Author's notes are my favorite part of the back matter in nonfiction books. I enjoy reading about the author's process in creating the book and/or gaining insight into the significance of the events or the person's life presented in the book.
I recently asked Sylvie Frank, Senior Editor at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, about her experience with author's notes. She graciously shared her thoughts on them and how they are used in books she has edited.
Q: Are author's notes becoming popular in children's books?
SF: I would say they are already popular, as are illustrators’ notes. I think the rise of notes (and of back matter in general, including bibliographies, timelines, glossaries, etc.) is a lasting effect of the Common Core State Standards. When Common Core, with its emphasis on nonfiction, was rolled out, publishers were looking to help educators use books of all kinds—not just nonfiction—in the classroom. We want to make it easier for teachers to create lesson plans around our books by highlighting and adding curriculum-relevant information. Library and school budgets are small, so by adding back matter we’re hoping to make it more useful and increase the book’s value. This won’t surprise anyone, but picture books are short—even nonfiction. Author’s notes are useful places to provide more context or background or highlight a specific element without adding length to the story itself.
Q: Why do editors like them? What purpose do they serve?
SF: Most often I ask writers for authors’ notes so they can personalize the book: why did they choose to write about this topic? Is it personally meaningful? For example, in MY STORY, MY DANCE: ROBERT BATTLE’S JOURNEY TO ALVIN AILEY, Lesa Cline-Ransome writes in her author’s note about the personal significance of seeing the Alvin Ailey dancers perform. And James E. Ransome, in an illustrator’s note, writes about his choice of medium and the artists who inspired the illustration style.
Sue Macy’s author’s note in her forthcoming picture book THE BOOK RESCUER: HOW A MENSCH FROM MASSACHUSETTS SAVED YIDDISH LITERATURE FOR GENERATIONS TO COME provides the reader with more information on the Yiddish language, which is important context for understanding the premise of the book.
HEY, WALL is fiction. In it, a boy decides to turn a bare, abandoned wall into a piece of art by bringing his community together to create a mural. We included notes from both author Susan Verde and illustrator John Parra. Susan writes about being inspired to write HEY, WALL by the street art she saw while growing up in New York City. She also explains the difference between street art and graffiti. John says that he was inspired to study art by the murals he saw growing up in Southern California, and names some of the painters who inspired his illustrations in the book.
Finally, ME AND SAM- SAM HANDLE THE APOCALYPSE is a middle-grade mystery featuring a protagonist on the autism spectrum. In her author’s note, Susan Vaught explains what it means to be neurodivergent and that she is neurodivergent herself. Additionally, she includes notes from other writers about the significance of writing neurodiverse characters. So, there’s a lot of flexibility in authors’ notes (and illustrators’ notes). But the goal is always to add nuance and insight to the book.
Q: How common are author's notes in children's books? How often do you ask for them?
SF: I include them often—but not always—in fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade. (I don’t edit YA.) I ask for them frequently, but it depends on the book.
Q: Are they important to mention in queries?
SF: I don’t think so. If an author feels that a note would add context or other important information, go ahead and include it at the end of a manuscript. If an editor likes a manuscript and thinks the book will benefit from an author’s note, he or she will request one at some point during the editing process.
Thank you, Sylvie!
P.S. For more information on types of author's notes and examples, see my article "Author Notes: Stories Behind a Story" in the SCBWI BULLETIN, Winter 2020 issue, pp. 28-29.
Last week Nancy Churnin gave you great tips on how to keep your picture book manuscript lean and focused. But there are times when you may want to go long.
I love writing for the mid-grade and young adult readers. There are many advantages, least of which is MORE WORDS.
A longer text allows you to take information that is relegated
to a picture book’s back matter and pull it into the main body of the story. You can dig deeper. Explore causality. Discuss consequences, connect the story directly to the reader, and show how it affects them. In my YA title Medicines from Nature I took readers on a journey from the Amazon to Oregon, from Ancient Egypt to the future, and ended with a discussion about biodiversity, conservation, and how they could help prevent the loss of medicinal knowledge.
