By Nancy Churnin
There’s no getting around it. Research is required for any kind of nonfiction you want to do. It takes a lot of reading and often interviewing to assemble and understand the facts you need to get the story right.
Sometimes the research you do is just enough to support one book. But if you dig deeply enough, you may find you’ve found a well that will sustain other books and projects.
When I’m researching subjects for informational nonfiction, I’ve learned to stay alert for ideas that might be worthy of another story. I keep contact information for the experts I use and stay in touch with them, too. It’s already happened, more than once, that the experts I consulted for one project have provided invaluable help and guidance on others.
When I’m doing narrative biographies, it’s hard not to come across other, related great subjects. In fact, one of my most biggest struggles in writing picture books is maintaining the discipline to discard other characters and themes that fascinate me. The good news, I’ve come to realize, is that I don’t have to discard them! Well, maybe I have to let them go for the book I’m currently working on. But I keep files now on other people of interest and ideas for when I’m ready. The bonus is that if the person is deeply connected to my original subject, chances are some of the resources I already know can help me again.
Another option I have on my to-do list to try is to tackle a middle grade on a subject similar to some of my picture books. As our Nonfiction Ninja middle grade expert, Stephanie Mowry Bearce, likes to remind me, middle grade gives you more room to tell more stories. I’ve dug deep wells of research and resources for my picture book. I’m looking forward to going back to some of these wells to gather up some loved ideas I left behind. I bet you’ll enjoy digging some wells, too.
By Susie Kralovasky
there are so many mysteries in writing, whether you're on your first book or your hundredth. This month, I decided to collect the biggest surprise in the publishing process from the Nonfiction Ninjas.
I was surprised that editors/agents have a different concept of "time" than writers do. To me, "soon" is about 2 weeks. To them, it can mean 2 weeks to 6 months. Or longer! And when they ask how long it will take me to complete a project, I'm thinking 8-12 months. And they ask if 12 weeks is enough time. And I say yes. And do it. How do you cope while you wait for a reply? You just keep writing.
Wendy Hinote Lanier
I never dreamed it would be so hard to find your GROUP. We all recognize the need for a good critique group, but finding one is another matter altogether. I am eternally grateful to Pat Miller and Christine Liu Perkins for sending out a call to nonfiction writers several years ago. From our first meeting, I knew I'd found IT...that elusive blend of people who encourage you, inspire you, and provide the honest feedback you need. The Nonfiction Ninjas have been the one thing that keeps me writing. Without them, I'm fairly certain I would have given up by now.
Christine Liu Perkins
Michelle Medlock Adams
I think my biggest surprise was the difference in going through the publishing process with various publishers. Some that I’ve worked with have been very good to include me in the process from beginning to end. For instance, I am currently working with Endgame Press on a Christmas picture book, “Dachshund Through the Snow” and the publisher has allowed me to be involved at every turn. I was even allowed to see the storyboards and offer art suggestions. Yet, when I have worked with some of the very large publishing houses, I never saw anything after I turned in my manuscript. In fact, in a few cases, I didn’t even see the cover art or any of the artwork until my author copies arrived. I just never realized when I began this journey over 20 years and 100 books ago that my involvement in the whole book publishing process could be so different depending on the publisher.
My biggest surprise was how much patience It requires. Coming from the world of journalism where everything is fast, faster, fastest, and needed yesterday, it has been an adjustment to live in a world where people expect you to wait, deliberate, and take time planning for tomorrow. What I have learned to love about the slower pace is how it helps us carefully and collaboratively craft books that last.
My biggest surprise has been the insecurity of the business. I thought that once I had several books published I would feel like my career was established. But in reality each book is a separate project and is evaluated on it's own merit. It's like applying for a job over and over again. And it's always a job I want!
Susan Holt Kralovansky
I was also surprised by everything my fellow Ninjas said, but marketing was my biggest surprise. I thought that when I signed the contract, I was free to move on to another project. I had no idea that I was an important element of the marketing team. And, another surprise, after that initial shock, I realized that I love marketing – and this is from a girl who hated selling anything, even her Girl Scout cookies!
