When some of your book subjects include ghosts, Big Foot and aliens, fact checking and reliable sources are very important aspect of the research process.
Author Kelly Milner Halls writes non-fiction, science based children’s books, several of which deal with these topics. Recently, she spent a day at Dorothy Fox Elementary School in Camas. A highlight was the author’s lunch, which included fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Her book, “The Tales of the Cryptids,” is currently one of the most popular choices in the school library.
“I don’t tell you for sure Big Foot is real, I don’t tell you for sure aliens are real. I don’t tell you for sure ghosts are real. I give you the evidence that I found through years of research, and I leave it for you guys to decide,” she said. “You have to control the rest of your lives what you believe. You’re smart. People forget how smarts kids are. You can take that information and you can make a decision for yourself, or you and your parents can sit down and you can say ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, look at this book, what do you think’?”
Halls, who lives in Spokane, came to Dorothy Fox as a part of a Camas Educational Foundation grant written by Liberty Middle School librarian Mistalyn Batten.
“At Fox, we look for ways to link what our students are learning to authentic real world experiences and occupations, said Gretchen McLellan, reading specialist. “Writing is social communication, so by inviting professional authors to our school we give students the opportunity to know the person behind the name on the cover of the book, to ask questions about the process of writing and publishing, and, most importantly, to be able to visualize themselves as published authors as well.”
The author’s lunch started off with 10 children gathered around a U-shaped table with Halls. They all listed the most recent books they had read, or their favorites. The list included “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Sent,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Almost Home,” and the “Redwall” series.
The students also had the opportunity to ask Hall questions. These included topics such as her favorite book and why she enjoys writing.
Halls’ favorite book is “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. This is the story that really turned her on to fiction reading. Before that, she was mainly interested in non-fiction, and thought fiction was a waste of time.
“Then my second-grade teacher read ‘Charlotte’s Web aloud — and I, I was Fern,” she said. “I said, ‘you’re kidding me, there are stories in these books?’ It would not click in my head until I heard it aloud from my teacher. And then, I fell in love with fiction too.”
Writing is interesting to Halls because of her insatiable curiosity.
“I was that kid in your class that asked too many questions,” she admitted. “I am always curious. And my curiosity isn’t like most people’s — it’s off the charts. If something really engages my curiosity, there is no point to going to bed until I look it up and figure it out a little bit because I will just sit there and dream about it all night long and wake up tired. If I’m in that zone, I just do the research on it and figure out that core [answer], and then I can go back the next day and decide if I have something I can write about, or just something I wish I could write about.”
A lot of the discussion focused on how Halls collects information for her books (research and interviews) and what happens once she hands her work over to the publisher.
Hall’s publisher checks all of her facts. She gives them a complete bibliography.
She stressed the importance of research.
“I try to be really careful on the sources,” she said. “I have a three source rule. I need three credible sources that say it happened, or I won’t put it in the book. If one person says that something happened, I’m not saying that didn’t happen to them, but they may have misunderstood, or something else may have happened. I’m not representing that as real if I can’t verify that as real.”
Halls lays out the information she has collected that represents both sides of the coin—those who believe, and those who do not.
“If I don’t, then that makes my work slanted one way or another,” she said. “My job isn’t to convince you something is real. My job is to give you information so you can decide for yourself. I want you to have the tools to collect the information yourself, because then you are empowered,” she said. “I tell kids all of the time, if you learn how to do research, no one can ever lie to you again. Because you’ll know what a good source looks like. And you’ll be able to make up your own mind, because it’s your life.”
Dorothy Fox fourth-grader Charles Weidmann enjoyed learning that Halls presents both sides of an issue in her stories.
“I really like how she does the proven theories,” he said. “I think it’s really educational and it’s really creative because it’s not saying there’s a right and a wrong answer. It’s showing both sides and letting the reader decide.”
Although Weidmann is more of a science fiction fantasy reader, he plans on giving Halls’ books a try after having had the opportunity to talk with her.
“I think it was really great,” he said. “It was a really great experience that will influence a little bit of my writing.”
McLellan, who has heard Halls present at professional writers’ workshops, knew her style would resonate with the students.
“I knew that she would inspire our students as she inspires other authors to follow their curiosity, ask questions, and do research,” she said. “She is a down-to-earth, approachable, big-hearted model of a can-do attitude for our students.”