Natalie Pope Boyce has always been one for the details. She grew up in a military family with her sister, author of the Magic Tree House series, Mary Pope Osborne, and lived abroad at a young age. While learning different languages, Natalie found delight in the nuances of different words and information. She loved trying to explain the world around her and to discover the reasons behind why things happened and how they happened.
She currently writes the Magic Tree House Fact Tracker series with her sister. The books act as a reader’s guide that delves into complex subjects from the series and transform them into simple concepts that young children can understand. They give children an appreciation for the wonders of the “real” world and inspire a curiosity for learning more about history and natural science.
We were lucky enough to get to talk to Natalie about what it is like working on the series. She was full of fun facts about animals and the natural world. Although she claims to be a bore at dinner parties, we’d sure love to have her at ours!
Take a look at our interview below.
You traveled a lot as a young person and as a young adult. How have these travels impacted your writing and interest in trivia and facts?
As a child and an adult, I lived in Austria, Germany, Ireland, and for many years, in Mexico and later on the Arizona/Mexican border. Among the things I’ve learned is that nothing is trivial, especially when you’re trying to grasp the differences in cultures. The smallest nuances usually speak volumes and attention should be paid to them.
Mexicans, for example, have a strong sense of hospitality that is practiced by most people regardless of class. I passed a Mexican friend once who was rushing down the street and asked where she was going. “To your house,” she replied. What she actually meant was “Mi casa es su casa”; her house was my house. That encounter was one of many insights into the heart of Mexican culture.
As for facts, it’s a cliché to say this, but facts are a bridge into the joys of imagination.
In Austria, we played on the grounds of the Hohensalzburg Castle. We knew some facts about the castle, which was actually a fortress, but we imagined a sort of Camelot and pretended to wear crowns that we wove out of dandelions and galloped around jousting. Most facts are so incredibly interesting that in order to understand them, you must first imagine them.
One of our favorite things about the Magic Tree House series is the combination of the chapter books with the Fact Trackers. Why is it important for kids to have both the fictional story and the nonfiction information about a specific topic?
The pairing of fiction and nonfiction has the practical value of training a child’s mind to anticipate the consequences or import of a fact. Children read the two very differently. In fiction they ask what comes next. In nonfiction they’re forced to ask why something follows from the previous fact. They have to ask themselves what conclusion the facts lead them to make. Nonfiction teaches children not to talk rubbish but to take a reasoned, knowledgeable look at the world, its history, and to back up their thoughts with facts.
What advice would you give to a child that claims to hate reading?
If children hate reading it’s because 99.9 percent of the time, they’re having a hard time mastering it.
They feel ashamed and humiliated and consequently they stagger along without any reward shining on the horizon. Reading is an accomplishment that not all children accomplish at the same rate. So much of their ultimate success depends on the value books play in the home and how much time parents are willing to give listening to them read and reading to them. In order to entice a child into reading, I’d say “Come over here, sit down, and let’s read together and I don’t care one bit if you don’t know all the words.”
What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching facts before beginning a new Fact Tracker?
Gosh…research is a huge, huge part of what I do. I cannot include information in the text that is incorrect and consequently go on Google all the time, sometimes 20 times for just a short paragraph. The problem is that there are often disagreements among the experts about the subject that makes it all a little challenging.
Even though I use books plus the web, even the latest books can be out of date, so I have to rely on credible websites to ferret out current research on a subject.
Also I often learn as I go because the more you learn, the more you realize that you don’t know.
Many times I make assumptions that just aren’t true and have to face the fact that I’m totally ignorant about the subject.
What is the most challenging part about writing nonfiction?
My biggest challenge is to make sure that children understand what I’m telling them. And to make sure the information is accurate and interesting.
I have a phalanx of excellent people who triple check everything. They include a very smart editor; experts in the field who are usually academics: plus a team of very tough copy editors. I am so lucky to have all of them, but at times, the amount of information that needs to be simplified and the restrictive vocabulary that is appropriate for young children, make writing a slow process fueled only by cups of strong tea.
How many hours or days, on average, go into writing a Fact Tracker?
I write a lot, sometimes six to seven hours a day, if a deadline is looming and two to four hours a day if I’m circling the airport. Normally I write a book four or five times before I send it to my editor. She’ll send it back with her edits and we repeat the process two or three times until we get it right. But there are breaks between books and times I relax when my poor editor is working on the manuscript trying to figure out what I’m saying.
What’s the most surprising, unexpected thing you have learned while writing?
I’ve learned so many fascinating things but I’m always bowled over when the book is about the natural world. The intricate and complicated ways that animals behave have been amazing revelations for me. In the book on China, for example, I got totally side tracked on silk worms and bored everyone for days about them. No one invites me to dinner parties anymore. (Did you know that by distributing their weight, polar bears can get themselves over just three inches of ice?)
Do you ever find while researching a topic that you have strayed into another area equally as interesting? If so, do you then try to incorporate your discoveries into your books?
I often get side tracked and stray from the topic. Once, when I was doing Leonardo Da Vinci I got carried away with a description of his clothes (he was very fashionable and always chose bright colors) and started reading about 15th century fashions and make up and manners etc. Got lost.
Do you enjoy reading in your spare time? What type of books do you like to read?
I read a lot. Our whole family does. I am mostly disappointed with modern fiction, and tend to read more nonfiction. Am currently in love with cozy and brilliant English country writers like Ronald Blythe (Mary’s recommendation) and Robert McFarland. My son is a fine poet and, because of his enthusiasm, I have become reacquainted with poets I loved when I was younger and find that it’s not hard to wander away with them.
What else do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my spare time, I love to be with friends and family. Also I have a garden, a dog, cooking, my church, and an old house to take care of . My deepest joy circles around all of these things.
What Magic Tree House Fact Trackers are you working on currently?
I just finished “Texas” which is a companion to Mary’s book on the great Galveston hurricane of 1900. It was a difficult book to write because the state’s history begins in the 1500s; six different flags have flown over the state; and everything is rather complicated. But what an amazing story Texans share. I hope this book reflects that.
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