By Peggy Thomas
How do you include everything in a person’s life when writing a children’s biography? The answer is: you don’t.
No matter what your word count, it is impossible to tell the whole story. Your job is to reveal the essence of a person. But some biography subjects are overachievers with too many fingers in too many pies. That’s what I found out with Norman Borlaug who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for feeding millions of people. His work took him around the world. He had interests in forestry, patents in industry, and revolutionized plant breeding. He also was a teacher, had a family and a prominent place in little league baseball history. I wasn’t sure if I could pull out that single thread of continuity that was tangled up in tons of details, settings, situations, and themes.
I knew my focus would be on his Peace Prize work – How he developed a wheat that could grow almost anywhere, and a network by which he could teach agricultural students from around the world, especially in countries threatened by poverty, famine and war.
The first thing I did was make a list of my key words – food, farming, plants, growing, feeding, etc., and to a lesser extent hunger and violence. These would help me keep on track.
The next thing I did was create a timeline, a chronological outline that might show me a pattern I could use for structure. No pattern of events emerged, but a pattern of character did. No matter what Norman faced he was dedicated and worked hard. So, where did that work ethic and dedication come from?
I sifted through his early years and pulled out key moments that showed his dedication, and the key people in his life who influenced his sense of duty and perseverance. That was the easy part.
His college days and early work was all over the place. He was a top wrestling student. That could reinforce Norm’s character development, but it wasn’t really related to agriculture. However, there was a connection to hunger and violence. I could weave wrestling into the narrative.
Norm also studied forestry and spent months alone atop a fire tower in Idaho. He even battled a forest fire by himself until help arrived. This clearly showed his dedication, hard work, sense of duty and perseverance, etc. And it involved plants. But it took the main trajectory of the story gallivanting off on an unhelpful detour. I hated to leave out such an action-rich scene, but I also didn’t want to lose readers who couldn’t follow the meandering flow I now had. So, I cut it.
So far, I hadn’t mentioned his wife and two kids, but he was often away from home months at a time. And what about baseball? He played baseball as a kid, and he created the first little league in Mexico. That shows initiative but doesn’t involve agriculture. But it is kid-friendly. My solution was to create recurring sidebars. One is titled ON THE HOMEFRONT. There is one for when he got married, others for the births of his daughter and son, AND baseball, because he started the little league team for he and his son to do together.
Another recurring sidebar is called FOOD FOR THOUGHT. These bits help explain more difficult concepts that are mentioned in the text without bogging down the flow. For example, I have one on how plants tell time, and another on how seed banks were created.
So, the next time you tackle a biography try this:
1. Establish your character’s primary accomplishment, or at least, the one you want to focus on.
2. Create a list of key words. They will help as you do your research, and more importantly, act as a lens through which you view other parts of your character’s life.
3. Assess other parts of your character’s life through this lens. Does an event directly relate? Can it be used as an example? Or does it distract and need to be cut?
4.Uncover the key personality traits that allowed your character to be successful, or not. How did these traits develop? What scenes clearly show this? Who was instrumental in his upbringing?
5. Streamline your narrative arc by experimenting with single or recurring sidebars.
6. Cut unnecessary information – information that Does Not reinforce the theme, or reveal personality or growth.
Peggy Thomas is the author of Hero for the Hungry The life and work of Norman Borlaug, out September 1st from Feeding Minds Press.
By Nancy Churnin
One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: Where do you get your ideas?
The truth is I find them everywhere, but there’s one place in particular that never fails me. Since I write for children, I go back to my inner child which is always asking, as kids still do, Why? Why? Why?
It turns out that this is one of the best questions an author can ask. Because the best children’s book ideas often come from looking at something that seems familiar and asking Why? Why do we have this? Where did it come from?
Why do we have signs in baseball? I found out that it was because of a Deaf player, born when Abraham Lincoln was president, who taught American Sign Language signs for safe and out to umpires so he could play the game he loved. That became the heart of my book, The William Hoy Story.
