By Susan Kralovansky
I seem to keep finding a list of don’ts – things agents don’t like, or things editors don’t want to see, or the mistakes you don’t want to make if you want to succeed. I would like to share instead a list of Do’s that lead to success.
1. You do you. Some write first thing in the morning. Some after the kids are in bed. Some write every day, and some write after days of woolgathering. There isn’t one right way to do things so do what works best for you.
2. Do use those mentor texts. Read your favorite books. Study the beginnings and the endings. If you’re struggling with dialog, see how your favorite author handles dialogue. Study sentence structure and length. Study the page turns. See what makes the book work and why it works. Then apply everything you’ve learned to your own story.
3. Do keep yourself busy. Always be working on that next book or idea while you’re waiting to hear from that agent or editor.
4. Do be nice. Whether it’s your local writing group, your critique partner, a conference speaker, an editor or an agent - people talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with and who’s not.
5. Do realize that feedback helps. You want your piece to be loved. You want to be told it’s perfect. But, trust your readers to find the imperfections. Accept the suggestions you think are valid, recognize the ones that you’ve heard more than once. Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.
6. Do cover the basics: Good spelling and sound grammar are what keeps that great story out of the recycling bin.
7. Do celebrate. Whether it’s another writer’s success or yours - take time to celebrate that new agent, book release, or even a few pages finished. Get up from that desk, enjoy the success and celebrate.
8. Do read. Read. Read. Read. Read the type of things your write and read books on the craft of writing.
9. Do give up … just for a little bit. Sometimes, your idea just isn’t working. Rather than spending weeks anguishing over solutions you can’t find, put it away. Remember Step 3? Keep yourself busy, move on to the next project, and in a month, a year, or even six years you can pull it out and possibly come up with the perfect solution to your problem.
Maybe you have your own Do’s that are part of your process. I’d love to hear them in the comments. Happy writing!
In a recent blog post I discussed the fact that terms for describing nonfiction are changing. The leader in this conversation among both writers and teachers is Melissa Stewart. Her articles on this topic over the last several years have resulted in some fairly new, but generally agreed upon, labels. In a December blog post we talked a bit about narrative nonfiction.
In this week’s post I want to tackle expository literature nonfiction. Expository literature nonfiction features a somewhat narrow topic in a creative way. And it uses engaging language with a strong, unique voice. It’s a style that works especially well for STEM topics.
While narrative nonfiction has a definite story arc, expository literature seeks to inform without a story narrative. In my experiences as an elementary teacher, I saw it happen again and again. Struggling readers are drawn to an expository literature style. They’re the bottom-line kinds of kids. (Just the facts, ma’am.) They read for information and tend to get lost if they have to find it in a story. They much prefer books that explain, describe, and inform them in a direct way.
Within the covers of an expository literature book, you’ll find a lot going on. A single page can include photos, diagrams, labels, captions, and fun facts all related to the topic discussed in the main text. In addition, you’ll likely find a table of contents, glossary, index, and a bibliography (list of references). These kinds of books are often quirky or funny—a quality kids (and big kids like me) love.
If Candace Fleming (Oops! Sorry, Candy. I forgot to hyperlink you in the December post.) is the recognized narrative nonfiction genius, then Melissa Stewart is the hands down Ninja favorite for expository literature. Melissa’s books have a distinctive voice and explore science topics in creative ways.
In Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, Melissa ramps up the yuck factor by focusing on specific animal actions related to eating, making a home, and animal defense. The whole point is to make the reader to eeewwww a bit as they learn fascinating facts about the world around them.
Melissa’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs showcases “animal underdogs” with some creative survival skills. True, these animals may not be the movie stars of the animal kingdom, but those characteristics that seem like weaknesses can be the very thing that helps an underdog survive.
In Seashells: More than a Home, Melissa uses layered text to show how seashells are homes to various sea animals. The secondary text discusses the unique characteristics of each shell, while labeled diagrams make the explanations crystal clear. All of Melissa’s books are wonderful and well worth your time.