Today’s older readers are tech-savvy, immersed in social media. They have buying power, and are aware of politics and climate change. In the middle of all this chaos they are also trying to figure out where they fit in the real world. Although they are reading within the curriculum, they want to know about current events too. Some good examples “ripped from the headlines” are Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue by Marc Aronson, and Cynthia and Sanford Levinson’s Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today (which I refer to frequently just to make sense of the nightly news).
Once a young reader is hooked on a topic -- civil rights for instance –they tend to dig deeper. They already know about MLK and Rosa Parks, but what about expanding that sphere of knowledge. Introduce other tragic incidences, or celebrate lesser-known heroic figures. Steve Sheinkin did this in The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights.
Some of the best mid-grade titles make readers question what they already know. For example, we all learned about Amelia Earhart but did you know she manipulated the press to make herself look better? Kids will when they read Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming. Similarly, Eric Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve paint a slightly different picture of our first president in Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away.
A longer text and higher reading level also allow you to play with format, or approach the subject from an unusual perspective. In Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, James Cross Giblin tells the story of Lincoln’s assassination by comparing the two Booth brothers. Kelly Milner Hall has written about mythical beasts before, but in her new book, Cryptid Creatures she presents them in the style of a naturalist’s field guide; short snippets of description along with pertinent facts. The Two Truths and a Lie series by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson is another clever twist on nonfiction.
So, explore your options. Think big. There is a whole world out there, and middle grade and YA readers are clamoring for it.
“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”—Mark Twain
I often think of this Mark Twain quote when I’m looking over a manuscript of too many words.
It truly is easier to write long than short when it comes to non-fiction. Editors realize this. That’s why they generally accept longer word counts for non-fiction – under 1,000 words – than they do for fiction – usually under 500 words.
That said, the under 1,000-word count is easier said than done, especially after you’ve done lots of research, you find yourself passionately in love with your subject and you want so very much to share each and every one of those amazing anecdotes and delectable tidbits.
Well, guess what? It takes longer to write shorter, but it’s part of the job. With the disclaimer that sometimes it takes me months to trim and discard, here are a few questions that will help you carve your picture book down to size:
1.Does it propel the story or is it a delightful distraction that slows you down? Save your distractions for the back matter, the teacher guide or your author visits.
2.Does it pertain to your theme? If not, it may belong in another story.
3.Does it exude that faint odor of a laundry list? Yes, we know you are proud of your subject’s many accomplishments and attributes, but this is a picture book, not a textbook of exhaustive knowledge. Go back to questions one and two and only keep the details that propel the story and pertain to your theme.
Yes, I know from experience that it’s easier and faster to throw everything in the story than it is to write something short. But consider the words of Mark Twain. Take the time to write something short, compelling and irresistible. You and your readers will be glad you did.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking about being a writer at a large private school near Chicago. But before my talk, as an added bonus, I had lunch with a group of award-winning student authors ranging in age from 5 to 13. (These students had been chosen to represent their individual classroom as “the best of the best” and read their work in front of the entire school.) So, while I chatted with these gifted wordsmiths in between bites of cheese pizza, I asked them: “Which was harder for you—writing or editing your story?” As I expected, all but one said the editing process had been way harder. Then, the one who didn’t jump on the editing bandwagon said something I’ll never forget.
She very honestly admitted, “I had trouble with the writing process because I kept editing myself…”
That comment sparked a very interesting conversation about hats and one of my favorite books about writing, “Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life” by Robert Benson. In case you haven’t read it, Benson shares about the different hats he wears when crafting his amazing books. He sports a stylish beret when creating story. As he writes his “sloppy copy,” beret man is the guy in the chair. But once this first draft is safely recorded, he switches to his well-loved Yankees cap which he has lovingly named “Gamer”. He wears “Gamer” when editing. But Benson explains that bringing out “Gamer” too soon in the process can totally halt the creativity of “Beret man”—the artist.
That’s what had happened to the student who confessed she’d really struggled with the writing process.
“You switched hats too soon,” I told her, explaining Benson’s theory.
What about you? Are you self-editing (and sometimes self-loathing) as you write and create children’s stories? Are you constantly fixing grammar and spelling or rewriting sentences three and four times before continuing on? If so, I feel your pain. I occasionally stifle my own creativity because I can’t get my baseball “Gamer” cap off my head. It just won’t budge! And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t create with “Gamer” calling the shots!
