by Christine Liu-Perkins
I had underestimated the usefulness of a timeline until I was stuck in a confusing muddle of historical research. In desperation, I created a double timeline—one recording major events in the lives of the family I was writing about, and one recording major events in the early Chinese empire. At last, clarity! I gained many insights that had eluded me before, and what I learned enriched multiple sections of the book. That timeline was definitely worth the effort I invested in constructing it.
Timelines not only condense a lot of information, they also help us see connections and patterns, such as:
Interested in giving timelines a try? You can make your own using Microsoft Word or Powerpoint:
You might also include timelines in your manuscripts, activity guides, and presentations. Teachers often look for timelines and encourage students to make them. Here's some sources for creative examples:
How do you use timelines? Have any tips to share?
By Linda Skeers
One of the most important things a writer can do is to read, study and analyze books in their chosen genre – especially recently published, award-winning, and starred reviewed books. In the past, I would sit down to really study a book – to figure out what makes it tick and to somehow absorb some secret that would improve my own writing. Alas, I read and enjoyed a lot of books, but I wasn’t sure I was really learning anything from my own solitary study.
That changed when I became a part of a Picture Book Study Group. You know the saying “Two heads are better than one?” Well, imagine how much better six heads could be!
Reading the same books and sharing my thoughts and opinions with others and listening to their thoughts and opinions gave me a whole new perspective on HOW to learn from a mentor text.
My group formed from a casual conversation about wanting to dive deep into picture books with the hope that analyzing great books would help improve our own writing. We’ve been going strong for over five years, so I guess it’s working.
First, we agreed on some ground rules:
We also select books in the same genre or category so we can compare and contrast and see how different authors handled similar topics. Any subject works – how about TREES? Here’s a list of titles we could read and explore:
BE A TREE! – Maria Gianferrari
SURVIVOR TREE – Marcie Colleen
THIS VERY TREE – Sean Rubin
TREES – Tony Johnston
THE SECOND LIFE OF TREES – Aimee Bisonette
BEFORE WE STOOD TALL – Jessica Kulekjian
THE WISDOM OF TREES: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom – Lita Judge
THANK YOU, TREE – Fiona Lee
LISTEN TO THE LANGUAGE OF TREES: a story of how forests communicate underground – Tera Kelley
Again, five titles work well but this gives you an idea of what’s “out there” and worth studying! Topics can range from food to frogs and space to scientists.
Possible discussion questions:
Did one book stand out among the group? Why? (it’s interesting that we almost always have a different favorite and it’s enlightening to discover why certain books resonate with different people)
What was the writing style? Conversational? Humorous? Lyrical? Straight-forward? What other styles would work with this topic?
What was included in the Back Matter? Did it enhance the text?
What did the author do to keep readers engaged and turning pages? Was there something unique or surprising about this book?
Was a technique used that you could attempt with your own writing?
Would this book appeal more to adults than children? Why?
Other questions and comments will spring up during the discussion. Remember, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you can learn a lot from someone else’s perspective – especially when it’s different than your own!
This also works for Middle Grade and YA – you just might want to limit the list to 2-3 titles each month.
Gather a group of writers interested in analyzing books in your favorite genre and start studying together – it’s a fun way to learn and share and it might just help you look at your own manuscripts in a new way!
by Pat Miller
I took an informal poll at a writer’s conference, asking if they wrote nonfiction. If they didn’t, it was often because they thought it was boring, that the research was overwhelming, and that kids don’t read it.
As a long-time elementary teacher, librarian, and children’s author, I’d like to share why I think writing nonfiction is such a pleasure. It could be for you as well.
1. Curiosity comes first. Children are powerfully motivated by curiosity—think of a toddler. Imagination kicks in much later than curiosity. Being the one to write the books that pique and respond to children’s curiosity is immensely satisfying. Kids DO read nonfiction—they want to KNOW! For more about how children like nonfiction, read this article by Melissa Stewart and friends.
2. The ideas are already "out there". Whereas fiction writers must nourish the tender sprout of inspiration, nonfiction writers need hedge trimmers to shape the lush growth of information that is readily available.
Books, letters, journals, and newspapers from prior centuries are readily available, as are millions of historical photographs, census records, deeds, and obituaries. Many can be accessed from your home computer. Museums feature items from bygone days—clothing, toys, tools, inventions. Their collections are often accessible online. For example, The Black Cowboy Museum near me has video of their exhibits.
3. Experts are eager to help do the work. You don’t have to know what you are talking about when you write nonfiction. Part of research is to find someone who does. Medieval dress, pikas, Inuit wedding traditions--someone is passionate about it.
When I was researching the mariner who invented the doughnut, I got help from librarians, maritime history professors, docents at a maritime museum, and newspaper archivists. Don’t forget interest groups, scientists, re-enactors, documentaries, and restored homes, shops, and battlefields.
