In July 2015, Publishers Weekly posed the question: Is children’s nonfiction having its moment? The article mentioned Steve Sheinkin, with whom The Whole Megillah has spoken before. It seemed like a good time to talk to him again.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): At what point in your life did you realize you were a writer?
Steve Sheinkin (SS): Back in the days when my younger brother and I shared a bunk bed, we were always coming up with ideas for stories, comics, little comedy skits. We didn’t think of it as “being writers,” but I can see now that that’s what we were doing.
TWM: What inspires you to write for young readers?
SS: Well, for years I worked in the education publishing market, mainly writing history textbooks. Those books really don’t reach young readers at all, and out of sheer frustration I decided to try to do better on my own. Until that time, I hadn’t thought at all about writing nonfiction for kids or teens.
TWM: What draws you to your subjects, like the atom bomb and the Pentagon Papers?
SS: I like dramatic, complex stories—and I like a real plot, with lots of twists and turns. History is full of stories like this, so it’s just a matter of finding one that grabs my attention. And of course, since we’re talking nonfiction, I have to make sure the source material is rich enough to allow me to tell the story the way I want to, as (hopefully) a page-turner.
TWM: How do you conduct your research, and how do you fund it?
SS: I spend more time research than writing, which I guess is typical of nonfiction writers. Much of it is old fashioned reading: books, newspapers, etc. I’ll also often travel to special libraries or archives, and, when possible, I try to go to places in my stories so I can see them for myself. Only in my newest book, Most Dangerous, has it been possible to actually talk to the people in the story. That was a very exciting change from writing stories set farther back in time. In terms of funding, I think of it as part of the job. So I’ll use some of the advance I get for this purpose—if I got bigger advances, I’d travel a lot more!
TWM: Do you have experts vetting your manuscripts? If so, what’s your process?
SS: I have turned to experts at times, yes. With my book Bomb, for instance, I sought out a couple of scientists to read over my descriptions of fission and other scientific concepts in the book. With the Port Chicago 50, I shared the manuscript with people who know the story well and listened carefully to their feedback.
TWM: How would you characterize your move from Rabbi Harvey books to these nonfiction books for kids?
SS: I still like to draw comics, so I’d say it’s not so much of a move as a gradual transition to doing more nonfiction and less of the comics. Basically, the nonfiction books have done really well, and that’s turned into a full-time job, which is great. Leaves me less time for side projects, but I still love Rabbi Harvey and hope to revisit him at some point.
TWM: What were your favorite books growing up?
SS: I loved historical novels, like the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy for instance, and outdoor adventures, like My Side of the Mountain. Mostly I read nonfiction, though I didn’t know that term. I read anything to do with train robberies, buried treasure, sea adventures, sharks, and sports.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring nonfiction writers?
SS: The process of writing nonfiction is different from writing fiction, of course, but I don’t think any of the advice is different. Just find a story you feel passionate about, and tell it. The thing with nonfiction, of course, is that the sources have to be really good. So before I go too far with an idea, I track down as many sources as I can. I’m looking for characters, bits of action that can be turned into scenes, and even dialogue where possible. If these things don’t exist I abandon the story, even if I love it. So I guess that’s the advice—stack the deck in your favor by picking stories with rich sources.
For more about Steve Sheinkin, please visit his website.