Why do people decorate trees for Christmas? I found out it was because of kind Queen Charlotte, a German princess who married England’s King George III. She dedicated herself to helping children and came up with the idea of delighting a party of 100 kids by dragging an entire tree inside Windsor Castle and decorating it with fruits, nuts, and candles on the branches and then strewing presents underneath. That became the key moment in my book, The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England.
Why is there a charitable organization named Hadassah? I found out that Henrietta Szold dreamed all her life of helping her people the way Queen Esther had in the Bible. When she founded the first charitable organization run by women, she gave it Queen Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah. That double Queen story became the theme that runs through A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah.
So look around you – in your home, on your walk, in your conversations, everywhere you go, every place you read something surprising – and ask yourself: Why do we have this? Where did that come from? and How did that make our lives better or happier in a way that’s meaningful to a child?
If you come up with wonderful story ideas, as I hope you do, you’ll know why you’ve been reading our Ninja Notebook!
By Susan Kralovansky
Are you a dreamer? A planner? From childhood, have you known exactly what you wanted to do with your life? If so, you will love Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug, a soon-to-be-released biography from Feeding Minds Press written by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Sam Kalda. Hero for the Hungry is an engaging biography about a quiet Iowa farm boy who grew up to change the world with his crop innovations, feeding hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Today, fellow Ninja Peggy Thomas joins us on The Ninja Notebook to talk about the man that inspired this book.
Writing a biography can be tricky. How did you decide what parts of the story to keep, what to add to the backmatter, and what to leave on the cutting room floor?
Hero for the Hungry was tricky to write because Norman Borlaug led such an amazing life. He spent more than 50 years fighting to end world hunger. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, AND the Nobel Peace Prize! He had a lot going on.
To maintain focus, I first had to understand what he did. He was an agricultural scientist, a plant breeder before they knew what DNA was. That takes patience, hard work, and determination. So, where did those characteristics come from? I focused on incidents in his childhood that might explain why he was able to be so successful in that kind of work.
When it came to writing about his adult life, I focused mainly on his work. I didn’t want to ignore his family, so I created a recurring sidebar called On the Home Front that keeps the reader informed about his wife and kids.
Many authors say that the process of writing each book is often different from the last. How has the process of creating Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug differed from your previous biographies?
The writing process was similar except that this biography is a mid-grade chapter book, while my other biographies were all 40 or 48-page picture books. So, I was able to expand the narrative and weave in more characters, which I really enjoy doing. The picture books are more streamlined and contain much more word play. Although I did use word play in titles when I could.
The difference was in the research. My other biographies were about people like George Washington, long dead. Norm was a contemporary character. I got to speak with his daughter and people who worked with him. And I watched video clips of Norm giving speeches and being interviewed. It was great to listen to his voice, the cadence of his speaking pattern, especially when he got excited about what he was talking about. But it was his hand-written notebooks that gave me the most insight into what he was thinking and feeling. I could see what he saw and understand what he valued. For example, when he was touring India during a famine he wrote pages of details about the soil, the crops, the living conditions. At one point he stopped and just wrote “humanity – frightening.”
What was the biggest challenge in bringing this story to life?
Someone actually warned me not to do this book, because they thought plant breeding was so deadly boring. Norm bred thousands of plants and had to examine every plant every day for signs of disease. Plant by plant. row by row. It could sound deadly. But you have to think of his motive. Norm was looking for a wheat variety that was resistant to a disease that, throughout history, had wiped out many countries’ entire wheat crop. It was a devastating as the potato blight or worse. So, I saw Norm’s work more as a suspenseful treasure hunt. Would Norm find the perfect wheat variety in time to save people from starvation?
Tell us about what you’re currently working on.
I’m working on another biography for Calkins Creek about Alice A. Dunnigan, who was the first Black woman admitted to the White House press corps, and I have a new picture book in the works with Feeding Minds Press. More information coming soon!
