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.
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