If you struggle with this premature switching of hats, here are three strategies you can implement to keep your beret safely in place as you create.
*Write fast, really fast. Don’t give yourself the chance to edit. Just get that story down on paper or in that computer, whatever your process.
*Switch gears, not hats. The moment you feel yourself slipping into the editing mode, switch gears completely. For example, if you’re writing a picture book in narrative and you start to slip into editor mode, stop writing narrative and try writing your picture book in rhyme. That will get your creative juices flowing again and put your editor’s hat back on the hook.
*Set the Mood with Music. This works well for me. If I’m creating, I have on “mood music” that awakens the creative part of me. So, when I was writing my book, “Get Your Spirit On! Devotions for Cheerleaders” I listened to all of the cheer music compilations that my daughters competed to when they cheered. That music was motivating and put me in the right mindset to write about “all things cheerleading.” But, when I am editing, I almost always listen to instrumental music. When the instrumental melodies fill my writing room, it instantly becomes my editing room. Maybe this tactic will work for you, too!
If you’re like the little girl who struggled with knowing which hat to wear—the beret or the Gamer—I hope you’ll try these three strategies. And, I recommend you purchase your own copy of “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” and glean from Benson’s genius. https://www.amazon.com/Dancing-Head-Pen-Practice-Writing/dp/1400074355
When you’re starting out as a writer, waiting to land that first contract, it can be hard to think of yourself as a professional. However, this mindset can get in the way of your success. Fortunately, it really is possible to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ when it comes to writing like a pro! Here are seven tips.
1. Treat your writing like a job. It may not be your full-time job—or even a paying job at all—but when you think of it that way, your feelings, actions, and results will follow. Even if it’s just an hour or two a week, schedule time for your writing job and honor that commitment. During your writing time, WRITE. Don’t open your social media, don’t answer the phone, and above all, don’t wait around for the muse to show up.
2. Educate yourself. Never stop learning. Read books about the craft and business of writing. Read books in your genre. Attend conferences and workshops. Join free writing challenges and Facebook groups online. Take courses or find a mentor. Join SCBWI. Pick and choose the options that fit your schedule and budget.
3. Build your skills. While you may long to write the next literary classic, few writers find a direct route to success. While you’re waiting to find an agent or get published, build your writing muscles by writing for newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. Find critique partners to help you strengthen your story before sending it out.
4. Network. Join SCBWI, attend conferences or workshops, or network on social media. Contribute value to others, and you will find that it comes back to you. In all your interactions, remember to keep it classy. Put your best foot forward, both in person and online.
5. Submit your work. Do your research and target submissions carefully. Remember that there is a human on the other end. Write the kind of cover letter you would like to receive if you were in their shoes – personal, thoughtful, and professional. Follow guidelines and format your submission correctly. If you’re not tech-savvy, ask a friend for help.
6. Expect rejections. They are an inevitable part of the writing business. Even best-selling authors still get them! Eat a piece of chocolate or commiserate with a friend – then put it behind you and send out your story again.
7. Once you’ve received a contract, you really are a pro. Congratulations! Now it’s even more important to act like one. Keep your correspondence friendly but professional. Respect your editor or agent’s time. Follow instructions carefully. Ask critique partners to review your revisions before sending them in. And above all, meet your deadlines!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 100 children’s books, including Amazing Amphibians (January 2020) and Plants Fight Back (forthcoming). She serves as a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story and as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Ohio North. She also offers critique and mentorship services at www.LisaAmstutz.com.
What would you do to get a good story? Track a tornado? Visit avolcano? Watch wolves copulate? Sometimes doing research means getting out of the library and into real life. It means trading in the computer for a pair of snowshoes, or maybe some hip waders, and joining scientists in the field.
I’m working on a project right now that involves wolf breeding research. In order to better understand it, I volunteered to become a member of the team of observers. Yes – that meant I had to go to wolf mating training - complete with diagrams and slides. I won’t share them here – this is a G rated site. But now that I am a trained observer, I get to spend the next few weeks hunkered down in a deer blind watching wolves poop, urinate, and hopefully copulate. Some people think I’m crazy, but I consider it a part of the radical research I am willing to do to write a great nonfiction book.
