For my Research Secrets, column in February 2009, I interviewed children’s natural history book writer, Nicola Davis.
Nicola’s skill is writing narrative non-fiction in a way young children will understand. She has written several books in the Walker Read and Wonder series, including Big Blue Whale, One Tiny Turtle and Ice Bear. She has also written science books for older children, including Poo a Natural History of the Unmentionable, Extreme Animals and Who’s Eating You – a book about parasites.
“I love my subject so research is a pleasure. Also, research gives me ideas for HOW to approach a subject, as well as providing the WHAT part. Writing a book makes you ask two questions: What am I going to write and HOW am I going to write it. Research a BIT to give you some of the WHAT of your book; then write an outline to give you the HOW, which will help you generate the right questions to ask to get all the rest of the WHAT.” Nicola Davis
Nicola has spent most of her life studying animals in one way or another so she is aware research doesn’t fall into a particular category. Much of the material that goes into her books is stuff she already knows. She explains she just needs to top up some of her general knowledge with a bit of Googling and library work.
She tries not to write about animals or habitats that she hasn’t seen but her work as a wildlife researcher, tour guide and TV presenter in all sorts of places certainly helps. She has visited animals in Newfoundland, Alaska, Kenya, Madagascar, Australia, Tobago – much of that time she is sailing on board various sorts of boats from 25 foot wooden sail boats to cruise ships.
“I often use New Scientist and other more specialised scientific journals, plus a large library of zoological reference on my own shelves. It depends entirely on the project….For Ice Bear I knew most of the polar bear stuff but wanted more about polar bears and Inuit culture and both books and Internet were good for that. For Extreme Animals I collected likely material from trawling New Scientist and other journals for about six months before I put the book together.” Nicola Davis
Her aim is to show children that science isn’t a stone tablet… so if there is controversy over something, or an area where we just don’t know, she strongly believes it’s exciting, interesting and VITAL to say so.
Some information is simply too big and complex for young children. They need a background of other knowledge to understand it. Nicola’s text may not be able to deliver all of the tricky concepts, but it can, by subtle suggestion and association, prepare their minds to receive it later. For example, bat echolocation is fabulously complex, making use of frequency modulation and Doppler Effect in ways that science is only just beginning to fully understand. This is way too much for a young child, but the essence of the idea can be carried very simply:
“…bat shouts as she flies, louder than a hammer blow, higher than a squeak. She beams her voice around like a torch, and the echoes come singing back. They carry a sound picture of all her voice has touched.” (Nicola Davis from Bat Loves the Night, Walker Books 2001, page 14
It isn’t the whole story, but it’s true, accurate and lays the right foundation. Also and perhaps more importantly, it gives a feeling, an atmosphere of what is going on during echolocation; it imparts to the reader a basic emotional understanding of the facts.
You can read the full interview in the February 2009 #89 issue of Writers Forum.
You can find more information about Nicola Davis, her books and her writing at: www.nicola-davies.com