Post a comment to this blog post for your chance to win a free copy of Hero for the Hungry. Follow Peggy on Twitter @Pegtwrite, Facebook at PeggyThomasWrites, or Instagram at peggy.thomas.writes for more opportunities to win free books, critiques, and school visits.
Hero for the Hungry will be released September 1st. Contact your local library for a copy or fill out a request to have the book added to the collection if it isn’t already in their catalog.
You can also pre-order Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug from an indie bookstore near you.
Barnes & Noble.
Books a Million
By Pat Miller
Want to improve your book’s structure?
Does it have enough action, enough scenes for illustrations. Do you want to identify emotion or trim the word count?
Then you need to self-publish!
Wait--I’m not talking about cartons-in-the garage self-publishing. This kind will be a DIY project and you will publish a single copy.
You will likely be the only person to read it.
It’s called a dummy and might be the smartest helper you’ll have. You will use your dummy to paginate your book, figure out how many words go on a page, where the page turns should be, and much more.
So, how do you make a dummy?
Think first grade. You can make a simple dummy by taking 16 or 20 sheets of printer paper, folding them in half, then staple, staple, staple down the left side.
I quickly moved from a folded paper blank book to ones from Target. They are also sold online. Oriental Trading sells blank books in 12 packs which are perfect for sharing with your writing group.
Here’s how I came to create a Sticky Dummy.
1. DECIDE WHERE TO START There is a preferred way to paginate your book that is determined by the publisher. If your dummy has 32 pages, where do you begin the text? Free picture book templates are available from authors Tara Lazar or Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Or examine how some of your favorite PBs are paginated.
2. CUT YOUR STORY UP Now you will create your first version of the book. You can cut up a draft or an outline. Here are steps I tried in some of my past dummies:
In my first dummy, I simply sketched in the outline of my story. Not a bad idea, but doing it this way made moving events around or changing things nearly impossible.
Next, I wrote the outline on sticky notes. They were much easier to rearrange, expand, or throw out. The headache came when the notes curled up, and over time, stuck to each other or fell out of the book.
I had better luck with typing up my stories and outlines, then cutting them apart and taping them to appropriate pages. They were easy to move. Problems came when there was a single skinny sentence per age. They bent as I turned pages and sometimes snagged each other. Repeatedly moving a taped strip can tear your blank book.
My hobby is making greeting cards, and that’s how I heard of this invention. These are Post-it Super Sticky Full Adhesive Notes. They are available in 3 inch squares or 4 inch squares in a large variety of colors. If you look closely at the green pad, you see a thin gray stripe on the right side. This is the only part of the pad that is not sticky.
The stickiness is stronger that the typical notes, but just as repositionable. Because the glue is edge to edge, there is no curling up. You could write your story or outline on the individual pages, but I thought of a way that works better for me.
Here is my hardcover blank book. The pink is the Super Sticky Post-it note.
Before printing my draft, I made the margins fit better on the notes. I then attached each with a glue stick. All four of these were cut from the same sheet of Post-it Note. The pink part makes them easy to move and reattach, and they stay flat.
3. MOVE THE FURNITURE Now that you’ve made or bought your dummy, it’s time to cut your story up and see how it fits. Will you have enough for so many spreads? Is there material to illustrate on each double-spread? What about the action, the emotion? You might even want to use one color of the Super Sticky Post-its for scenes, another for the connectors. Or maybe one color for text and another for sidebars.
For specifics on how to use your dummy, see Lisa Amstutz’s post, “Ninja Writing Tip: You Need a Dummy!” I think you will find that a Sticky Dummy will be just what you need to make your story deserving of a publisher’s hard cover!
By Christine Liu-Perkins
At a recent retreat of the Nonfiction Ninjas, we shared our old manuscripts and asked for thumbs up or thumbs down. Does that manuscript have enough potential to work on it further? Or should we put it back in the drawer?
I’ve been working on one particular project on and off for eighteen years. There’s something about the core that I love and think kids will love, too. I’ve written fifteen different versions, ever searching for the right approach. Various versions have been critiqued by fellow writers and by editors at conferences. One editor liked it so much that she called and left a voicemail! (I was shocked.) In the end, however, she couldn’t take it on. (Oh, I was heartbroken.)