With nonfiction, you aren't alone with the blank page. Though you can conduct a lot of research online, visiting places and experts is fun and provides writers a bonus--tax write-offs!
4. Experience counts. Did you try parasailing on your honeymoon? Do you have a passion for genealogy, identifying birds, or making doll furniture? You can write about your interests. Keep a journal on your cruise, follow up on something you hear on TV, or interview kindergartners. It’s all fertile ground in which to grow a true book.
5. Mentor texts provide clues. When I begin research, I located books on my topic. Not only did each provide useful content, but they often showed ways to use dialogue, craft a narrative arc, or break down complex science into books that children understand.
Another bonus is that the authors lean in and whisper, “Look in the back—I left you a road map.”
Back matter includes author notes, books and sites used, and experts consulted. You can use those resources. And though Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source, scroll to the bottom of the article, and look for the resources used to write it. It’s a jackpot!
Exercise your curiosity and your creativity by giving nonfiction a try. You may discover that rather than being boring, writing true can be satisfying and addictive!
Pat Miller (www.patmillerbooks.com) is a former teacher and school librarian. She has written 20 books for school librarians and 10 for children. She is the author of the award-winning NF, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, illustrated by Vincent Kirsch).
by Peggy Thomas
*This is a shout out to Kathy H. and Ellen
who recently asked about organizing research.
My husband would tell you that I’m the LAST person who should talk about organizing papers. But I think I’m the perfect one because I used to be an old-school organizer. My method was THE BOX. Each project had its own box that I kept next to my desk to hold books, notes, articles, etc. But, for the last 3 books I have used OneNote to keep track of my online research.
OneNote is a program that comes with Microsoft Office, and it is also available for Macs. (Other similar programs include Evernote and Notability.) It saves and syncs everything as I work, and makes it accessible on every device. Rather than explain how to sign up and start a notebook, I’m going to let Microsoft do it. Here is a link to short how-to videos.
OneNote has changed my life. I used to photocopy EVERYTHING. Now, I stash all that information in a OneNote notebook. Each notebook has files. (Mine are arranged as tabs along the top.) Each file has pages. (Mine are listed on the side.) For my newest mid-grade biography, Hero for the Hungry, I have a file for each phase of Norman Borlaug’s life – Childhood, School, Mexico, Nobel Peace Prize, etc. (You're curious aren't you? Who is this guy?) I’ve also got files for the bibliography, interview notes, and additional subjects, like wheat and famine, that require more background research.
When I find an article online, I cut and paste it into a page. For example, in the school file I have: a page with an image from Norman’s yearbook; another page holds a newspaper clipping about the wrestling team; and a third is a Youtube video of a 1961 interview in which Norm talks about the lecture that changed his life.
THE BEST THING EVER is that OneNote automatically adds the website’s link at the bottom of the clipping. Brilliant!! It remembers where I got the info, even when I can’t! I also like the search feature so I can find key words in any document.
OneNote does a lot more. It lets you handwrite notes, draw, record video and audio, and if you collaborate with someone, you can share notebooks. Maybe someday I’ll expand my skill set and learn its many other features, but for now, I’m just happy creating notebooks and saving paper.
(My husband is too.)
What is your best tip for staying organized? Share in the comments.
And keep sending us your questions.
We’re here to help.
By Nancy Churnin
Today we welcome author Meeg Pincus to our blog.
Meeg- could you tell us about your work?
Thank you so much for having me on Nonfiction Ninjas—I love your group’s blog! Here’s my formal bio:
Meeg Pincus writes nonfiction picture books about “solutionaries” who help people, animals, and the planet—including Winged Wonders (Golden Kite & Eureka! Nonfiction Honors), Miep and the Most Famous Diary (Kirkus & SLJ starred reviews), Cougar Crossing (an NSTA Best STEM Book), Ocean Soup (Eureka! Nonfiction Honor), plus forthcoming Make Way for Animals!, So Much More to Helen!, and Door by Door. Meeg is a long-time nonfiction writer/editor (from newspapers to books), educator (from school classrooms to online workshops), and diverse books advocate (see her website’s “Solutionary Stories Central”). She lives with her family in Southern California and online at www.MeegPincus.com.
As for my mission, I discovered the concept of “solutionaries” when I was working in the field of humane education (teaching about how to solve systemic problems of people, animals & the planet). I’ve carried the concept into my work as a nonfiction children’s book author, as I think it’s key to a compassionate, healthy, sustainable future. So, my mission is to share diverse stories that inspire kids to become solutionaries for people, animals, and the planet (and to love books & reading in the process!).
Meeg’s new books are Make Way for Animals!: A World of Wildlife Crossings, illustrated by Bao Luu, published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, about wildlife crossings around the globe, slated for an April 5th release and So Much More to Helen!: The Passions and Pursuits of Helen Keller, illustrated by Caroline Bonne-Müller, published by Sleeping Bear Press, about the many sides of Helen Keller, slated for an April 15th release.