But Melissa isn’t the only one doing this type of work. Recent years have seen a rapid growth in the number of expository literature nonfiction titles on the market. A few Ninja favorites in this category include:
What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (And Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos
Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre (and other books by this author including Warbler Wave)
Seeds Move! by Robin Page
Pink is for Blobfish by Jess Keating.
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner
Death Eaters: Meet Nature's Scavengers by Kelly Milner Halls
Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Some of the Ninjas have written books in an expository literature nonfiction style as well:
Plants Fight Back by Lisa Amstutz
At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins
(Note: I mistakenly included Christine’s book in the narrative nonfiction post. This title is more accurately an expository literature nonfiction since the tomb is treated like a time capsule that examines each artifact as a part of life in ancient China.)
Extreme Sports: Motocross by Wendy Hinote Lanier
Dinosaur Devotions: 75 Dino Discoveries, Bible Truths, Fun Facts, and More! by Michelle Medlock Adams
By Christine Liu-Perkins
One of us recently became an agent in addition to being an author! Lisa Amstutz joined Storm Literary Agency, which represents children's authors and illustrators. Let's find out more about her new adventure.
Why did you decide to become a literary agent?
The idea sort of grew on me the past couple years after some conversations with Vicki Selvaggio at Storm Literary Agency. Along with writing, I’d been editing professionally for about eight years, working with both publishers and individual writers, and realized that my favorite parts of that job—helping manuscripts shine and writers succeed—were a big part of what an agent does. I went through training with Storm last year, and that experience confirmed my interest.
How does your experience as an author influence your approach as an agent?
Well, first of all, I know exactly how it feels to be in the querying trenches! I bring the knowledge I’ve gained from 15+ years studying the writing craft as well as my editorial experience to help my clients polish their work before it goes out on submission. I will also be building on the industry connections I made as an author, editor, and ARA of SCBWI: Ohio North.
Are there specific topics that interest you?
I’m not a good fit for anything dark, dystopian, or graphic. I love stories that help people connect with nature, promote sustainability, bring important bits of history to light, introduce kids to different cultures, and celebrate kindness, beauty, and truth.
What are you looking for in nonfiction projects?
I’m looking for writing that connects strongly with its target audience, whether that’s kids or adults. I love humor, lyricism, and heart, as well as stories that make me see something in a new way.
What do you want to see in a nonfiction proposal?
Pretty much the standard proposal format – include a synopsis, outline, sample chapters, comps, marketing opportunities, bio, etc. Basically, sell me on this book!
What qualities are you looking for in a client?
I’m looking for serious writers who want to build a writing career or are already established. I prefer to work with people who are professional and positive—no drama, please.
What advice can you give to people who want to break into the nonfiction market?
Study the market and figure out what’s selling right now. Today’s nonfiction is very different from the nonfiction most of us grew up with! Look for a “hook” of some kind that makes it more than a mere listing of facts. Make sure your text is 100% accurate, but told in a compelling way. Use techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, lyricism, humor, etc. to make your story sing.
It can also be helpful to align your content with Common Core or NGS Standards, as many NF publishers target schools and libraries.
For many more tips, don’t miss NF Fest this month!
My bio and submission guidelines are at https://www.stormliteraryagency.com/aboutus. I’m currently closed to submissions except from conference attendees, but do hope to reopen later this year. For updates, follow me on Twitter: @LJAmstutz.
By Michelle Medlock Adams
Since it’s February—the month we celebrate love—I thought I’d share how I fell in love…with writing for children.
When I graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, I couldn’t wait to tackle those hard news stories and make a difference in the world. I had lots of confidence and curiosity—both personality traits needed to become an ace reporter—and so I got my chance writing for a daily newspaper in Southern Indiana. I started working the Police Beat, which was just one step above the obituary writer, and eventually secured a position covering city government and education.
I spent five years in those news reporter trenches before God led our family to Texas, and I began writing features and personality profiles for an international ministry magazine. Little did I know that move would change my life forever.
After a little while on the job, my boss came to me asked, “You have kids, right?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Great, then you can write some kids stories for our children’s page.”
I remember thinking, “Just because I have kids doesn’t mean I know how to write for them.”
