By Wendy Hinote Lanier
The last decade has seen a tremendous increase in the amount and type of nonfiction for kids on the market. I knew it all along. Nonfiction rocks! And, as a former teacher, I have also known that nonfiction has a special appeal for struggling readers. Its concrete nature is easier for them to grasp than the abstract concepts usually present in fiction. Ask any elementary teacher, and they’ll tell you the most worn books in their classroom library are nonfiction. The weirder the better.
Most kids, even the best readers, LIKE nonfiction. They always have. Sometimes I think we haven’t had the greatest nonfiction in the past because readers who became editors preferred fiction. Editors bought what THEY liked. That’s still true to a certain extent. Hence the rise in the popularity of narrative nonfiction. Many editors still prefer their nonfiction in a story-like form with lots of fiction elements.
But because kids really do have a need for information, other types of nonfiction such as browsable, how-tos (active), narrowly focused STEM or history topics addressed in creative ways (expository), and traditional nonfiction are all popular these days. Those of us who loved nonfiction when nonfiction wasn’t cool are thrilled. Now, we just need to learn to write it in ways that appeal to kids across reading abilities.
When writing nonfiction, the first thing we need to do is throw out the advice we were given when we all started writing: Write what you know. If we only write what we know, most of us won’t be writing much. Thankfully, in this information age we live in, research has become a much less tedious task. What we don’t know, we can usually find out. Yes, if you’re an expert on a particular topic, it helps. But it isn’t completely necessary. Your research is likely to lead you to people who ARE experts. You can quote them in your work AND get them to vet your manuscript. Win, win!
Where to start, then? Start with something that fascinates, intrigues, or interests you. And don’t worry about the trends. They are ever changing. By the time you realize there is one, there are probably already more than enough books to satisfy that particular trend. Find something YOU like. Then run with it.
As you begin your research, start with a broad topic. Read. Pay attention to the footnotes, bibliographies, and backmatter that can point you in the direction of additional sources. Look for primary sources. Keep an eye out for some aspect of your chosen topic that will appeal to kids. Weird animals, gross stuff, quirky people, juicy stories, humor, and truly strange events are things that will appeal to kids. A new take on an old topic is good. A whole new topic is even better. And, whatever you do, keep track of your research. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t. (see previous Ninja posts on keeping track of your research)
The bottom line? There is a huge temptation these days to try to write “to the market.” The way I see it, that’s a path that will only lead to frustration. It’s ok to be open to new topics. We should always be willing to explore because you never know what will catch your fancy. But I think some of the best advice I can give to writers isn’t “Write what you know.” It’s “Write what you love.” Be true to yourself. Write what fascinates you and brings you joy. Then, if there are no big paychecks involved, you’ll still have great satisfaction in your final project. In short, you do you. And I’ll think you’ll be glad you did.
Wendy Hinote Lanier is the author of more than 40 NF titles. A former elementary science teacher, and native Texan , she writes, teaches and speaks on a variety of topics for children and adults. For more information go to www.wendyhinotelanier.com
By Peggy Thomas
Last month my regional writer’s group – Rochester Area Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Hi RACWI!!!— had an excellent panel discussion on creating the perfect twitter pitch. I’ve never created a pitch, but I want to because according to my friend Kathy Blasi, author of Hosea Plays On, a pitch is not just for twitter. A well-crafted pitch can help you stay on track as you research, write and revise. It will help your agent sell to an editor, an editor sell to editorial, and marketing sell to readers. That’s a lot of work for just a couple of sentences.
Today, I'll share some of what I’ve learned so far. I am far from an expert, so if anyone can add tips, tricks, or advice, please put in the comments section. I can compile and post a pdf, so you are all ready for next week's Twitter Party at #PBPITCH, THURSDAY, OCT. 29. Not sure I’ll have anything ready by then, but I’ll try.
There's not a lot out there specific to nonfiction, but here are a few resources that may help:
A twitter pitch can only have 280 characters including spaces. You can’t cram all the information from a query into a pitch. So be selective. You want to be informative yet intriguing.
Questions to ask yourself :
There are several possible formats you could use for your pitch, but I’ll discuss two.
1. If your PB is a biography, then you could follow a modified version of the fiction model:
Character + Obstacles + Goal = How they changed the world
Based on this format my 2021 biography would be:
Lincoln + death of son & bloody civil war + provide hope = cleared a path so all Americans could have a better future.
