by Cynthia Levinson

I was so heartened to read Carol Hampton Rasco’s opening blog post on PiBoIdMo because she made two comments that really resonate with me. Well, she said one, and then she quoted a savvy but jaded six-year-old.

First, she noted that the top picture-book choice of teachers, reading specialists, and Reading is Fundamental volunteers is NONFICTION. That buoyed me because that’s what I write. In fact, my agent, Erin Murphy, has two of my nonfiction picture books under submission right now. The six-year-old, however, quickly brought me down to earth. As he peered at a terrific looking book, he said, “it doesn’t look like a true fact book, they’re usually boring.” That’s good news for the book he was enjoying but “aargh” for the others.

We can all cite other terrific NF PBs. Some of my favorites include MIND YOUR MANNERS, ALICE ROOSEVELT! by Leslie Kimmelman; 14 COWS FOR AMERICA by Carmen Agra Deedy, which is available in both English and Spanish (which is perfect, since Rasco also said that bilingual books rank among the top-three most-wanted); and YOURS FOR JUSTICE, IDA B. WELLS by Philip Dray. Citing counter-examples to the six-year-old’s complaint, however, is beside the point. It’s his experience and his impression that count. So, what can we, as NfPiBoWr (that’s nonfiction picture-book writers) do to alter his conclusion that “true fact” books are boring?

Language and illustrations, of course, contribute hugely to enlivening books that happen to be accurate. Rasco also commented that what adults want for the children they read and give books to are books that are “eye and mind catching.” Great illustrations catch the eye; lilting, lively, lyrical text captures the mind. Neither of these is quite sufficient, however, if the topic—and we are dealing with ideas during PiBoIdMo here—is lackluster.

As a nonfiction writer, my ideas come from a number of places—the news, teacher-friends who lament the lack of good books about X, expert-friends who share fascinating stories about their research, and sheer curiosity. But, the biggest source of my ideas is Carus.


Carus is the family of magazines that is sometimes abbreviated to “COBBLESTONE.” These include, for various age groups, not only this magazine about American History but also DIG on archeology, APPLESEEDS and FACES on culture, CALLIOPE on history, ODYSSEY on science, and others. It’s not that I steal ideas from other writers; I steal ideas from myself. Here’s what I mean.

Most of these magazines are theme-based, and a couple of times a year, I check their Writer’s Guides to see what intrigues me. What I see now in ASK, a science magazine for six- to nine-year-olds, for instance, are calls for proposals for nonfiction articles on dreams and dreaming, “all the fish in the sea” on a census of fish, spelunking, and animal sounds. Don’t these sound like great grist for topics?!

While ASK targets the perfect age group for picture-book readers, magazines for older readers inspire ideas, too. For instance, FACES is soliciting articles on “Ghosts and the Spirit World” and COBBLESTONE on the 1963 “March on Washington.” There are many other fine nonfiction magazines as well—RANGER RICK and KNOW, for example. All of these can suggest possible picture book topics.

What’s critical for me, though, is not the general theme but what I just said. They suggest possible topics. Or, actually, the big ideas lead me down multiple paths to them. The themes themselves are often too broad for a picture book. But they can spark an idea for a specific article that might then transmogrify into an idea for a picture book.

For instance, when COBBLESTONE sought articles for an issue on Mark Twain, I consulted a friend who is a Twain expert. She suggested an idea for an article that became the basis for one of the picture books that is under submission. Similarly, in response to an issue of COBBLESTONE on the “Freedom Rides,” I wrote an article on music in the civil rights period. My research for this article revealed to me more than I had known about children’s involvement in civil rights—and that led to my other PB under submission. (In fact, I wrote and sold a whole middle-grade nonfiction book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH, that was inspired by that article. But, that’s the topic for another blog!)

So, my recommendations for PiBoIdMo are to:

  • Check out great kids’ magazines.
  • Use their suggestions as springboards for your own. And
  • Inspire and be inspired by bored six-year-olds!
Cynthia Levinson has sold two dozen articles and stories on a wide range of topics to some of the best children’s magazines. Her debut middle-grade book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree Publishers), will be published in February 2012.