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by Heidi E. Y. Stemple

Storystorm is all about ideas. Seeing them, searching for them, compiling them, listing them, gathering them…

I’m excited to be teaching about nonfiction ideas at the Storystorm Highlights retreat this spring because I love finding nonfiction ideas. I find them in news clippings, in the google doodle, on the radio, at museums, while reading. I stumble upon nonfiction ideas while researching other stories. I have been hit in the face by them while walking in nature or driving down the road (not literally, of course). They are everywhere.

But, once you have an idea, what do you do with it?

A nonfiction idea is different, in many ways, than any other idea. It comes with rules. If it is a biography or history, it can come with a plot built-in. You are presented with the entire story—beginning, middle, end. It has an armature already in place. But, the story already being set, can be deceptive.

Let’s take Jane Goodall’s story. You could tell her story about working with the chimps, whole-cloth, cradle to grave (though, her conclusion is far from written since she is still very much alive and still changing the world). Go find yourself a copy of the book ME JANE (by Patrick McDonnell). This book takes a unique look at Goodall’s origin story. The author found a small story arc in Goodall’s childhood and pulled it out of the larger story arc of her life. Imagine how many stories can be written about this one subject. You could come up with a story idea every day this month just for Jane Goodall! But, how do you make that story stand out? That is the REAL question. How do you take that idea and make it into something unique?

If you are talking about a nonfiction idea that has less strict lines, perhaps a science or nature-based book, it still has rules—you can’t plop in a fairy or a stream that rushes UP a mountain and call it nonfiction. So, how can it be different from what’s already out there?

Let’s take a look at some books about nests.  In my bookshelves alone, I can find a couple dozen books about nests. Fiction and nonfiction, narrative and expository. So many books on the same subject.  And, no two are alike (insert birds of a feather joke here). Here are three books on that same subject and all are different in the way they take it on:

What makes each of these books, written after each author had the same idea—to write about nests—completely unique?

The magic is in taking that idea and making it your own. What perspective you take to look at the subject. Will you look at the birds (or other nest builders) from an outside observer’s point of view? Or from the bird’s? What voice will you use to tell your story? Will it be poetic? Scientific? A combination of the two? Will you choose, and make the most of, a literary device? Will you rhyme? Use alliteration or pack it with similes? Be silly or serious.

Go further: Look to the history or nature of the story to inform your story voice.

In LIGHTS, CAMERA, ALICE (by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo) the story is about a woman in the film industry and parts of the story are told in old fashion (silent film) movie placards. That sets the book apart from any other book I’ve seen. Is your books about a mathematician? Can you integrate numbers into your story?

Does your protagonist have a catch phrase (look at I DISSENT by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley).

Carole Boston Weatherford uses rhythmic words to tell the story of John Coltrane in BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT (illustrated by Sean Qualls) which makes the reader really feel the music that informed every aspect of Coltrane’s life.

What if you have a ridiculous idea? My book EEK YOU REEK (co-authored by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Eugenia Nobati) is about stinky animals. We chose humorous poems to be the vehicle to drive this subject.  But, there is lots of nonfiction packed in those rhymes—even the really short ones:

The Shore Earwig (A Haiku)

Eat me. I dare you.
I’m a nasty stink bomb—POW!
Not so tasty now.

One more thing to think about—where it gets even more interesting—if you have a nonfiction idea, there is no rule saying you need to write a nonfiction book. Take, for example, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My book COUNTING BIRDS (illustrated by Clover Robin) is the nonfiction account of its history. Since it published, two other books about the same subject, though in a fictional way, have come out (FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS, Amstutz/Di Gravino, and BIRD COUNT, Richmand/Coleman) and each has a new way to look at the same subject. Far from competing, these books work together for the bird-loving child.

So, don’t be afraid. Feel free to take a nonfiction idea and move away from it. Write something completely fictional or even fantastical. That nonfiction idea is your seed—the tree you grow from it is your choice.


Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published more than 20 books including You Nest Here With Me, Not All Princesses Dress In Pink, and 2 Fairy Tale Feasts cookbooks, as well as numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.

Heidi lives on an old tobacco farm in western Massachusetts where she writes, reads, cooks, sews, and once a year, calls and counts owls for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

Her website is HeidiEYStemple.com and she’s on Twitter @heidieys.


