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Congrats, Storystormers, you are almost done! Tara asked me talk to you about how to get nonfiction ideas.
In fiction, anything is possible. But nonfiction shows the world as it really is, even when reality seems too surprising to be true. Here are some ways to inspire ideas for nonfiction stories.
- Do some self-reflection. Think about your personal history, your areas of expertise, and what subjects capture your fancy. You don’t have to be an authority on your topic, but you should choose something that will hold your attention. You could be living with your manuscript for months, or even years.
- Notice your unique perspective on the world. Pay attention to gaps: places where your views differ from the views of most people. Great ideas lurk in the gaps. For example, I am fascinated by plants and all they do, yet I’m aware that many people—including children—see plants as inert and uninteresting, like green statuary. My desire to share my perspective was the driving force behind PLANTS CAN’T SIT STILL, a picture book about the surprising ways plants move.
- Read about your subject. As a science writer, I read science news religiously, and I’m always on the lookout for intriguing stories. My current work-in-progress is the story of people trying to save a beloved, struggling species. I noticed the story popping up in the news for years. I also noticed that no one was writing about it for children. Last summer, I pitched the story to my editor and landed a book contract.
- Keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when you’ll stumble across an interesting story idea. A few years ago, I was writing a magazine article about Arctic terns, tiny birds that migrate from the Arctic to Antartica every year. I called up a seabird biologist who had studied these birds. We talked at length about them, then we kept talking. He told me about other work he was involved with, like a big research project to track seabirds in advance of offshore wind farm development off the East Coast. That conversation launched me my book BIRDS VS. BLADES?—Offshore Wind Power and the Race to Protect Seabirds.
Finally, read plenty of children’s nonfiction. Today’s nonfiction writers are telling true stories to children in wonderfully inventive ways. Read a hundred books or articles, then a hundred more. You’ll get exposed to an exciting range of possibilities for how to tell your own nonfiction stories.
Rebecca Hirsch grew up climbing trees and splashing in streams in western Pennsylvania. She worked as a plant biologist before becoming a writer. Her many nonfiction books for children include BIRDS VS. BLADES?—Offshore Wind Power and the Race to Save Seabirds, a Junior Library Guild selection, and PLANTS CAN’T SIT STILL, a Kirkus best picture book of 2016. Her newest book is DE-EXTINCTION: The Science of Bringing Lost Species Back to Life. When she’s not writing, you might find her baking bread, playing backyard badminton (badly) with her family, hiking with her dog, or growing plants in her garden.
Rebecca is giving away one of her books, your choice, either BIRDS VS. BLADES or PLANTS CAN’T SIT STILL.
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.
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.
Today we’re lucky to have Peggy Robbins Janousky visiting to share highlights from SCBWI FL’s Picture Book Intensive. Take it away, Peggy!
I have attended many picture book intensives over the years, but this one topped them all. Participants were treated to an all-star panel that included: agent Deborah Warren of East West Literary, editor Laura Whitaker of Bloomsbury, author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney and author Toni Buzzeo.
The presentations were practical, but powerful:
- Always bring your “A” game.
- Rhyme is not taboo, but bad rhyme is.
- Picture books are getting shorter and are being targeted for younger audiences.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Hook me and keep me hooked.
- Be passionate about your book and be able to pitch in just a few sentences.
One of the best things that was presented was the HOT list. These are the topics that editors and Barnes and Noble want now:
- Moments of the day
- School stories
- Learning concepts
- Holidays (MLK, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, St. Patrick’s Day)
- Friends and family
- Character-driven stories
- Original stories that every kid will love
- Interactive picture books
- Finding the new in the old
If you haven’t taken an intensive before, I strongly urge you to consider it. Intensives are exactly that, intense. They give you the opportunity to delve in deeper and they also give you the opportunity to get to know the presenters on a more intimate level. I came away from this intensive with a new sense of purpose and drive. I also came away with a few good friends. All in all, it was money worth spending.