I put it away, but never completely forgot about it. Finally, this year I had a new idea for how to frame it. I took a research trip for inspiration. I searched online for new information. To my surprise, I found material on my computer that I’d collected but never used that led to a breakthrough! I wrote a new draft in April and finished a revision last week. I hope I’m on the right track at last . . . .
Looking for a fresh approach to your manuscript? Here are a few ideas for inspiration:
By Linda Skeers
You’ve been writing and revising until your brain cells are sizzling. It’s time for a short break to give yourself a chance to recharge.
But what can you do?
Curl up with a cold beverage, bowl of hot buttered popcorn, and watch a movie about… writers! Hey – peeking into the lives of other writers, their craft, and trials and tribulations are almost a kind of research, right?
Here’s a list to get you started on your cinematic journey!
FINDING FORRESTER (2000) – novelist William Forrester mentors a high school basketball player with a passion for writing.
STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006) – how does a novelist kill off their main character when that character doesn’t want to die?
AUTHORS ANONYMOUS (2014) – a hilarious look at a writer’s critique group. You’ve all been in a group with some of these characters…
Writers with a touch of romance:
ROMANCING THE STONE (1984)
THE JEWEL OF THE NILE (sequel 1985)
THE BOYFRIEND SCHOOL (1990)
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
Writer’s block and ethical/moral dilemmas:
WONDER BOYS (2000)
THE WORDS (2012)
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)
Based on real writers
FINDING NEVERLAND (2004)
MISS POTTER (2006)
BECOMING JANE (2007)
On the spooky and suspenseful side:
THE SHINING (1980)
SECRET WINDOW (2004)
THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
Put your favorite movie about writing or writers in the comment section!
By Stephanie Bearce
Burnout is REAL!!
I just finished some tight deadlines and got both good and bad publishing news. My brain was fried. I had no desire to write ANYTHING! EVER!
Have you had days like this??
Where you question your writing career, wonder if you should give it all up and become a greeter at Walmart?
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) I've been in this place before. All the creative energy was gone and no idea of what to do next.
This is when I know it's time for some fallow ground.
Fallow ground is soil that is left unplanted to rest and regenerate. Farmers have used this technique for centuries to enrich and renew the earth. It's something we humans can emulate by leaving time to be fallow. To rest and rejuvenate.
Creativity takes fertile soil. It needs to be rich in ideas and full of life-giving energy. If we keep working, the energy of our brain becomes as depleted as overused soil. We all need to have fallow time.
For me, fallow time means reading, sewing monsters, cleaning closets, and watching favorite old movies. Often it involves Jane Austen, Madeline L'Engle, Dorothy Sayers, and Elizabeth Peters.
Sometimes it just takes a few days. This time it took FOUR WEEKS! But now, the ideas are flowing again. I'm excited to tackle some new projects. I WANT to WRITE again!!
I know I'm lucky. My fallow times are not years, but weeks. However, I think this is because, like the farmers I grew up with, I know that I NEED fallow ground. I give myself permission to just be. It's what my brain and my soul need. Please, give yourself permission to enjoy some fallow ground.
And to celebrate fallow time - I'm giving away four of my "monsters". Leave a comment below that tells about your brain burnout or fallow time. You will be entered to win a sweet little idea monster to help you with your newest project!
By Stephanie Bearce
I had just finished the 13th round of revisions on my manuscript. It was spit-shined and perfectly polished. The topic was unique. I'd done months of research. This story was sure to sell. I opened up my email ready to send the manuscript to my amazing agent, and there was a note from fellow Ninja Chick, Susie Kralovansky.
DID YOU SEE THIS ANNOUNCEMENT?
There in Publisher's Weekly was an announcement for the sale of my story.
Exact same topic. Even the same title!
But not written by me.
I'd been scooped.