But…I was a journalist so I began researching the world of children’s literature and the craft of writing children’s books. The more I researched, the more I fell in love with this whimsical, enchanting genre. And as a journalist, I fell head over heels with the notion of writing nonfiction books for children.
That was more than 20 years and 100 books ago, but I’ve been lovesick ever since.
Creating stories for children—stories that teach, entertain, encourage, and inspire—it’s a noble calling. It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted, and one that I cherish in my heart. Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you feel the same. But I learned early on, not everyone shares our passion.
I’ll never forget the first time I encountered this truth. I attended a faculty mixer on the eve of a large writers conference, meeting my colleagues and chatting about the industry, when one woman asked, “So, what is it that you’ll be teaching?”
I smiled and said, “I’m teaching a continuing class about the wonderful world of writing for children.”
“Oh,” she mumbled. “You write children’s books…that’s nice.”
With that, she quickly turned her attention to a fellow novelist, and I stood there wondering what had just happened. Truly, I wasn’t as offended as I was shocked—shocked that she didn’t share my love and enthusiasm for children’s writing. But I couldn’t fault her. Not really.
After all, she wasn’t called to write for kids. She didn’t share our love for children’s literature. How could she possibly understand?
Now, I also write for adults, but my heart only pounds with enthusiasm when I am writing board books, picture books, middle grade, and YA manuscripts.
I bet you can relate.
Why do we love it so much? Maybe it’s because we get to encourage children to dream a little bigger, laugh a little harder, feel a little deeper, or care a little more. Or perhaps, because we are writers of nonfiction children’s books, it’s because we get to share true stories that need to be told to a readership eager to learn. We get to educate and inspire with every book we write.
What’s not to love?!
But if you have lost your passion for writing children’s books, reignite that flame by:
Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope your day is filled with roses and chocolates and new story ideas that make your heart pound a little harder.
Whenever I speak to groups about writing nonfiction, I get some variation of the following question: What can I write about? Can I write about science if I’m not a scientist, history if I’m not a historian, or art if I’m not an artist?
This is a subjective question, of course, and opinions vary. But I thought I’d share mine.
I don’t believe you have to be an expert to write about something you’re interested in—writing is a great way to explore new things. But at the same time, accuracy is critical in nonfiction. So if you’re not an expert, you need to be willing to do your homework.
My background is in science, so I’ll use that as an example here, but the same principle applies to other topics as well.
When I critique stories from non-scientists, I see two common issues:
The remedy for this is twofold.
Here’s what this looks like for me. While most of my books are science-themed, I’ve also written middle-grade books on the Titanic and Ancient Egypt. Since I was starting from scratch, these took a TON of research. I needed to figure out which authors are considered reliable and which are controversial. Then I immersed myself in documentaries and stacks of scholarly books. I created timelines, charts, etc. Each book was then reviewed by an expert before publication.
Even for topics in my field, I often get an expert review. It’s easy to overlook something or for errors to creep in. When I wrote about physics, I ran the text by my engineering professor brother. For Amazing Amphibians and Marvelous Mammals, I found reviewers with PhDs in herpetology and mammalogy. All of them gave valuable insights.
So to return to the original question: Can you write about something if you’re not an expert? Of course you can! Just make sure you’re willing to do your homework. Kids deserve no less!
By Peggy Thomas
Happy Book Birthday! Today my new book Lincoln Clears A Path comes out from Calkins Creek Press, with amazing illustrations by Stacy Innerst.
In a previous interview I talked about my struggle to find the narrative thread in that book. I couldn’t manufacture the thread or it would ring false. I had to reveal it through research. Once I did, I also found the key events that would, like stepping stones, lead the reader from beginning to end through the story.
The thread that I pulled from all my research was Lincoln cleared a path. He had a lifelong drive to help others. “Clearing a path” was a phrase he used in letters and speeches.
The first main path-clearing event occurred when Abe was seven in Indiana. He literally cleared a path through the forest. He felled trees, cleared brush, pulled stumps, and plowed fields. I could hear the sound of an ax on a tree trunk, a scythe sweeping across grass, a tree stump being released from the ground, and a voice encouraging an ox. I wanted kids to hear it too. “Thwack! Abe helped his father fell trees. Swish! He cleared brush. Thwump! He pulled stumps. Yah! He plowed fields.”