Susan Kralovansky is the author of We Really, Really Want a Dog! (Pelican Publishing, 2021)
By Stephanie Bearce
Writing is all about finding and falling in love with a story. Sometimes it is a forgotten story like Peggy Thomas' book Full of Beans: Henry Ford Grows a Car, or Linda Skeers' Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, The First Palentologist. Other times it is a story that the world has never heard and needs to know like Nancy Churnin's Manjhi Moves a Mountain, or Pat Miller's The Hole Story of the Doughnut.
These books are great examples of authors discovering true facts and truning them into narrative stories that both inform and enlighten the reader.
So - you may be wondering where the heck is MY great story? Where do I find that undiscovered hero or that hidden bit of history?
This is your lucky day!
I've been digging around and I've got a treasure trove of sites for you to visit and explore. Hopefully you will find a story that sparks your curiosity and gives you the AHA! moment you need to start your next project.
Famous Scientists - A comprehensive list of astronomers, biologists, mathematicians, and geologists from ancient times to the present.
Accidental Science - Sometimes accidents in the lab lead to great discoveries.
Unsolved Mysteries - Reader's Digest provides an interesting list of strange but true events.
Weird History Facts - This list is a great starting point for story ideas. You must supply the research.
Famous Female Scientists - list of 91 famous women scientists
Forgotten History - 10 history stories not taught in school
Historic Women - Legends of America you may not know
Women who changed history - 17 female heroes
African American Inventors - From Lewis Lattimer to Dr. Patricia Bath
Inspiring Asian Americans - 130 Asian Americans and their stories
Famous Hispanic and Latino Americans - A comprehensive List
By Wendy Hinote Lanier
In previous Ninja Notebook posts about types of nonfiction, we’ve talked about two: narrative and expository literature nonfiction. Candace Fleming is considered the queen of narrative nonfiction among the Ninjas, while Melissa Stewart holds that title with regard to expository literature.
Because we are, after all, the Nonfiction Ninjas, we talk about nonfiction a lot. It’s something near and dear to our hearts. But our conversations are about all kinds of nonfiction, not just narrative and expository literature.
A type of nonfiction that doesn’t get a lot of attention from the awards people and maybe isn’t considered as “sexy” as other types of nonfiction is active nonfiction. Formerly referred to as “how-to” books, I can assure you, kids love them. Next time you’re in your local library, conduct a little test. Trot yourself over to the children’s nonfiction section and do a slow turn up and down those aisles. Take note of the most worn books. What kind of nonfiction are they? Dollars to doughnuts, the majority will be active nonfiction.
Active nonfiction isn’t new. Believe it or not, it was around even when I was the class librarian in the third grade. But in the last 20 years or so, this genre has definitely come its own. (FYI. I was in third grade more than 20 years ago.) (Ok. A lot more.) Inspired by the maker movement, and pushed along by improvements in the publishing process, the topics kids are interested in learning about have expanded. As a result, books that explain how to do an activity in clear, straightforward language have exploded in popularity.
Active nonfiction books encourage discovery, experimentation, and creativity in readers. These types of books include how-to guides, field guides, cookbooks, craft books, and science experiment books. They are written in an expository style and don’t have to be read from front to back. It’s a style that lets readers skip around in favor of topics or activities that interest them.
Some of the favorites among the Ninjas in this category are:
Wildlife Ranger Action Guide by Mary Kay Carson
Wildlife Ranger Action Guide provides dozens of hands-on activities and habitat creation projects, such as making a frog pond from a kiddie pool, planting a pollinator garden for bees, painting a bat house, and building a lodge for lizards. Kids are encouraged to learn about and take an active role in protecting local wildlife starting right in their own backyard.
Step by Step Projects: How to Make an Ant Farm (and other books in the Step by Step series)
The Step by Step series is produced by Rourke Educational Media. Kids can learn to make an ant farm, a piñata, and more in these easy-to-follow step by step instructional books.
