping cranes, or albatrosses or ground iguanas” would be a shame. Jenkins’ final address to the reader (“don’t you?”) takes this arc even one step further. Could any reader resist this gentle pull toward the only imaginable ending? Do I think such a world would be a shame? Why, yes. Yes, I do.

Finally, the design of a children’s book lends a physical dimension to its structure and can, therefore, support textual and thematic structures. There are elements of the design of this book that demonstrate this, I think. For example, font changes are used to great effect: a bold font is used to name animals, gently emphasizing each; a chalky font is used to alert readers to pauses between snapshots (or mini narrative); and a traditional font is used for all the rest. What’s more, transition pages gently underscore the collage structure by offering artistic interludes between each section of the book (or, to use the language I’ve been using in these posts, between each snapshot in Jenkins’ collage)… and they give the artist room to share her glorious studies of animals that, like tigers, partula snails, vultures, bison and kakapos, are in trouble.

I could do several more posts on the ways, beyond structure, that this book works for me. Jenkins’ voice, for example, is superb. (By addressing readers directly, he allows them in to the story and keeps them there.) His descriptions? Lovely. (Partula snails “so small that one of them could happily spend its whole life in a medium-sized bush.”) But it’s time for me to move on to the next book, I think. This study is all about structure.

Bottom line from me? CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER is an engaging exploration of a difficult topic, and I think the structure Jenkins chose to build it with is a big part of its success with readers.

Can We Save The Tiger? (Part 2)


Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

Today I’m sharing some thoughts on the structure used by author Martin Jenkins in his picture book, CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER? (For a more detailed introduction to this plan, read yesterday’s post.)

The story Jenkins shares in CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER is a broad one: we humans are changing the planet and the animals that live here are paying the price. The menagerie of species considered endangered by human activities is overwhelming, so Jenkins separates them into five loose groups. Using a single high-impact example from each group, he then shares the extinction story in small doses, one endangered animal at a time. The resulting structure—a collage of sorts—brings readers to an unforgettable conclusion: losing species is unbearable and we must act.

Let’s look at this collage structure more closely, shall we? Here’s how I see it …

Snapshot 1: Animals that are running out of room. In other words, big animals, like the titular tiger. Jenkins’ voice throughout the book is lovely, and here, early on, we see how his choice to speak directly to the reader is effective:

“… if you were a poor farmer trying to make a living with a couple of cows and a few goats, you might not be too happy if you found there was a hungry tiger living nearby. And if you knew that someone might pay you more for a tiger skin and some bones than you could earn in three whole months of working in the fields, then you might find it very tempting to set a trap or two, even if you knew it was against the law.”

Of course the reader wants to save tigers. But the reader can also understand a poor farmer’s motives. With this carefully chosen first snapshot, the reader is hooked.

Snapshot 2: Animals that are endangered as a result of human-introduced predators. Here Jenkins shows us a tiny snail, a satisfying juxtaposition to the tiger and, I think, a subtle nod to the idea that endangered species run the gamut from BIG to SMALL (and, of course, everything in between; see the UGLY addition below). In his image of the partula snail, we see how the movement of species by humans can have unforeseen and unintended consequences for other species.

Snapshot 3: Animals that are impacted not by movement but by other human actions. Here we add to the idea of running the gamut: even UGLY animals, like vultures, are vulnerable. By now the reader is wondering if there are animals that aren’t endangered.

Snapshot 4: Animals that were nearly extinct but came back. The reader is ready for this bit of good news. Bison were forced to the edge of the extinction abyss by human actions, but we managed to pull them back from that edge in time. This snapshot is a much needed and well-timed picture of hope.

Snapshot 5: Animals that were nearly extinct, that we are trying to help, but which are still in trouble. Here Jenkins makes it clear there is still much to worry about. If we are lucky, as with the bison, we can reverse the damage of our bad habits. But sometimes we will act too late. It’s still not clear if we will be able to save the kakapo.

Each of these snapshots is actually a distinct story, a small narrative starring the animal in question and its plight. Arranged side-by-side, however, and with Vicky White’s art, the snapshots give readers a deeper and broader view of animal extinction on planet Earth. They build a perfect collage.