Heidi is giving away a copy of EEK YOU REEK when it’s released.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

by Nancy Churnin

We’ve all seen picture books come out on an important anniversary. These books take a lot of planning—given that a manuscript can take two or more years to be illustrated and who knows how many years before it’s acquired.

But if you can pull off a subject pegged to a key anniversary of an important date, that can provide illumination on the historic event. It may also help with inspiration, a sale and promotion of the book once it comes out.

That date can be the birth year of a famous person or event or of an invention, a law or a song—anything that you feel deserves to be remembered.

My book, IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING came out in 2018, the 100th anniversary of when Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” Of course the flip side of pegging your book to a date is that others may notice this date, too; mine was one of three Irving Berlin books to be released in 2018!

What surprised me about the three books was that I got to know and like the other authors. I even started to think that there could be a fascinating workshop or post about how three different authors could take the same facts and weave such different stories with different narrative styles and points of emphasis.

But we’ll save that post for another date and time! (Tara’s note: yes, please come back, Nancy!)

A good source for research about important dates is OnThisDay.com/history. Another is historylearningsite.co.uk.

One way to keep your manuscript unique is to find a different take on it. When I was searching for anniversaries that would resonate in 2019, I looked for important events and famous people who were born in 1919.

The most obvious anniversary was the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in 1919 and that right to vote being ratified in 1920. But it was too obvious. If I chose this subject, I’d be competing against a slew of authors writing about this.

I moved on to 1929. That was the year of the Great Depression, a time when people were desperate and fearful, when too many went in search of scapegoats to blame for their financial insecurity. I searched who was born that year. I found Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But there were so many books about Kr. King. What could I add to those? And then I found Anne Frank was born in 1929, too.

Most people don’t think of Dr. King and Anne Frank as contemporaries. But they were. They were of different genders, faiths, races and spoke different languages, yet both had so much in common! Both grew up during the Great Depression when African Americans faced racial discrimination in America and Jewish people faced anti-Semitism in Europe. Both met hate with love and left us with words that inspire us today.

Finding that connection impelled me to write MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK. It comes out March 5 of this year, in between Dr. King’s Jan. 15 birthday and Anne Frank’s June 12 birthday, in the year when both would have turned 90.

My agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, sold the book in 2017, knowing it was a tight turnaround. I’m lucky I was able to pull off the project in two years, because I had an editor, Marissa Moss, who believed in it and found an illustrator, Yevgenia Nayberg, who could make it happen that quickly.

But you can be smarter and do a better job of planning ahead. It’s 2019. Try to think four, five or six years ahead or more—for people who were born or events that occurred in 1924 or 1925 or 1926 to give yourself time to research and write and for your publisher to find an illustrator.

Here are some inventions in those times:

  • 1924: Frozen food
  • 1925: Television
  • 1926: Pop-up toaster
  • 1927: Talkies at the movies

And here are some famous birthdays:

  • 1924: George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Cicely Tyson, Lauren Bacall
  • 1925: Dick Van Dyke, Malcolm X, Barbara Bush, Paul Newman
  • 1926: Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Andy Griffith
  • 1927: Cesar Chavez, Eartha Kitt, Coretta Scott King

There’s no need to limit yourself. Go to the library or go online and look up timelines and newspapers for those years. See what and who made the news. You never know what’s going to grab your heart and impel you to write.

Make a date with history. And who knows — it may end up with the publication of your book being a history date that someone will look up some day!

MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, published by Creston Books and distributed by Lerner Publishing Group, is Nancy Churnin’s sixth picture book biography. It’s the parallel journey of Dr. King and Anne Frank, two people of different genders, faiths, races and religions who faced hate with love and left us with words that inspire us today. Nancy’s previous books have won multiple awards and been on many state lists: THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME; MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN; CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF, IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING and THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE, QUEEN CHARLOTTE’S GIFT TO ENGLAND.

You can follow Nancy on Twitter @nchurnin, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/NancyChurninBooks/, on Instagram @nchurnin and on nancychurnin.com.

Nancy is giving away two autographed copies of MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK. There will be one winner for each book.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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