ES: Thank you for joining us at The Corner today, Kelly!
Over the years, you have received numerous reviews and accolades for your rigorous research process. What could you share with fellow nonfiction authors (as well as teachers who are encouraging budding researchers) about your research and note-taking process?
KH: Thanks, I’m delighted to be here today!
A lot of my books cover topics that are hard to prove -- Sasquatch, aliens, ghosts -- so the research process takes on an even more important purpose. If I can't find proof, it's even more important that I find credible evidence. And credible evidence depends in large part on who is sharing it. I always read about 300 articles as background, then roughly 40 books.
Once I've done that deep reading, I prepare an interview list and interview the experts with the most credibility on both sides of the debate. Once I interview the experts, I try to step into the research experience by going Bigfoot hunting or visiting Roswell, New Mexico or joining paranormal teams as they investigate "haunted" places.
For SAVING THE BAGHDAD ZOO, it wasn't safe for me to go to Iraq, but I followed much the same process, and allowed William Sumner to be my boots on the ground. He went over every single word I wrote to be sure I got it right. And since he's the one who headed up the rescue, he was the perfect partner. But I did the same reading and the same series of interviews to be sure I had most angles.
ES: Wow, that’s an impressive stack of books and articles you read. And what a great line to use on your friends who are sitting in rush hour traffic on their way to their cubicles…“See ya – I’m headed for New Mexico to find Bigfoot!”
You have a long list of published books on a variety of topics. Congrats! I've picked four of them to briefly explore today. (Readers: clicking on the all caps title will take you to Kelly’s site where she’s got videos to go with each book - clicking on the word “book” underneath the title will take you to the Amazon listing.)
So let’s start with the one you just mentioned...
SAVING THE BAGHDAD ZOO:
This book tells the heroic rescue story of the zoo animals left locked up and abandoned in a war-torn country. I originally found William Sumner for an interview in WILD HORSES. I wanted a Middle Eastern horse story and he'd been acclaimed for saving Saddam Hussein's prized Arabian stallions. They had the oldest, purest bloodlines in the world, so I included that story in the book.
After we talked about how they did battle to rescue the horses, he said, “Kelly, you know there were more than horses. We saved a zoo.” I did NOT know, but as we continued to talk, it became clear, THIS should be a book. So we did it together. I reviewed 7,000 of William’s personal photos from the war in Iraq to select most of the pictures for the book.
This book explores the age-old question: DO aliens exist? Or not? My father was an IBM liaison for NASA before and during the manned space programs, so I grew up watching rockets launched from Earth. The thought of other civilizations doing the same never felt impossible to me.
After reading children’s book after book after book that said UFO’s were hoaxes, I started to wonder, “Do we know that FOR SURE?” To me, saying something is NOT real without proof, is as much of a lie as saying something IS real without proof. So I set out to see what evidence really existed for a new approach to aliens and young reader nonfiction. I turned to some of the best known experts in the world to find evidence for and against the idea.
My objective was to leave it for the kids to decide. In subjective subject matter, offering the kids information on both sides of the debate allows them the power of deciding how they lean on their own. This encourages them to engage in critical thinking AND to do research of their own. Win, win.
It’s not just bone fossils – it’s MUMMIES too! This book informs readers about soft tissue dinosaur fossils, cases where skin and even stomach (yes, complete with yesterday’s lunch!) contents are found intact. I have loved dinosaurs since childhood, so writing about the subject is one of my favorite all time things.
This book was originally slated to be a book about Leonardo, the most complete dinosaur mummy ever found. A full 70% of his soft tissue fossilized, along with his bones, in Malta, Montana. Even the last meal he ate was fossilized (inside his fossilized stomach), including algae from the last drink of water he had. Two weeks before the final manuscript was due, the paleontologist pulled all the photos except two I had from a newspaper photographer. I got a two week extension and had to write a new book in four weeks with ONLY a CHAPTER about Leonardo. I pulled it off, and it's a better book for the evolution. But it was a real nail biter.
My most recent publication, this explores the other age-old question next to aliens: are ghosts real? I spent four years researching because I felt it was really important that I do a lot of field work myself. I visited allegedly haunted graveyards and houses and prisons and ships and orphanages and hospitals – anything I could find as I traveled for school visits around the country. It was a unique experience because many of the stops were recommended by educators (such as teachers and principals) who had their own ghostly events to share.
My aim with GHOSTLY EVIDENCE was to stop scaring kids to death – to help them draw a line between fact and fiction. Television and movies insist ghosts are demons hoping to cause people anguish. By doing the paranormal investigating myself, I could tell the kids with conviction nothing dangerous happened to me in four years. Interesting things happened, even mysterious. But mysterious does not have to be bad. There are so many books that try to scare. I wanted to offer one that reasoned things out and asked, “What if ghosts are NOT bad?”
ES: Thank you for sharing these intriguing stories and perspectives. Small wonder your school visits are so popular. These are the topics kids could spend all day talking about! Last, but not least…anything you'd like to share with kids (and those of us who are still kids at heart!) to help inspire them as they discover...and write about...the world around them?
KH: As a kid, I was a wild child. I was never happy unless I could be outside playing sports or exploring my natural environment. Not a critter went uncaptured (and released), not a rock was left unturned, not a leaf was left unexamined, not a rainbow or raindrop appeared without investigation. My eyes were open to the magic of the real world and I was hungry for answers. My parents and teachers tried to answer the questions I constantly asked, but it was a tough duty.
So when I grew up, writing nonfiction for kids was a no brainer. I could answer the questions I never got answered, and I could try to find the answers I thought the kids of today might ask, if they were in my shoes.
I love my job and hope I can inspire compassionate curiosity in the kids that read my work. Once they love their natural world, they’ll see value in protecting it and sharing what they learn with everyone else.
ES: What a great mission to kick off The Corner in 2015! Thanks again for stopping by, Kelly. Happy New Year to all, and here’s to YOUR curious and dazzling reading/writing adventures this year!
To visit Kelly on the web, click here. To arrange for school visits, click here. Her Twitter handle is @kellymilnerh