The effectiveness of the collage structure, of course, is tied to the logic of its presentation. The order in which the individual images are presented to the reader must make sense, even if the reader only experiences that logic subconsciously. Jenkins shows us something big, moves on to something small, then adds something ugly, something hopeful, and something sobering. Another order of these images could, perhaps, build an effective collage. The point, however, is that there are certain orders that would not work at all … and Jenkins knew enough not to use them.

For example, starting with the kakapo, a squat and relatively unknown critter, is technically possible … but such an opening would have been much less compelling than the tiger opening. And Jenkins would have lost the lovely juxtaposition that so nicely relayed the breadth of the extinction problem. (That is, the big-small-and-everything-in-between gamut I mentioned earlier.) Starting with the tiger, an animal all readers will recognize and most will admire, gave the author a much stronger opening …  and plenty of room to transition into a second image.

Here’s something else that struck me about the collage structure: the importance of the order in which the snapshots were presented is very important, but it is not something I recognized on first reading the book. In fact, I didn’t give it a thought! On some subconscious level, the order worked for me, so, I sank into the book and enjoyed the read. The writer is the only one who needs to think the snapshot order logic through. If he does his job well, the structure will be invisible. Readers will read. Choose the wrong order, however, and readers are likely to stumble. I think Jenkins nailed it.

That’s a lot to digest in one post, so I’m going to stop here. Tomorrow I’ll share my final thoughts on this book and the collage structure. In the meanwhile, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments; I’d love to hear them.

Can We Save the Tiger? (Part 1)


Can We Save the Tiger?

By Martin Jenkins

Illustrated by Vicky White

Candlewick Press, 2011

Category: Picture book nonfiction

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve committed myself to a self-directed study of structure in children’s nonfiction. So, for several weeks now I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite titles and exploring their structures more deeply. What structure did the author choose to shape his or her story? In what ways does this structure work well for the piece? Are there ways that it doesn’t? And so on. Here are my not-so-short thoughts on structure in the brilliant picture book CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER?

First of all, after seeing that cover, how could one not pick up this book? Between the breathtaking drawing of a tiger and the irresistible challenge of saving it, I can’t imagine walking away. Can we save the tiger? Good gosh, I hope so. I truly, truly hope so. And before I dive into the structure, I have to dedicate at least one more word to the art. That word: magnificent. I’d read this book even if it had no text. I’d pore over Vicky White’s animal studies and I would weep for their suffering. I truly would. If you haven’t seen these drawings for yourself, you are missing out on something both beautiful and moving.

Of course, I’m a word girl, and so you won’t be surprised to hear that I think White’s art is, in fact, better for having been paired with the words of Martin Jenkins. Exploring the human-driven extinction of some of the world’s most beloved animals in a book for the elementary ages is not an easy task, but Jenkins is up to it. He tells the hard truth, but balances it with hope and invitation: we humans have made life on Earth hard for some animals, we can do better, you can help.

And guess what? Having studied the book more closely this week, I think it’s safe to say that Jenkins’ structural choices play a big role in how successfully these messages reach his readers.

Are you up for a romp through this special book? Great. Go on and give it a read. Tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts on its structure, and you can, if you wish, add your take on the matter. Be forewarned: my ruminations on the structure are longer than the book itself!. That’s why I’ve decided to break the post up. I hope you’ll stay tuned anyway …

Studying Structure


It is not a stretch to say that I’ve spent most of my waking moments since 1975, the year I learned to read, lost inside written stories of one kind or another. If I know anything about storytelling, it was soaked up from these stories, good ones and bad ones, over the past four decades. This knowing has worked its way into my brain, and I draw on it when I write stories of my own. I’m sure of this. But talking about this mysterious knowledge? Articulating why I make certain choices in certain books. (Why a second person narrative in Citizen Scientists? Why that book-ended structure of The Hive Detectives?) Well, I find it hard.

As a writer who spent her career training days studying yeast cells in a laboratory instead of reading the classics and writing stories, I’m always a bit sheepish about talking shop. What do I know about writing? Only this: there is a beautiful logic to storytelling, and it is possible to feel this logic on an instinctual and mostly subconscious level. Which is a really fine way of saying: uh, not much.

But—and here’s the point of this post–I’ve decided to start talking about them anyway. I’d like to understand my own choices better, actually, and doing so is going to involve studying the logic that guided the choices. Deeply.

