The very funny and lovely Erica S. Perl and I bonded over yogurt, specifically Chobani Passionfruit. Since that initial meeting, we’ve found hundreds of more things in common, especially a love of writing fiction for the middle grade reader. It turns out that Erica’s humor and fast-paced writing are also a perfect match for nonfiction, as you’ll discover when you read her newest book for the slightly younger reader, Truth or Lie: Sharks! illustrated by Michael Slack(Random House Children’s Books).
THREE TRUTHS (AND ONE LIE) ABOUT WRITING TRUTH OR LIE: SHARKS!
By Erica S. Perl
I’m afraid of sharks.
TRUE! Not just in the ocean, mind you. I grew up fearing them in Lake Champlain, the YMCA pool, and even my own bathtub. Intellectually, I know that people are more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to people. And yet, our teeth are nowhere near as sharp! And we don’t glide silently through the water with our mouths open (at least, most of us don’t).
I’m also fascinated by sharks.
TRUE! So, when I decided to write a non-fiction series with fiction baked in, sharks were high on my list of potential topics.
“Now, wait just a second,” I hear you say. “Non-fiction with fiction baked in?”
That’s right. The TRUTH OR LIE books are 75% truth, 25% lies (add them up and you get 100% fun). I came up with the idea after a school visit, during which a non-fiction-loving student informed me, as often happens, that fiction is “all made up.” I usually go to great lengths to show this kind of reader that fiction can be every bit as fun/interesting/cool. To write fiction, I explain, you need to do research, just like for non-fiction. And fiction demands truth when it comes to characters’ emotions. So, I conclude, it’s not “all made up” after all.
But this time, I suddenly had a crazy idea: why couldn’t a book be BOTH?
Why couldn’t I write a non-fiction book that had fiction baked in? And what if it were the reader’s job to spot the made-up stuff, and in so doing develop the ability to not just read, but read critically?
I looked around and saw that while some awesome authors were working on this kind of book for 8-12 year olds (check out Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Thompson’s Two Truths and a Lie series), no one was doing it for the 4-8 year old set (unless you count one of my favorite picture books, Seventeen Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill and Nancy Carpenter, which features the narrator giving a school presentation that is particularly lie-laden).
So, I decided to give it a try.
I’m proud to announce that this crazy idea is now a reality. The first book in the series, TRUTH OR LIE: SHARKS! (Random House Children’s Books)
– written by me and illustrated by the fabulous Michael Slack – just came out.
Writing this book kicked – or, in shark terms, bit – my behind.
TRUE! I know how to write fiction – how hard could non-fiction be? I thought, naively, when I signed my contract.
Hard, I soon found out. Turns out, there are lots of kinds of sharks, and lots of variations in their anatomy. So you have to be careful about words like “all” and “none.” Also, kids know a lot about sharks (a kid on my block dressed as a hammerhead last Halloween, so I made him a consultant on the project). You can’t get stuff wrong in a nonfiction book – especially one with “truth” in the title – or they will let you know. And the lies were hard to write, too, even for a professional liar (though I prefer the term fiction writer) like me. Too easy or obvious? No way. Two hard or obscure? Not okay. The sweet spot was tiny and often elusive.
And then there’s the format. Step Into Reading, Level Three books are not set up for a quiz format (TRUTH OR LIE is the first Step Into Reading series written this way). My editor, Heidi Kilgras, was wonderful at figuring out ways to make the quiz questions work while adhering to the conventions of the reader program’s system and levels. There are strict guidelines for numbers of line per page and characters per line, all designed to meet the reader at an appropriately challenging level. The illustration process added more complexities, because Michael Slack’s wonderful cartoons (and his adorable depiction of the series’ narrator, the Truth Sleuth) interact with photographs and text on practically every page.
Whew! So, now, I have a better appreciation for why some kids love non-fiction. And a lot more awareness of the limits of my own knowledge – thank goodness for libraries! Without them, I could not have written this book or the next book in the series, TRUTH OR LIE: DINOSAURS!
Or the one after that, TRUTH OR LIE: UNICORNS!
LIE! There is no such book in production… yet.
The next TRUTH OR LIE book is TRUTH OR LIE: PRESIDENTS. And that’s no lie!
Erica S. Perl is the author of twenty-five books for young readers. Her most recent middle grade novel, ALL THREE STOOGES, won the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and was a Sydney Taylor Award Honor Book. Erica also writes picture books (CHICKEN BUTT!), early readers, and chapter books, too. Visit her at her website and follow her @ericaperl on social media.