Hands-on experience helps authors understand the complexity of a subject and in turn relate it to their audience. Some of the best nonfiction authors go to great lengths to learn about their topic firsthand. Author Mary Kay Carson is often in the field with scientists and just spent last spring out chasing tornadoes. Patricia Newman’s award-winning book Sea Otter Heroes had her out on the water visiting the critters themselves. And just ask author Peggy Thomas about the time she gave an elephant a rectal examination. It’s all in the name of nonfiction writing and all for the desire to write the best and most accurate story possible.
So what nonfiction story are you working on right now and what lengths are you willing to go to gain in-depth knowledge about your topic?
Me – I’ll be the author wearing hand and foot warmers silently recording the deeply personal behaviors of mating wolves.
I can’t wait!
We’ve all done it. We walk into our local bookstore and there is an author sitting at a little table with a stack of her books trying not to look pathetic. We quickly duck behind the greeting card rack, and ooze over to the bargain bookshelves, acting especially interested in the History of Manhole Covers in Providence, Rhode Island. When she looks away in desperate hope to the next person coming in the door, you make a dash to the café. This calls for a stiff caffeinated beverage!
I’ve been on both sides of that torture device called the signing table. I’ve been the skulker and I’ve been the victim author. I’m a survivor of an interminable two-hour signing in which the only people who approached me were a woman asking for the bathroom, and a child wanting to know if I was J. K. Rowling.
But signings CAN be a way to interact with your public, whether it’s at a bookstore, a book festival, or a literacy night. The key is to think like a carnival barker. How can you entice, not the adult with the credit card, but the child with command of the adult with the credit card.
Here are some fun ways to draw children to your table, which will bring their parents and make both stay long enough to chat with the charming author and peruse her must-have books.
Many authors snag kid attention by providing an activity related to their book. For my book Substitute Groundhog, I provide everything to make a pop-up groundhog puppet that needs no supplies. I wrote a catchy jingle to go with it, and I act it out with the kids when they finish their puppet. While waiting for the child to finish, parents will flip through my books and ask questions. Or I ask them—“How many groundhogs would you guess we have in the wilds of Texas?” (Answer: none)
A final example is for my nonfiction book, The Hole Story of the Doughnut. I provide doughnuts printed on heavy cardstock along with sequins, gems, and small beads. Children first color the frosting and glue on the “sprinkles” while I chat with parents about the sea captain who invented this delicious treat as a teen cook’s assistant on a sailing ship.
Think about how you can make your table cover work for you (ALWAYS have a table cover), signage with kid appeal, activities that are easy and relatively quick and clean, and things to take away that have your books and contact info. It may lead to a sale long after the signing.
Good luck—and speak kindly to the next hopeful author you see sitting alone at a signing table. Maybe even buy her book. One day that might be you!
Nonfiction vs Informational Fiction vs Narrative Nonfiction: What’s the Diff? By Wendy Hinote Lanier
Nonfiction for children is getting a LOT more attention these days. And that’s a good thing. Because even when publishers and parents didn’t realize it, nonfiction was always WAY more popular with kids—especially struggling readers. Concrete concepts are much easier for a struggling reader to grasp than the more abstract concepts often found in fiction. Now that publishers (and writers) are more aware of this, nonfiction has become a topic of interest and much discussion.
In the past nonfiction books were generally just an overview of a topic told in a straightforward style. Today, this type of nonfiction is called traditional nonfiction. Although the internet has become the go-to source for traditional nonfiction, there is still a place for it in the book market. Most books for the library market are traditional nonfiction. They are often done in a series. The series covers multiple aspects of a given topic such as dance, cars, airplanes, pets, etc.
In addition to traditional nonfiction, all the extra attention has given rise to several new categories. Among them are terms like narrative nonfiction and informational fiction. The problem is, not everyone agrees on what they are.
The nonfiction discussion is frequently led by Melissa Stewart, and rightly so, since she is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children. In a 2018 article on her website (see melissa-stewart.com: Five Kinds of Nonfiction) Melissa names five types of nonfiction: traditional, browsable (think DK Eyewitness), active (how-to), expository literature (STEM concept using rich language), and narrative.