In Rob Sanders NF FEST post last year he said that repetition can “evoke emotions, provide continuity, and leave a lasting impression with listeners.” I would add that it also provides indicators or sign posts for your reader. Every time the reader sees “Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!” they’ll know the scene is another example of Lincoln’s path-clearing.
I used it seven times, not on every page. That would have become tedious. Sometimes I only used one sound. “He pulled off his boots and--swish—waded across the stream.”
I didn’t always use the sound effects literally, but also metaphorically as in, “Abe marveled at how the founding fathers--Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!--cleared a path for folks like him."
Of course, to show how someone cleared a path, you have to show the obstacles too. By 1862, the war was going badly and Lincoln’s son had just died. “The president’s world seemed darker than the densest forest at midnight. How would he get his family and America through this heartache?”
By this point I’ve (hopefully) set up the metaphor and its meaning, so the next 4 double-page spreads simply reveal Lincoln’s ground-breaking acts accompanied by one of the sounds in the illustration.
I end with Lincoln's greatest path-clearing effort, the Emancipation Proclamation, and this quote:
“’Liberty to all’…clears the path for all—gives hope to all.”
Now it's time for cake!!
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of NF books for children including Full of Beans, AFBFA Book of the Year.
By Pat Miller
Are you a fiction writer who is curious about writing nonfiction? Do you already write children’s true books but want to improve your craft?
Either way, you will want to sign up for the Nonfiction Chicks’ second annual NF Fest 2021 Challenge in February.
Every day in February, a NF author or illustrator will inspire and instruct you in a facet of writing true. Candace Fleming, Melissa Stewart, Kathleen Krull, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Kate Messner are just five of the guests who will visit your writing space via their NF Fest post.
But reading isn’t writing, so you will also be expected to participate. Each faculty member will end their post with a related activity you can choose to do. Or you can choose one from a list of 30 other activities that will grow your NF skills.
Join the NF Fest Facebook page now, (NFFest) to meet up with more than 1400 international “Festives” who are waiting for registration to open. Meanwhile, it is a great home for your interest and questions about writing true books for kids and young adults.
All posts from NF Fest 2020 are archived here to help while you wait. During registration, we will post daily a pair of upcoming faculty members and their topics. It’s going to be an exciting preview of NF Fest 2020. See you in February!
By Stephanie Bearce
Today marks the end of the 121st annual Christmas Bird Count. It’s an event that started in 1920 when Audubon Society officer, Frank Chapman offered an alternative to the annual Christmas hunt. Instead of holiday hunters competing to see who could shoot the most birds, Chapman suggested a national bird census.
Today thousands of citizen scientists across the Western Hemisphere participate in the count that starts on December 14 and ends on January 5. The Christmas count has informed conservation programs for generations and provides an invaluable historic record of bird species.
It’s such an amazing event that Ninja author Lisa Amstutz, knew it would be perfect material for a book. Thus, was born FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS, a charming story about a boy participating in the Christmas bird count and his quest to spy Gramps’ favorite bird.
I caught up with Lisa and asked her a few questions about taking a famous even and turning it into a book.
I asked her how she came to know about the event and if she had participated.
Lisa: The book was inspired by a bird count I accompanied my father on as a child. I've since participated in several other bird counts, and I always learn something new. For those just starting out, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a good way to ease in - it can be done right in your own backyard. This event takes place in February each year (see https://www.birdcount.org/). Project Feederwatch is another great option that runs from November to April (https://feederwatch.org/). These citizen science projects collect data that is very useful to scientists who study bird populations.
Q. Are you a Birder?
Lisa: Yes! I love watching birds, identifying them, and keeping track of the species I see each year. But I'm not nearly as good at it as I'd like. We hang out several types of feeders to attract birds to our yard and look for them on hikes. One of my favorite places to visit is a nearby nature center where visitors can hand-feed titmice and chickadees. There's something awe-inspiring about having a wild bird perch on your finger!