The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden
A best-selling book with 1.5 million copies sold, The Dangerous Book for Boys is the original Boy 101 book. It covers everything from rope tying to learning to fish to understanding the mysteries of girls. It’s the quintessential guide to the stuff every boy (from eight to eighty) should know. Its sequel is The Double Dangerous Book for Boys.
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks
These books feature kid-friendly how-tos for just about any situation a kid might encounter. In middle school or out in the world. They provide funny but really useful information for navigating a kid’s world.
There are also a number of titles written by Nonfiction Ninjas that fit (if somewhat loosely) into the active nonfiction category, too. The following Ninja titles have at least some activities included.
From Lisa Amstutz
From Peggy Thomas
From Michelle Medlock Adams
From Susie Kralovansky
By Peggy Thomas
You do not have to be a scientist to write science stories for kids. My background is in anthropology, yet I’ve written about the brain, artificial intelligence, animal behavior, natural history, bacteriology, volcanology and lots of other -ologies. All you need to know is where to find the accurate information that is essential to the genre.
I avoid internet sources that have tons of pop-ups, lack an “about” page or any other verifiable identity. I do, however, love to cruise the weird but true and top ten lists on my newsfeed, but only for story ideas. My go-to reliable sources include Scientific American, National Geo, Smithsonian, Science News, and of course journal articles.
Did you know all scientific journals are not equal? There are some journals that are considered predatory. Scientists pay to be included, and there is not much peer review going on. Beall’s List, https://beallslist.net/, names many of these predatory journals, as does the website: predatoryjournals.com/journals/
Journals that are published by Wiley, PLOS, Elsevier, Sage, and Taylor & Frances are peer-reviewed and every article has to meet certain standards. You can always rely on Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, American Academy for the Advancement of Science, PLOS (Public Library of Science) and New England Journal of Medicine, just to name a few.
Many of these journals charge a hefty fee, so utilize your college libraries and public libraries to get access, because it stinks when you find the paper you need but can’t read it. Sometimes you can check on Google Scholar to see if there is a PDF available, or look on the researcher’s website. Better still, ask the author. They are usually more than happy to share their work, and you’ve opened the door for a possible interview in the future.
Peggy Thomas is the author of Lincoln Clears a Path (Calkins Creek)
by Christine Liu-Perkins
Sidebars can add to a main text in many different ways from expanding comprehension to injecting fun to inviting participation. Here's some things I've learned from writing sidebars for various nonfiction projects:
For more tips, here's a good article on creating sidebars for magazine articles (useful for books, too): "Preparing a Sidebar Feast: Planning, Writing, and Submitting Sidebars" by Carolyn Short.
By Nancy Churnin
We honor groups in specific months because they've been historically underrepresented. As you seek nonfiction subjects that haven’t been written about, those groups provide ideas worth exploring.
A quick online search will show celebrations for every month. April, for instance, is packed with everything from Arab American Heritage Month to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Jewish American Heritage Month and Autism Awareness Month. But before we skip to April, let’s consider March, which includes Women’s History Month. It’s a great time to think about where you’re NOT seeing women – in literature, fashion, science, art, adventure, history – and put them back in the picture where they belong.
In 2018, Wendy Hinote Lanier was asked to write two titles for an Abdo Publishing series on women in the arts. She wrote her riveting Women in Literature, featuring J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, and Kate DiCamillo, and Women in Fashion, featuring Vera Wang, Tracy Reese, and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. “I hope kids understand that women have always made great contributions to the arts, even if they didn't always get the credit,” Wendy says.
My own books about women came about because of not seeing books about women in certain fields. After wondering where all the women painters are, I came across an exquisite painting by Laura Wheeler. That led me to write the first picture book about her: Beautiful Shades of Brown, illustrated by Felicia Marshall (Creston Books).
The fact that most people know that one of our great patriotic songs, “America the Beautiful,” was written by a woman, Katharine Lee Bates, compelled me to research the book that became For Spacious Skies, illustrated by Olga Baumert (Albert Whitman).