And just to let us all get to know Meeg better, here’s some additional information about her:
Something fun to know about me is that I love performing arts and grew up singing, dancing, and acting (though I’m also an introvert, go figure!). I worked as a character at Disneyland as a teenager (yes, it’s hot in there!) and I still sing, with a nine-woman acoustic group I’ve been with for almost a decade. In fact, I actually love to think about writing picture books as creating little pieces of theatre (and I’m currently crafting a new workshop to explain how)!
Social media/website links if you have them or any other website where you want to send people to find out more about you and your books.
I can be found online at www.MeegPincus.com, where I have an email newsletter signup and try to offer lots of resources on my books, other great books, and nonfiction writing.
What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?
I love this question and, in fact, one of the workshops I teach is called “Risky Nonfiction” because I think we must take calculated risks and think outside the box to sell our nonfiction stories in today’s crowded market. I’ve tried to take different kinds of risks with my various books, from style to setting to topics to structure.
With Ocean Soup, I risked using a rhyming poetry style for a serious topic. With Miep and the Most Famous Diary, I risked setting a picture book during the Holocaust (and worked very hard to make it age-appropriate—this is the “calculated” part!). With So Much More to Helen! and Winged Wonders, I risked tackling topics that may be seen as “overdone” but tried to present fresh takes on them. And with Cougar Crossing, I risked an unconventional dual structure (using the real scientists I interviewed as sidebar commentators).
As you can see, none of these risks are outlandish, but each is a way of bringing something fresh, innovative, or even a tiny bit daring to the table, which hopefully helps these stories stand out for kids (and editors!).
Where do you go to get constructive criticism of your work?
Another great question, and a topic I love to talk about with writers. First, I’ll say that I turn to my handful of trusted critique partners when I need feedback on a manuscript. It’s not a critique group, just individual writers I’ve met, mostly through nonfiction workshops I took early on, with whom I’ve mutually agreed to call on each other for feedback when needed. For me right now (as a homeschooling, working mom), I prefer this to a regularly-meeting critique group. I also turn to my agent, and I sometimes take advantage of editor feedback opportunities at professional conferences when I’d like a neutral/tough eye on something.
Second on this topic, I love to share with fellow writers some advice I heard and scribbled down at a live talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert several years back. She said she has learned to only listen to feedback from people for whom she can answer “yes” to these questions:
1) Do I trust your taste and judgment?
2) Do you have my best interest at heart?
3) Can you deliver it kindly and constructively?
4) Is there time to fix it?
This wisdom just resonated with me so strongly and I’ve followed it since I heard Liz say it. I hope it helps someone reading this, as it has helped me!
Whose books or writing do you admire?
Focusing on my genre of children’s nonfiction picture books, I admire so many! Especially ones that have a lyrical, poetic voice that really paints an emotional picture, and ones with a fresh, creative approach to a topic.
I love everything by Carole Boston Weatherford, Margarita Engle, and Nancy Churnin (a Nonfiction Ninja!). Favorite books by others that spring to mind include Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome (illustrated by James Ransome), Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (illustrated by Michaela Goade), The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander (illustrated by Kadir Nelson), The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basa (illustrated by Yuko Shimizu), Stonewall by Rob Sanders (illustrated by Jamey Cristoph), and Giant Squid by Candace Fleming (illustrated by Eric Rohmann).
I’m excited to have recently curated many of my favorite “solutionary stories” (nonfiction picture books) into a shop on Bookshop.org—organized by topics—through my website and here directly: https://bookshop.org/shop/solutionarystories. It’s been a wonderful new way to share many books I love with others—and have them at my own disposal when I’m seeking inspiration, mentor texts, or examples for teaching. I’ll keep adding to my lists, too—hopefully with more books by folks in this wonderful Nonfiction Ninjas community!
Thank you for telling us what you want to learn this year! We are looking forward to bringing you information on agents, editors, research, mentor texts, illustration, hooks, and more!
And - CONGRATULATIONS to our drawing winners!
Susan Johnston and Sarah Hawklyn!
You have won a free critique of either a full nonfiction PB or a proposal.
By Susie Kralovansky
Today I’m excited to invite Cynthia Levinson to chat about all things writing. Cynthia tells true stories about brave people, and the injustices they’ve faced. She is the author of several books, but her latest, The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art has received five starred reviews, and is a Horn Book Fanfare Pick, a Golden Kite Award, is a National Jewish Book Award finalist, AND is a Sibert winner! Wow!
Cynthia, how do you generate ideas?