Q. As a scientist, could you explain why you think birds are important?
Lisa: Birds are an important part of the ecosystem. Larger animals rely on them for food. Birds in turn feed on insects, rodents, snakes, and other small animals. If birds disappeared, these animal populations would explode, destroying crops and affecting animal and human health. Some birds also play a role in pollinating plants and dispersing seeds.
Q. What is your favorite local bird? (Lisa lives in Ohio)
Lisa: Wow, that's a tough question! Not sure I can pick just one. I do love the mourning doves found in the book, and the cardinals and chickadees that come to my feeder always make me smile. But it's also exciting to spot a less common bird, like a bald eagle, an indigo bunting, or a bobwhite. If any of you reading this would like to share in the comments, I'd love to hear what your favorite birds are!
FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS is a great example of how to take an annual event and use it to create a successful manuscript. Her experience enriched the story and caught the eye of an editor.
What events are you involved in that might make a great book?
Here are a few celebrations to help spark the writing process.
You can find more at https://www.calendarr.com/united-states/observances-2021/
January 2 - National Science Fiction Day
January 4 - World Braille Day
January 11 - National Milk Day
January 29 - National Puzzle Day
February 3 – Feed the Birds Day
February 11 – National Inventors’ Day
February 15 – Daisy Gatson Bates Day
February 21 – International Day of Forests
March 4 – National Grammar Day
March 15 – National Napping Day
March 21- World Poetry Day
March 23 – National Puppy Day
By Susan Kralovansky
I was fortunate enough to close out this topsy-turvy year with a virtual school visit. The one thing that Covid didn’t change is the need to connect with kids and celebrate books, reading, and writing.
Luckily, earlier this year, both Kelly Milner Halls and Kate Messner had the foresight to plan a virtual presentation on giving virtual visits. As Kelly says, “Covid-19 has tossed a wrench into modern education.” In normal times, author visits are all about the interaction with students. But, with a little organization, a little planning (both ladies provided great planning hand-outs.) and a little practice, you can still achieve that interaction.
Things to think about when adapting your programs for a virtual visit:
Our goal is still the same - to support teacher instruction and excite children about reading and writing, which we can totally do with an awesome virtual visit.
By Wendy Hinote Lanier
In today’s reading circles, the word “nonfiction” is no longer a one size fits all label. The last few years have given rise to new terms that better describe the various kinds of nonfiction available. In a previous post we discussed those terms and the types of books associated with each. In today’s post I’m going to discuss narrative nonfiction a bit more and share some Ninja favorites.
Even though narrative nonfiction may read like good fiction, it’s still nonfiction. Every part of it is true. That’s important, because if it isn’t ALL true, then it isn’t nonfiction. Sometimes called creative nonfiction, the conversations and detailed descriptions included in the text are based on solid research and are easily verified. In fact, most narrative nonfiction includes source notes to indicate where the author found specific details or quotes.
Make no mistake. Crafting good narrative nonfiction takes a lot of work. For example, an author might want to include sentences like, “She hurried along the cobbled stone street clutching her meager shawl around her. It wasn’t much protection against the snow—now falling faster by the minute.” To do this, the author would have to determine if the streets the character was walking on were actually cobblestone, whether the subject in the sentence owned a shawl as described in the sentence, and what weather was occurring at the time of the event the author is trying to describe. All that for one measly sentence. Phew! That’s a lot of work.
One author who is a master at writing narrative nonfiction is Candace Fleming. The Ninjas love her work, not only for the interesting topics she tackles, but for the masterful way she weaves carefully researched facts into the narrative.
In Giant Squid the secrets of the elusive squid are revealed in an almost poetic form. The text evokes feelings of the cold, dark world in which these animals are found, revealing one physical characteristic at a time.
One of Candace’s latest book, Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera is another Ninja favorite. It explores the life of a honeybee in lovely lyrical language from start to finish.
And for a slightly older audience, some of the Ninjas highly recommend The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh—the story of an American hero and the truth behind the public’s perception.
But Candace isn’t the only author writing nonfiction in this way. There are many others. The Ninjas have so many favorites it would be hard to name them all. Just a small sampling includes books like:
Several members of the Nonfiction Ninjas have written narrative nonfiction books, too. Here are a few Ninja narrative nonfiction titles you might enjoy:
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.