But what about books with angry clouds or talking animals? These books fall into a category called informational fiction—a term we’re hearing more and more. (Melissa, herself, talks about it in a 2016 blog post.) In this case a large part of the information in the book is true, but it is usually presented by fictional characters or in a made-up story line. Historical fiction is one type of informational fiction since it tells a story within the context of real historical events. The Magic School Bus books are also an example of informational fiction since the characters and story line are fiction, but the science facts in the text are true.
As a former elementary teacher often tasked with explaining the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I know the importance of being able to say, “This is nonfiction because every part of it is true.” The minute animals start thinking out loud or a magic school bus arrives on the scene, we are no long in true nonfiction waters. That said, informational fiction can be a great way to explain nonfiction concepts effectively and have fun doing it.
And then there’s narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction tells a true story. No part of it is made up—even though the work may include conversation and detailed descriptions of certain events. All of the facts and quotes in a narrative nonfiction are based on careful research and can be verified through various sources. Sometime called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction uses the literary styles of fiction. Good narrative nonfiction reads like good fiction. Many of Candace Fleming’s books are great examples since they are the result of extensive research and really great writing.
And just in case you stopped short at the term expository literature mentioned earlier: this is a type of nonfiction in which a narrowly focused or STEM topic is handled in a very literary way. All of the facts are completely true, but the presentation of them may be poetic, humorous, or very lyrical in nature. Many of Melissa Stewart’s books fall into this category.
So, in a nutshell:
Traditional nonfiction is a straight forward survey of a given topic. They are written in clear, concise language in an expository style.
Informational fiction presents facts and information within a fictional story.
Narrative nonfiction tells a true story with no made up parts in the form of a narrative.
Bonus: Expository literature presents information about a given topic in a literary way, but nothing is made up. Expository literature can be humorous or lyrical, but it never strays from facts.
No, it’s not the Oscars, or the Emmys, but it IS award season for the most outstanding children’s books published in the previous year!
The Caldecott (for picture book illustration) and Newbery Award (fiction) get most of the attention and hoopla, but there are several awards devoted to outstanding nonfiction and informational books for children.
Looking for an awesome mentor text? Want to read the best of the best? Award lists are a great place to start! Current and past winners are archived on each award’s website so it’s easy to create a Must Read list of titles.
Here are some of the awards given to stellar nonfiction books for children:
ORBIS PICTUS AWARD
Established in 1989 to promote and recognize excellence nonfiction writing for children. The award commemorates Johannes Amos Cormenius and his work Orbis Pictus – the World in Pictures (1658) considered to be the first book written specifically for children.
2020 winner: A PLACE TO LAND: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation – Barry Wittensen, author
Jerry Pinkney, illustrator
ROBERT F. SIEBERT INFORMATIONAL BOOK MEDAL
Awarded annually to the author and illustrator for the most distinguished information book published in the United States in English during the preceding year. The award honors Robert F. Siebert, the long-time President of Bound to Stay Bound Books.
2019 winner: THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – written and illustrated by Joyce Sidman.
AAAS/SUBARA SB&F PRIZE
Celebrates excellence in science writing for children and young adults.
2019 category winners:
Children’s Science Picture Book – IQBAL AND HIS INGENIOUS IDEA: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet – written by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Rebecca Green.
Middle Grade Science Book – IMPACT! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World by Elizabeth Rusch
Young Adult Science Book – BUILT: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal
Hands-On Science Book – ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL FOR KIDS: His Life & Inventions with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson.
THE BOSTON GLOBE—HORN BOOK AWARDS
2019 winner: THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality – written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy.
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) NONFICTION AWARD
2020 Finalists: FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle
THE GREAT NIJINSKY: God of Dance by Lynn Curlee
A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin.
A THOUSAND SISTERS: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II by Elizabeth Wein.
TORPEDOED: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship by Deborah Helligman.
GIVERNY BOOK AWARD
Annual award given to an outstanding science book for children.
2019 winner: COUNTING ON KATHERINE: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk.
More 2020 award winners will be announced in January! Read the winners and the honor books and throughout the year, take note of your favorite nonfiction books and hold your own “Award ceremony” with your writing buddies. Formal dress not required!
We are ten 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.
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