Was there some devious plot to hack my computer and steal my ideas?
Did some evil writer read my drafts and take my work?
Was I the victim of a good topic and poor timing on my part?
Anyone who has been in the nonfiction business for more than half a second has experienced the "Stolen Idea" phenomenon. Nonfiction writers are avid readers and researchers. We are always looking for a new topic, a new take on a holiday, critical anniversaries, and hidden gems of stories. It's like the California gold rush for nonfiction stories. And exactly like the gold prospectors, there will be winners and losers in the story mining business, too.
But simply because another author beat you to the editor's desk doesn't mean it's over for your story. There are a few tricks you can try.
1. Change the target age of your manuscript. Is there a need for a middle-grade manuscript on the topic? Change that PB into an MG proposal. Or vice-versa!
2. Try a different format. Could you change it into a graphic novel? Could you turn it into a collection by adding similar stories?
3. Change the focus of the manuscript. If you are writing a biography of a famous person, try focusing on an unknown aspect of their life.
4. Set it aside for a while. This does not mean giving up on the story. Simply give your story some time and space. You may come back at it with a totally new perspective or you may find a unique way to use your research and hard work.
Most importantly, don't get discouraged. There are more stories waiting to be discovered. Get busy digging!!
By Nancy Churnin
After publishing 10 nonfiction picture books, my first co-authored book, WHEN MAMA RINGS THE BELL, will come out in Fall 2023, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, for Albert Whitman & Company.
When should you co-author a book rather than be the solo author?
Often, being the solo author is the only option. My first ten books, all picture book biographies, were about people who are not alive. Not much of an opportunity for collaboration there beyond what I could conjure with research and my imagination!
But one doesn’t always co-author with a living subject. The decision to do so is subjective. Here are some factors to consider:
1.Does the subject want to play an active role in telling his or her own story? Some subjects or sources might want to leave it all to you. Others may have strong feelings about making sure their voice is not only heard, but acknowledged in the author credits.
2.Would you be appropriating someone else’s culture or experience by telling their story without them? One of the best way to ensure that you are respecting someone’s culture or experience is to partner with them in telling the story.
3.Would it be more rewarding for you, spiritually, to join voices with someone else?
For me, this third consideration was the deciding factor, although the second factor was important, too. WHEN MAMA RINGS THE BELL is inspired by Shayna Vincent’s experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother in her thirties. It is told from the point of view of one of her young daughters.
Shayna didn’t ask to be a co-author when I approached her about telling her story. But as I worked on the manuscript, using her words, her experience, her feelings, her details, it was clear to me that the best story would emerge from our full collaboration. With regard to the third factor, it felt right spiritually to meld our words. With regard to the second factor, it felt right, morally, for her to have the credit she deserved by getting full credit for sharing the story that she wished she had for her daughters when she was diagnosed and would now help others.
Shayna lived the story we were writing. Not only did that merit credit as a co-author, but one of the added benefits was that as a full co-author, Shayna could be an even more powerful spokeswoman for families dealing with cancer and other serious medical conditions.
This is my first co-authored book, but it has been an incredibly rewarding and uplifting experience. I hope to do more.
Nonfiction Ninja Chick Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of 10 picture book biographies. When Mama Rings the Bell, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, is one of her three new books scheduled to be released in Fall 2023. It will be published by Albert Whitman & Company
by Susie Kralovansky
Often at a writer’s conference, “What’s the secret to getting published?” comes up. Here is my advice, simple and sweet:
Early in my writing career, I was one of those writers. I couldn’t wait to submit even when I knew a phrase fell flat or the ending was weak. My inner voice would say, “I don’t think it’s ready.” Did I listen? Absolutely not! Was it ready to be sent out? Absolutely not! But I was convinced (every single time, because I am a slow learner) that the editor or agent would recognize my genius and happily replace the word, phrase, or whatever my piece was missing. Did that process work? Never! Ever!
Again, the big secret – STUDY THOSE GUIDELINES!
You can do this. Good luck!
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.