by Karlin Gray
What do I know about writing nonfiction picture books?
After my book NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL was published, someone said to me, “Great timing with the 40th Anniversary of the Perfect 10! How smart of you to write that book now!”
Um, no. Well, yes . . . but then no.
Four years ago, my writing instructor discussed nonfiction picture books in class. I couldn’t remember reading any when I was a kid so I thought back to my five-year-old self. Who or what fascinated me? If I could have read a picture book about any person or subject, what would it have been?
Well, in 1976, I was just a 5-year-old girl who loved gymnastics. (I mean, I was terrible at it but I LOVED it.) So, duh! Only one answer popped into my head—Nadia Comaneci.
That was smart—asking kid Karlin what she wanted to read. Someone else at my publisher was smart enough to look into the future and see the marketing stars align.
While working on my book, I didn’t pay attention to the dates of the next Olympics. I didn’t know that it would be the 40th Anniversary of Comaneci’s historic 10. (Math’s not really my thing.) I didn’t even know if my book would find a publisher! The only thing that I knew was that kid Karlin would have flipped for a picture book about Nadia Comaneci.
So, that’s the book I wrote for kid Karlin . . . and grown-up Karlin loved every minute of it!
Here are some fellow writers sharing what they have learned about writing nonfiction picture books.
Audrey Vernick, author of THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET:
I write both fiction and nonfiction. In the beginning, I thought the only place for voice was in fiction, and it’s probably where I feel more comfortable experimenting with it. But it’s totally worth the time to play around and explore unexpected possibilities because when a truly unique voice emerges, oh my! Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick wasn’t only beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall–what a story! Other examples that come to mind are Phil Bildner’s Marvelous Cornelius, illustrated by John Parra; Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad; and, because I can’t resist a baseball book, The You Never Heard of .. ? books written by Jonah Winter.
Susan Hood, author of ADA’S VIOLIN:
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In my experience, experts, scholars, curators, producers, reporters, and authors of adult books on your subject are more than happy to consult with you. Your passion is their passion! I offer them acknowledgement in the book, but make sure to ask permission to list their names and/or work. Kate Messner wrote an eye-opening blog about this: “Think Before You Thank.” I wouldn’t have dreamed that a public thank you might compromise someone professionally, but it might. So go ahead, ask for help, but ask for permission to use their names as well.
Maria Gianferrari, author of COYOTE MOON:
When you’re doing your research and note-taking, keep a list of “cool facts.” You might not have a place for them in your story, but they’ll be perfect for back matter! Think of a creative and engaging way to organize and present the material. For example, you might present the back matter in how-to form. I did this for one of my nonfiction books using How To Swallow A Pig: Step-by-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page as a mentor text. A cool fact could also be a hook for beginning your story.
Nancy Churnin, author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY:
Engage, learn from and share the journey with people who know and care deeply about your subject. I could not have written The William Hoy Story without the help of Steve Sandy, a Deaf man who is a friend of the Hoy family, and was able to answer questions about small details of William’s life while giving context about what it was like to grow up as a Deaf person in the late 19th century. Steve’s help continued after publication as he and his wife, Bonnie, have been amazing supporters of the book. I am also profoundly grateful to National Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Eric Nadel, a Hoy fan, who has written about him for adults. Eric advised me on baseball details, and has also been a fantastic supporter of the book.
Laban Hill, author of WHEN THE BEAT WAS BORN:
What I’ve learned from writing nonfiction picture books is that the stories are about people and their emotions first and the facts are secondary. That does not mean you can make up facts, but that the motivations and fears and aspirations of the people involved reveal how the facts fit in.
Thanks for all the non-fiction tips, Karlin!
In honor of Nadia Comaneci’s 40th Anniversary of the Perfect 10 and the 2016 Rio Olympics, we are giving away a copy of THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL. Simple comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.
Karlin Gray is the author of NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL and runs a weekly Q&A blog with writers about their first picture books. You can find her at karlingray.com, @KarlinGray or on Facebook.
Enjoy watching the Olympics and check out the schedule on NBC.