Women aren't highlighted as much as they should be in the worlds of science and adventure. Linda Skeers found wonderful stories to tell in those areas with Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns and Women Who Dared, 52 Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers & Rebels, illustrated by Livi Gosling (both from Sourcebooks).
And how many stories do you read about women from different countries and historical times? Christine Liu Perkins dug deep for her remarkable At Home in Her Tomb, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen (Charlesbridge), a middle-grade chapter book that explores the archaeological finds in the tomb of
Lady Dai, who lived in China 2200 years ago.
There are a lot more stories to tell about women and other underrepresented groups, too. Check your calendar and make a date with the one that speaks to you.
By Susan Kralovansky
I seem to keep finding a list of don’ts – things agents don’t like, or things editors don’t want to see, or the mistakes you don’t want to make if you want to succeed. I would like to share instead a list of Do’s that lead to success.
1. You do you. Some write first thing in the morning. Some after the kids are in bed. Some write every day, and some write after days of woolgathering. There isn’t one right way to do things so do what works best for you.
2. Do use those mentor texts. Read your favorite books. Study the beginnings and the endings. If you’re struggling with dialog, see how your favorite author handles dialogue. Study sentence structure and length. Study the page turns. See what makes the book work and why it works. Then apply everything you’ve learned to your own story.
3. Do keep yourself busy. Always be working on that next book or idea while you’re waiting to hear from that agent or editor.
4. Do be nice. Whether it’s your local writing group, your critique partner, a conference speaker, an editor or an agent - people talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with and who’s not.
5. Do realize that feedback helps. You want your piece to be loved. You want to be told it’s perfect. But, trust your readers to find the imperfections. Accept the suggestions you think are valid, recognize the ones that you’ve heard more than once. Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.
6. Do cover the basics: Good spelling and sound grammar are what keeps that great story out of the recycling bin.
7. Do celebrate. Whether it’s another writer’s success or yours - take time to celebrate that new agent, book release, or even a few pages finished. Get up from that desk, enjoy the success and celebrate.
8. Do read. Read. Read. Read. Read the type of things your write and read books on the craft of writing.
9. Do give up … just for a little bit. Sometimes, your idea just isn’t working. Rather than spending weeks anguishing over solutions you can’t find, put it away. Remember Step 3? Keep yourself busy, move on to the next project, and in a month, a year, or even six years you can pull it out and possibly come up with the perfect solution to your problem.
Maybe you have your own Do’s that are part of your process. I’d love to hear them in the comments. Happy writing!
In a recent blog post I discussed the fact that terms for describing nonfiction are changing. The leader in this conversation among both writers and teachers is Melissa Stewart. Her articles on this topic over the last several years have resulted in some fairly new, but generally agreed upon, labels. In a December blog post we talked a bit about narrative nonfiction.
In this week’s post I want to tackle expository literature nonfiction. Expository literature nonfiction features a somewhat narrow topic in a creative way. And it uses engaging language with a strong, unique voice. It’s a style that works especially well for STEM topics.
While narrative nonfiction has a definite story arc, expository literature seeks to inform without a story narrative. In my experiences as an elementary teacher, I saw it happen again and again. Struggling readers are drawn to an expository literature style. They’re the bottom-line kinds of kids. (Just the facts, ma’am.) They read for information and tend to get lost if they have to find it in a story. They much prefer books that explain, describe, and inform them in a direct way.
Within the covers of an expository literature book, you’ll find a lot going on. A single page can include photos, diagrams, labels, captions, and fun facts all related to the topic discussed in the main text. In addition, you’ll likely find a table of contents, glossary, index, and a bibliography (list of references). These kinds of books are often quirky or funny—a quality kids (and big kids like me) love.
If Candace Fleming (Oops! Sorry, Candy. I forgot to hyperlink you in the December post.) is the recognized narrative nonfiction genius, then Melissa Stewart is the hands down Ninja favorite for expository literature. Melissa’s books have a distinctive voice and explore science topics in creative ways.
In Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, Melissa ramps up the yuck factor by focusing on specific animal actions related to eating, making a home, and animal defense. The whole point is to make the reader to eeewwww a bit as they learn fascinating facts about the world around them.
Melissa’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs showcases “animal underdogs” with some creative survival skills. True, these animals may not be the movie stars of the animal kingdom, but those characteristics that seem like weaknesses can be the very thing that helps an underdog survive.
In Seashells: More than a Home, Melissa uses layered text to show how seashells are homes to various sea animals. The secondary text discusses the unique characteristics of each shell, while labeled diagrams make the explanations crystal clear. All of Melissa’s books are wonderful and well worth your time.
But Melissa isn’t the only one doing this type of work. Recent years have seen a rapid growth in the number of expository literature nonfiction titles on the market. A few Ninja favorites in this category include:
What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (And Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos
Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre (and other books by this author including Warbler Wave)
Seeds Move! by Robin Page
Pink is for Blobfish by Jess Keating.
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner
Death Eaters: Meet Nature's Scavengers by Kelly Milner Halls
Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Some of the Ninjas have written books in an expository literature nonfiction style as well:
Plants Fight Back by Lisa Amstutz
At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins
(Note: I mistakenly included Christine’s book in the narrative nonfiction post. This title is more accurately an expository literature nonfiction since the tomb is treated like a time capsule that examines each artifact as a part of life in ancient China.)
Extreme Sports: Motocross by Wendy Hinote Lanier
Dinosaur Devotions: 75 Dino Discoveries, Bible Truths, Fun Facts, and More! by Michelle Medlock Adams
By Christine Liu-Perkins
One of us recently became an agent in addition to being an author! Lisa Amstutz joined Storm Literary Agency, which represents children's authors and illustrators. Let's find out more about her new adventure.
Why did you decide to become a literary agent?
The idea sort of grew on me the past couple years after some conversations with Vicki Selvaggio at Storm Literary Agency. Along with writing, I’d been editing professionally for about eight years, working with both publishers and individual writers, and realized that my favorite parts of that job—helping manuscripts shine and writers succeed—were a big part of what an agent does. I went through training with Storm last year, and that experience confirmed my interest.
How does your experience as an author influence your approach as an agent?
Well, first of all, I know exactly how it feels to be in the querying trenches! I bring the knowledge I’ve gained from 15+ years studying the writing craft as well as my editorial experience to help my clients polish their work before it goes out on submission. I will also be building on the industry connections I made as an author, editor, and ARA of SCBWI: Ohio North.
Are there specific topics that interest you?
I’m not a good fit for anything dark, dystopian, or graphic. I love stories that help people connect with nature, promote sustainability, bring important bits of history to light, introduce kids to different cultures, and celebrate kindness, beauty, and truth.
What are you looking for in nonfiction projects?
I’m looking for writing that connects strongly with its target audience, whether that’s kids or adults. I love humor, lyricism, and heart, as well as stories that make me see something in a new way.
What do you want to see in a nonfiction proposal?
Pretty much the standard proposal format – include a synopsis, outline, sample chapters, comps, marketing opportunities, bio, etc. Basically, sell me on this book!
What qualities are you looking for in a client?
I’m looking for serious writers who want to build a writing career or are already established. I prefer to work with people who are professional and positive—no drama, please.
What advice can you give to people who want to break into the nonfiction market?
Study the market and figure out what’s selling right now. Today’s nonfiction is very different from the nonfiction most of us grew up with! Look for a “hook” of some kind that makes it more than a mere listing of facts. Make sure your text is 100% accurate, but told in a compelling way. Use techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, lyricism, humor, etc. to make your story sing.
It can also be helpful to align your content with Common Core or NGS Standards, as many NF publishers target schools and libraries.
For many more tips, don’t miss NF Fest this month!
My bio and submission guidelines are at https://www.stormliteraryagency.com/aboutus. I’m currently closed to submissions except from conference attendees, but do hope to reopen later this year. For updates, follow me on Twitter: @LJAmstutz.
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.