After lots of hair-pulling, I came up with:
Thwack! Abe chopped trees. Swish! He cleared brush. Lincoln always helped others. When faced with a bloody civil war, the grieving
president lifted his pen, and as surely as he held an axe, cleared a path for America’s future. #PB #NF [234 characters & spaces]
In my attempt to pique curiosity, I used bits from the book to create images and give a sense of the style. I did not mention the title, word count, or all the research I did. That would come later if an editor was interested.
It’s important to note that this twitter pitch is not what I’d say to a person in the proverbial elevator, either. That might sound more like:
My book, Lincoln Clears a Path is a picture book bio that explores how
Lincoln, when faced with a bloody civil war and the loss of his son,
cleared a path for America’s future with 4 key acts and 1 proclamation
that provided much needed hope, and changed the nation forever.
2. Another pitch format asks the question your book answers. For example, here is a pitch I came up with for a new project:
In a predatory world, how do animals ever survive? Meet 13 death-
defying animals in NOT TODAY! Amazing Prey Escape. Featuring 2020 research that’s hard to swallow. #PB #NF [176 characters & spaces]
Another variation that’s more specific:
Could you survive a jackal attack? A meerkat could. Find out how in
NOT TODAY Amazing Prey Escape. 13 death-defying animals, 2020
research and 1 spine-chilling end. #PB #NF [173 characters & spaces]
A few other tips:
My pitches are still works in progress, but it’s fun. I’ll keep you updated with different formats and suggestions as I learn more. Give it a try. Let’s flood the #PBPitch site with #NF and show everyone that nonfiction rules!
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of award-winning children's nonfiction, and co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children. For information on critique services or virtual visits, go to www.Peggythomaswrites.com
by Lisa Amstutz
Has the muse been absent lately? Consider writing a seasonal book! These topics are perennial favorites, because, well, they come around every year. Editors are always looking for new items for their catalogs, and educators love new twists on these popular themes.
The trick here, of course, is not to duplicate what’s already been done, but to find a new twist on a familiar topic. Pat Miller did this in her book Substitute Groundhog by asking a surprising question: what happens if Groundhog gets sick just before Groundhog Day?
Consider your seasonal family traditions, your favorite seasonal activities, upcoming holidays, and the changes taking place in nature. Ask questions: Why? What if? How? You’re sure to find a story idea or two along the way.
Autumn is upon us here in the northern U.S. – leaves are changing colors, sweaters are coming out of storage, and harvest is in full swing. What fall activities do you enjoy? What are you celebrating, collecting, or eating this season? What do you wonder about? What are your favorite childhood memories of fall?
A favorite fall family tradition inspired one of my books, Applesauce Day. I see a bump in sales every fall as more families and classrooms discover this seasonal story. And my new series with Capstone Press explores fall field trips.
Several other Nonfiction Ninjas have fall-themed books as well. Don’t miss Michelle Medlock Adams’ What is Halloween? and What is Thanksgiving? board books for a fun, simple introduction to these topics. During soybean harvest, read Peggy Thomas’s Full of Beans to find out how this fall crop inspired Henry Ford. And Susie Kralovansky’s The Book That Jake Borrowed is popular with school librarians teaching book care to a new crop of students each fall.
What seasonal books do you enjoy, or have you written? Please share them in the comments!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 150 books for kids. She also offers critiques and mentorships for picture book writers. To learn more, visit www.LisaAmstutz.com.
by Christine Liu-Perkins
We often labor over the beginnings for our books and articles, but do we pay as much attention to the endings? Endings offer the opportunity to leave a lingering impression on our readers. Strong endings can leave a reader satisfied, even inspired.
When I wrote the conclusion to At Home in Her Tomb, I wanted modern-day readers to feel connected with people who lived two thousand years ago. I knew many people would pick up the book because they were interested in mummies. But by the end, I hoped readers also recognized our similarity to people of the past "in our questions, in our hopes, and in our desire to understand the world and our place within it." (p. 63)
Here are a few endings to nonfiction books that impress me:
"Taking a look at the world's mummies can help remind us that, past or present, every person has a story to tell."
(Mysteries of the Mummy Kids by Kelly Milner Halls, p. 65)
"George's love of words had taken him on a great journey. Words made him strong. Words allowed him to dream. Words loosened the chains of bondage long before his last day as a slave."
(Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate)
"One last task. One final defiance. One way to deny his enemies his head.
Drawing his last breath, Yoshitsune gasped: 'Quickly, quickly, set fire to the house.'"
(Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, p. 155)
For more information and inspiration on different types of endings, here are some articles I found helpful:
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.