By Kathy Halsey
Eerdmans editor Kathleen Merz defines through-lines by saying, “Remember that the most essential goal of any story, including narrative nonfiction, is simply to take the reader on an emotional journey.”
This month I share four of Emma Bland Smith’s nonfiction books that use through-lines to create compelling animal biographies. Emma creates strong emotional connections in her books with a focus on 1.) engaging, unique animals, 2.) escalating tension, and 3.) creating “kid-centric” plots.
In her debut, Emma’s title hooks the reader who wonders, Why is Journey famous? Wolves are familiar in children’s literature; many kids are fascinated by them. He’s the first known wolf to venture into Western Oregon in 60 years.
Journey leaves home to explore the unknown. We learn wolves are uncommon in California. Stakes rise when he’s seen on a motion-sensor camera. Farmers don’t like him— he’s a threat to livestock.
He seeks out other wolves and a mate for three years. Every time he hopes to find a wolf companion and doesn’t, tension mounts. He howls in sadness. Finally, he hears an answering howl. Now readers feel relief and, as Emma told me, “hopefully joy.”
In alternating spreads, we see OR7’s actions juxtaposed with that of a curious girl and her dad who follow OR7 via newspaper, TV, and computer as they trace his movements. Abby enters a contest to name OR7 and wins. Seeing Journey’s story via Abby’s pulls kids close.
Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator
Claude is unique because he’s an albino. Although quite cute, his differences put him in danger even with hatchlings. His coloration leads to conflict and escalation. Being “him” is the problem.
In nature Claude can’t camouflage himself; he could be prey. His skin might burn. Alone in a zoo pen, he lives for twelve-plus years. The emotional journey continues when he travels almost 2,800 miles to a science museum only to find Bonnie, his new swamp-mate, doesn’t like him either. The internal conflict builds.
In Claude, Emma indicates she “wanted the reader to feel not just empathy but also and sympathy, to feel like, ‘Hey, I know what it's like to feel alone, too!’" Too many kids know how it feels to be ostracized, especially for traits they can’t change.
The inciting incident is over a British pig in an American farmer’s potato patch. Wars are fought over many issues, but a fight like this is odd. Readers will wonder how a pig can teach anyone to share.
Two nations fighting over a pig seems silly until the pig is sacrificed, and the British threaten to evict Americans from San Juan Island. Both sides bring in ships and cannons. The island people are anxious. A “Pig Incident” becomes a “Pig Argument” and finally a “Pig Situation.”
Emma worked to build an emotional, relatable core to touch readers. She created a scenario that children understand –fighting with a friend (or country) over a small matter that blows out of proportion. (Parents know these skirmishes, too.)
Like Journey, the title and the cover hook us before we open the book. Readers guess the sweet Great Pyrenees will risk much to become a hero dog. The conflict is “dog versus forest fires.”
Odin tells the tale; we see the story through his eyes— a working dog protecting his goats, refusing to leave with his family as a wildfire erupts. The barn collapses, a propane tank explodes, it’s so hot, the air shimmers. Odin is tired, hot, hungry, and lonely.
Natural disasters like floods and wildfires are commonplace in our turbulent climate. Children ache like Odin does for what is lost in natural catastrophes. By seeing how Odin calms himself and designs a plan to save the goats, children see what can be controlled in dangerous circumstances.
By studying the through-lines of engaging nonfiction like Emma Bland Smith’s work, we learn how to make the reader care, turn the page, and see how plot is resolved.