I have to admit, I almost did not attend the Miami conference. I was having a pity party and I wasn’t really up for the company. I had broken my leg in three places. Needless to say, getting around was a wee bit difficult. I was ready to bail. I am glad I didn’t. The first page of my manuscript was read during “first page reads”. Much to my surprise, the panel loved it. One editor wanted to know who wrote it, an agent wanted to read more, and another editor wanted to acquire it. I have to admit, I was in shock. By the end of the weekend, thanks to the help of a good friend, I had signed with that agent. Just one month later… My bio and picture are up on the East West Literary website. The editor that I mentioned is considering three of my manuscripts. And I am still pinching myself.
I will tell you that this was not an overnight success. I have attended many conferences and taken copious notes. I have revised, cut, and revised some more. I have also had moments where I was so rejected that I thought I would never put myself through another critique again. So what’s the moral of the story? Never give up. Never let pity or self-doubt get the upper hand. Believe with all your heart that your day will come. Then get off your butt and get to that conference. Your happily ever after is waiting for you to show up!
Peggy Robbins Janousky uses her offbeat sense of humor to write offbeat picture books. When she is not writing, Peggy uses her time to rescue stray animals. Much to her family’s dismay, she keeps them all.
And thanks to Kristen Fulton for adding this summary of Andrea Pinkney’s workshop: The Write Stuff.
- Writers write every day, whether it be a holiday or vacation.
- Find your “twinkle”—what makes you sparkle around others?
- Establish immediacy—using voice, characterization, mystery and drama.
- Ask yourself, “Why does the reader want to come on this journey and what makes the reader stay on this journey?”
- Writing is fun—and hard work.
- Writing is re-writing at least 10 times.
- Just get started and keep going.
- Read every day, whether it be a holiday or vacation.
Kristen Fulton writes non-fiction picture books and is running an amazing non-fiction picture book retreat with loads of agents, editors, and authors on July 7-12. Check out her website for details!
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!
Remember Andy from the movie Funny Farm? Chevy Chase in his post-Caddyshack and SNL days, sliding down fame’s slippery slope, but still hilarious as a wanna-be author who moves to rural Vermont to pen The Great American Novel.
Instead of peace and quiet, Andy gets a crazy mailman and an acute case of writer’s block. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, one that inspires his wife Elizabeth to name a squirrel after him in her first children’s book—a book that a publisher accepts with a $5,000 advance. (She asks, “Is that much for a first book?” as he reels.)
Many children’s book editors warn against submitting talking squirrel tales. Seems they’re overdone. Was Elizabeth from Funny Farm to blame for an influx of fluffy rodent submissions? The world may never find out.
Despite the creature caveat, I’m writing about squirrels. But non-fiction, based upon our recent experience.
A violent July storm blew a squirrel’s nest from a tree near our property. A neighbor and I found day-old squirrels on the bike path. Gently, we moved the nest onto the grass. I assured her since the tree was closest to my home, I would contact the proper authorities. I assumed the police or animal control would be the right call.
I was wrong. Had I telephoned those authorities, the squirrels might have been destroyed.
Instead, I found an informative resource in Squirrel-Rehab.org. I learned that if the babies were cold, the mother would not take them back. The nest was covered in hail from the storm. The pups were indeed cold and wet, squirming and chirping, in obvious distress. I followed the instructions to warm the babies and tried to reunite the family, but by 10pm, the mother was still missing as another raging storm began. I brought the babies into my home.
I cared for them for nearly 48 hours and then brought them to licensed wildlife rehabilitators Wild Baby Rescue in Blairstown, NJ. The video below documents our short time with the squirrel pups, the inspiration for a new story. Elizabeth, you ain’t stopping me.
How many of you have a budding young author in your home? Now’s little Johnny’s chance to see his words in print. Random House will be releasing Kids’ Letters to President Obama in 2009.
Editor Bill Adler wants your letters…err, I mean your children’s letters. The funnier, the better. But get them in soon. Deadline is December 31!