Author Melissa Stewart on the Importance of Structure

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Hello world!!

Welcome to my blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, I got to chat with one of my all-time favorite authors who’s not only accomplished, but is also generous with her knowledge. Please welcome the queen of nonfiction herself, Melissa Stewart! Here she is, discussing her new nonfiction picture book, Tree Hole Homes: Daytime Dens and Nighttime Nooks illustrated by Amy Hevron, and published by Penguin Random House.

Special note: Heads up, writers! Check out Melissa’s blog for amazing resources and writing tips. (see link below).

Please describe the journey to publication for Tree Hole Homes.

The idea for this book traces all the way back to the summer between third and fourth grade, when I read My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Oh, how I longed to live off the land and make a hollow tree my home, just like the main character, Sam.

Time passed, and I forgot about the book until a trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, in 2011. The instant I spotted a tree with a hole big enough for me to squeeze inside, Sam’s story came rushing back. And as I stood inside and looked up into the hollow tree, I knew I’d write a book about tree hole homes.

I created a file on my computer and added information from my nature journals. Whenever I read or heard anything about tree holes or animals that live in them, I added more notes to the file. Eventually, I knew I had enough information, but I didn’t know how to structure the book or how it should begin or end. I was stuck.

But then in 2018, while hiking in Topsfield, Massachusetts, I stumbled upon another large tree hole. As I awoke the next morning, the beginning of the book popped into my mind.

I ran to my office, and as I wrote it down, the ‘opposites’ text structure came to me. Using index cards and sticky notes, I mapped out the book in just a few days. Then it was time to start writing.

Please share a short and compelling excerpt from the book.

Here’s the first spread of Tree Hole Homes. It invites readers into the world of the book.

Can you help inspire nonfiction writers by giving them some tips on how to make expository literature fun and engaging?

For me, text structure is the biggest challenge when writing expository literature. It’s something I usually have to work out over a long period of time, and there’s really no short cut. At least not for me.

After I figure out that important piece of the puzzle, I focus on voice and rich language, which are closely linked. For Tree Hole Homes, I thought a wondrous, lyrical voice would work best, so I worked hard to choose words and phrases that would enchant young, curious minds. Selecting verbs carefully and incorporating figurative language help to give a piece of writing its voice.

Please share a few of your favorite nonfiction books from 2022.

Oh my goodness, there are so many! Off the top of my head, a few picture books I’ve really enjoyed are:

Because Claudette by Tracey Baptiste and Tonya Engel

Diving Deep: Using Machines to Explore the Ocean by Michelle Cusolito and Nicole Wong

Footprints Across the Planet by Jennifer Swanson

One Million Trees: A True Story by Kristen Balouch

Pizza! A Slice of History by Greg Pizzoli.

For middle grade, I’m a big fan of Secrets of the Lost City: A Scientific Adventure in the Honduran Rain Forest by Sandra Markle.

My favorite book of the year (so far) rides the MG/YA line—Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adam’s Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki. I hope this amazing book wins the Printz and the YALSA Nonfiction Award.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to other writers regarding the editing process?

Be open to new ideas, but also remember your vision for the book. Other authors may write about the same topic, but what you bring to your book—your hopes and dreams, your experiences in the world, your passions and vulnerabilities—Is what makes it special. There’s a little piece of the author’s heart at the center of every great nonfiction book.

And a bonus question just for kicks! Would you rather live in a treehouse OR in a mountain cave?

A cave can be dark, damp, and chilly. I’d definitely rather spend my time in a treehouse looking out at the wide world.


Melissa Stewart has written more than 200 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the Sibert Medal Honoree Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. She co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, and maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Nonfiction. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.


Twitter: @mstewartscience
Facebook: Melissa Stewart | Facebook


8 thoughts on “Author Melissa Stewart on the Importance of Structure

    Natalie Lynn Tanner said:
    November 22, 2022 at 11:40 am

    I LOVE the advice to remember “There’s a little piece of the author’s heart at the center of every great nonfiction book.” I have copied and pasted the entire section about writing advice and sent it to myself for CONITNUED INSPIRATION. THANK YOU, Melissa!

    Liked by 1 person

    Nancy Ferguson said:
    November 18, 2022 at 11:22 am

    Inspiring interview. I am a fan of My Side of the Mountain, too.


    Jilanne Hoffmann said:
    November 17, 2022 at 1:36 pm

    I love how Melissa slowly builds the pieces of a book until she realizes she has enough info pulled together, but it’s still not time to write unless she has that “aha!” moment for its structure. Such a key component for a story, whether expository or narrative. I tend to let voice guide me, and sometimes I think it guides me in the wrong direction. Thanks for this peek into Tree Hole Homes. So many kids will want to imagine themselves living inside trees. (One of my son’s favorite series, was GCG’s My Side of the Mountain series. My son just called them “The Frightful books.” He used to run through the woods screeching like a peregrine falcon.)


    kathalsey said:
    November 17, 2022 at 8:56 am

    Great interview with a true NF maven, Lydia. Melissa, thanks for sharing the process of creating this newest NF PB. I, too, so loved MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN around that age. I read TREE HOLE HOMES quickly at Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers last week and loved it! On my list to buy!


    seschipper said:
    November 16, 2022 at 11:32 pm

    Great interview! Looking forward to reading TREE HOLE HOMES! 🙂


    marty bellis said:
    November 16, 2022 at 10:04 pm

    What a great sounding book. Can’t wait to read it!


    rosecappelli said:
    November 16, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    Love learning from you, Melissa!


    Kara S. said:
    November 16, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    Wonderful interview!


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