(Hey … maybe I’m maturing as a writer? One can hope.)

Anyway, since my years of writing children’s nonfiction has helped me realize that the key moment in my writing process is the discovery of the structure a story should take, I’m going to start my study there.  In this all-important moment—I swear there is an audible click!—all the ideas and facts and interview notes and people and places I’ve been researching settle themselves into a clear pattern. A structure. And this structure dictates how I’ll write the story.  I’m going to spend some time in the coming months thinking harder about this moment, about structure I’ve used in my books, and about the structures that work so well in the books of children’s nonfiction I admire.

You, dear reader, can join me if you’d like.  Stay tuned …

Got Plans Tonight?



At 7pm tonight (Wednesday, March 20, 2013), I’ll join several central Massachusetts writers in a panel discussion at the Groton Public Library. This event kicks of a month-long celebration of reading and writing that is built around a town-wide reading of Stephen King’s book ON WRITING. (How cool is that?) We panelists plan to talk about the book and our reactions to it, and to share our own experiences with the art and business of telling (& selling) stories.

Who will be there, you ask? Check it out …

Cal Armistead

Ann Haywood Leal

Greg R. Fishbone

David S. Brody

Loree Griffin Burns

Not a bad way to spend the first night of spring, right? Come on down! Join us!



Can I See Your I.D.?

True Stories of False Identities
By Chris Barton
Illustrations by Paul Hoppe
Dial, 2011

Category: Middle Grade Nonfiction

I wanted to get my hands on this book for two reasons. First, Chris Barton wrote it. (Duh.) Second, I’d read somewhere the entire collection of thematically-linked true stories was written in the second person; this I had to read.

For those of you who haven’t thought about narrative mode in a while, the second person refers to the use of the personal pronoun “you.” As in:

“You are a fibber. A confabulator. Mary Baker, you’re a liar.”

Those are the opening lines from Barton’s profile of Mary Baker, who spent a couple crazy weeks in the summer of 1817 impersonating an exotic Asian princess. Her story is interesting in its own right, but because of the Barton’s choice to tell it in the second person, and to bundle it with ten additional short biographies of pretenders, readers are treated to something unexpected: front row seats in her interrogation.

And in the end, this is what struck me most about this book. Barton’s use of second person is a huge part of why it works so well, even though his is a somewhat unorthodox use of the form. Typically, a nonfiction writer will use second person to pull a reader into a piece, hoping she will see herself as the “you.” That is exactly why I used second person in CITIZEN SCIENTISTS, my book on kids and nature study. I wanted to invite readers into the experiences I was writing about:

“Butterfly eyes can detect movement, so when you sneak up on your monarch, net raised high over your head, be sure to move slowly. Do not point. Do not let your shadow fall on the butterfly. Breathe quietly.”

The reader is there with me in the meadow, catching butterflies. And if the form has worked the way I intended, she will be breathing quietly, waiting to see what happens next.

In Barton’s second person narrative, though, “you” is not the reader at all; “you” is the person being profiled. By taking this approach in a collection of ten biographies, Chris asserts his role not only as the book’s narrator, but as a trustworthy interrogator. As a reader, I came to understand that he would ask the right questions of his subjects, get me to the bottom of their strange stories of deception. I read along for the ride. And even though the ten subjects were from different times and places in history, they were strongly linked, in my mind, by their interrogator. (Er, biographer.)

I really, really enjoyed this book. Check it out, and whatever you do, do not skip the Afterword.  It is also written in the second person, but this time the “you” refers to Chris himself. That is, Barton is both the interrogator and the person being interrogated in this final chapter. My head nearly exploded as I tried to follow along. Totally brilliant.

A Writer’s Prayer

This morning I wrote the crappiest first draft of a book ever penned.

It is foul, I tell you. Beyond ugly. Practically unreadable.

But it’s done.

So, now I’ll go outside and enjoy the rest of the day. First, with a nod to Annie Lamott*, a prayer to the writing gods: Please don’t let me fall off a mountain or get hit by a bus before I am able to begin turning this piece of writing into a decent manuscript; I would hate for my mourning family to find this wretched first draft!


And Happy Labor Day.

*If you are a writer, particularly a new one, consider reading Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. Trust me.