Thursday, February 06, 2014

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction: should we even compare the two?

I’ve often wondered what it takes to write non-fiction, so I thought I would interview someone who is a very prolific non-fiction children’s author and one of my writing buddies: Jennifer Swanson.

A 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Jennifer's first assignment was to teach chemistry at the Naval Academy Prep School. From there, her Navy career took her to Norfolk, VA where she was stationed with her husband, Jon. Out of the Navy now, Jennifer now lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her family.

Jennifer has a B.S. in chemistry and an M.S. Ed in K-8 science. In addition to being an award-winning author, she is also a middle school science instructor for John Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth.

Jennifer's first published fiction series, Penny and Rio Mysteries, set the stage for her rediscovered love of writing. Setting out to combine her love of science with her love of writing, she has embarked upon the nonfiction path. She has written two non-fiction science picture books for Capstone Press. Body Bugs: Invisible Creatures in the Body and Uninvited Guests: Invisible Creatures in the Home were released in August 2011. In September 2011, The Child's World published five more books by Jennifer in their "How Things Work" series. Finally, check out the award-winning e-book site, A Story Before Bed for some exciting new titles from Jennifer.

An active member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Jennifer regularly attends the Florida branch of SCBWI's conferences in Orlando and Miami.

AMM: Welcome Jennifer. Your first published work was a fiction series entitled Penny and Rio Mysteries. What got you interested in writing non-fiction for kids?

JS: My background is in science and I love getting kids excited about all aspects of science. I’m also a middle school science teacher so any time I can talk about science or history, etc., it’s just cool. 

Penny and Rio are two dogs who are complete opposites. Penny is curious and always on the go, while Rio prefers a good nap. At their new house, Penny discovers that their backyard is the meeting place for several different animals. Penny doesn't know why a cat, a groundhog, a squirrel, and an owl could possibly be meeting, but she knows she has to find out. She comes up with an ingenious plan for spying on them and discovers their plot. She has to stop them - but can she get her sister dog, Rio, to help her or will Rio decide that sleep is more important? Follow along as these two pet detectives, Penny and Rio, solve the first of many cases in Penny and Rio: The Mysterious Backyard Meeting.

Here is a link to the interactive books for exceptional learning in this series:

AMM:  You’ve written a variety of non-fiction books, from topics about tsunamis to Body Bugs to science. What was your favorite book to write? And why?

JS: It’s hard to pick just one book. I really liked writing them all. But if I had to pick one, I’d say the Tsunami book was really fun. I teach Earth science and I find the whole earthquake/tsunami science very interesting. Plus, it was fascinating, although sad, to learn about the Japan tsunami and the ways they tried to prevent the massive devastation.

Tsunamis (Earth in Action)

AMM: I love the cover, though I have to admit that the thought of tsunamis leaves me cowering.  Do you intend to return to fiction writing at some point?

JS: Some of the books I’ve written for publishers are fiction. I did two for Compass Publishing, and I’ve done several for the award-winning website, A Story Before Bed. I’d love to write more fiction, but nonfiction is fun, too.

AMM: Which is more enjoyable? Writing fiction or non-fiction? 

JS: I like both actually. Fiction is a little more freeing since you can write what you want and you can have your characters experience many different emotions and expose them to tons of situations. But, although some may think differently, writing nonfiction is not easy. The difficult trick is to stay true to the facts but provide a good story arc. You have to take information that might be confusing and chunk it down into something easily understandable. It’s fun, but hard work.

AMM: You’ve confirmed my thoughts on this. I’ll definitely stick to writing fantasy. J What has been the best experience so far on your journey as an author? 

JS: I love doing author visits. Talking to kids about writing, my books, and answering their very perceptive questions is just fun. They make being an author exciting and rewarding.

AMM: Yes, I agree with you 100%. It’s an amazing sensation when the target audience loves and appreciates your work. Your latest book is Top Secret Science (Projects you aren’t supposed to know about]  Can you give me some insight into any upcoming projects?

JS:  I’m working on some of my own manuscripts – some are nonfiction picture books and others are fiction picture books or mid-grade novels. I’m a writer who always has ideas flowing and is working on multiple projects at one time. It keeps me motivated and working.  

AMMDo you have any tips for aspiring writers?

JS: If writing is your passion, never give up. But I also offer this—be brave and take risks.  This business is a difficult one and playing it safe by only writing what you are comfortable with may never get you where you want to go. I’ve been asked by many editors to write about a topic I knew nothing about and my answer is always, YES, I can do that. Then I go and figure out how. That’s what writers should do – expand your horizons and believe in yourself enough to branch out and say yes even when you are thinking – How in the world can I write about THAT? You can. J

AMMThat’s great advice, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing. And finally, can you tell me something about yourself that most people won’t know?

JS: A really obscure fact that many people don’t know is that I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1990. Our class was known as “the bellybutton class” because on all 990 diplomas, Naval was spelled “Navel”. 

AMM: OMG, I had no idea you graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy; and LOL, I love the name ‘the bellybutton class’. Hmm. I can see a story there…  


Below are links to three more of Jennifer’s books. The rest can be found here.


To find out more about Jennifer, you can check out her website at:  

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