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
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