I’m always on the prowl for topics that will intrigue kids, keep me engaged through years of research, and, ideally, appeal to a publisher. Whenever I read the newspaper and books, watch movies and plays, go to concerts, and talk with friends, a side of my brain is wondering, “Is there something here I can write about?” Or, one project can lead to another one. That’s how The Youngest Marcher, my second book about civil rights in Birmingham, came about. When I’m really lucky, an editor asks me to write a book. That happened with Fault Lines in the Constitution and my bio of Hillary Clinton. And, then, sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea pops into my mind, like, hey, what about an Arab-Jewish children’s circus? (Watch Out for Flying Kids!) And, gee, I wonder, Who Owns the Moon?
What’s the wildest thing you have done for research?
Just one? It’s a toss-up between spinning on a lyra (which is a circular trapeze bar), leaping onto a trampoline, and dangling from silks attached to the ceiling in a circus ring, on the one hand, and doing research in a condemned building surrounded by yellow police tape, on the other.
What’s your best marketing tip?
Help other writers. Help them improve their writing; support their books on social media and in presentations; go to conferences; maintain friendships and professional relations. Then, they’ll genuinely want to help you make your writing better and share your books.
What keeps you going?
A combination of fascination with a topic and deadlines. Hardly anything makes a subject more interesting than an editor who’s expecting the next draft.
What’s your favorite research source?
That depends on the subject, of course, but, for me, nothing beats being there—whether “there" is a circus ring or living with Arab and Jewish families in northern Israel or sitting at the piano where the head of the Birmingham Movement Choir practiced “This Little Light of Mine.” I have no idea how I’m going to write about space without going there!
What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing?
My least favorite part is the timeline. Everything in children’s book publishing takes soooo long. Often, it has to, so we get everything right for our readers. But, as the bookstore owner in Jenny Ziegler’s new book, Worser, says, “Sheesh!” My favorite part is learning what’s behind the magic curtain—how decisions are made about trim size, paper weight, printing, marketing. I find the business side of publishing fascinating.
You can find Cynthia on:
Twitter at https://twitter.com/cylev
Or on her website https://cynthialevinson.com/
By Stephanie Bearce
We Ninjas want to hear from YOU! As most of you realize we host the always fun and exciting NF Fest in February. For the rest of the year, we try to help the nonfiction community with information right here on the Nonfiction Ninja Blog.
We would LOVE to hear from YOU! What do you want to learn about? What burning questions tug at your nonfiction heart? Do you want to know how to snag the perfect agent? Curious about mentor texts? Need Pat Miller's recipe for perfect doughnuts?
Please leave a response in the comment section below, about what you would like to learn this year. (I've given a few suggestions, but feel free to get crazy and creative.) Everyone who comments will be entered into a drawing to receive one of two FREE manuscript critiques from our well-published Ninjas. (Full PB or NF proposal)
Just tell us what would you like to learn more about?
By Christine Liu-Perkins
When I began writing for children, revising was difficult for me. My first drafts were decent, but when critiques came in, I didn't know how to implement the suggestions. Sure, I could tweak words here and there, but I couldn't see the entire manuscript in a new way that enabled substantial changes. I was not at all ready for the kind of revisions editors would ask for.
I was surprised to discover that even well-known authors work through revisions. For example:
Clearly, if I wanted to publish, I had to learn how to revise.
If you're interested in revising skills, here are some sources that can help:
By Stephanie Bearce
Writers love writing. What we don't love is promoting. But the truth is, promoting is a part of the job, and rather than whining, we need to put on our big-girl panties and get to work!
Last week we talked about getting reviews. They ARE important. But that's just the first part of your promotion plan. The next step is to build a promotion team.
Remember how you're NOT supposed to use our mom, your kids, or your crazy aunt Hilde to critique your manuscript? Total opposite for promoting that baby book of yours. Contact everyone you know and ask for their help. Sure some people are going to say no, but you are a writer. You're used to rejection. AND you're wearing those big-girl panties. You can take it.
A promotion team is simply a group of people willing to help by sharing your media posts. The team will help you broaden your platform and expand your audience reach. Maybe you only have 10 FB friends and you've never heard of twitter. No worries - your promotion team will be lending you their platform by sharing your posts and promoting your book.
Make it easy on them by creating posts that are attractive and fun. Canva is a free graphic art tool that will make your social media posts look professional. (Watch out though - it's fun and can be addicting!) You can create posts for holidays and special events and share them with your promotions team. All they have to do is hit share on their favorite social site.
You don't need a big team. A dozen dedicated team members is better than a hundred half-hearted promoters. Make your team feel special by giving them the inside scoop on your publishing process, sharing your triumphs and disappointments, and of course, showering them with your genuine gratitude.
You can ask your team to post reviews on Good Reads and Amazon. Have them request that their local library purchase your book. Ask if they are willing to pre-order copies of your book. And have your team spread the word to their friends and family that you have a NEW BOOK!
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.