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:
By Peggy Thomas
Two years ago, we started our blog to help and encourage other writers and to share our writing journeys. But we've also wanted to reach out to those who use our books. So, the Nonfiction Ninjas proudly announce our newest collaboration—The NF NINJAS NEWSLETTER.
This quarterly newsletter is for educators, parents, kids, and anyone interested in children’s NF. Each issue will be packed with ready-to-use downloadable content—lesson plans, book-related activities, writing tips, recipes, author interviews, and short articles you can share with students.
For example, our first newsletter features a Christmas craft from Nancy Churnin, fun acrostic lessons from Michelle Medlock Adams, and ideas on how to celebrate Chinese New Year by Christine Liu-Perkins.
Sign up soon and you’ll also be eligible for our BOOK GIVEAWAY at the end of the month.
by Christine Liu-Perkins
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of NF titles, but might be best known for her biographies published by Calkins Creek. The other day I asked her about her newest book coming out in January.
Q. What inspired you to write Lincoln Clears a Path?
A. I had written two other books about presidents and their agricultural legacies –Farmer George Plants a Nation, and Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation. It seemed logical to create one more to make a trilogy. I chose Lincoln because his legislation had the largest impact on American farming. Unfortunately, legislation sounds really boring. So, I had my work cut out for me.
Q. You went through different approaches in writing this book. What was your process like finding the approach that worked?
A. My process was trial and error because I had a goal -- to connect Lincoln’s personal farming experiences with his greatest achievements as a president – but no idea how to get there. I normally don’t work like that, but I wanted the book to be similar in structure to Washington and Jefferson. For example: Washington made his farm self-sufficient which mirrored his efforts to create an independent nation. Jefferson’s legacy revolved around growing. He grew crops, grew American farm trade, and literally grew the country with the Louisiana Purchase. These were my critical connections, my narrative threads, my “so whats?”
I usually start with a title. Playing off the other books I started with “Lincoln Cultivates a Union.” Then I dove into research looking for every word, thought, and deed of Lincoln’s that had anything to do with agriculture, and how it might connect to holding the Union together and writing the Emancipation Proclamation.
My first approach was chronological-- showing young Abe on the farm and progressing through his life as an attorney representing farmers and inventors of farm machinery, etc…. That didn’t work. There was a lot of content, but nothing connecting it all together – kind of like a layer cake without the orange curd filling and caramel chocolate ganache (Great British Bake Off anyone?)
For my second attempt, I zoomed in on the one short period of time during the summer of 1862 when Lincoln’s legislative acts took place. It was also the time he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. I loved this approach because it hummed with life in Civil War era D.C.—the smell of the bakery in the basement of the Capitol, the lowing of cows grazing on the mall, etc. But the connection was still not there. It was mostly fluff; all sprinkles and fondant roses without the cake. I had to go back to my research.
Q. How did you finally identify the narrative thread for the book?
After a bit of panic and binge-watching the soul-soothing GBBO, I went back to my research and this time really listened to what Lincoln was telling me. That’s when I noticed that he used the phrase, clearing a path, several times in his writing. Sometimes he meant it literally to clear a path to walk on. Other times it referred to clearing a figurative path to make life easier for others. That’s when the light bulb clicked on and all the pieces fit. That’s what Lincoln’s whole life was about. As a child he cleared a path in the woods for his father. As a young man he helped neighbors and other farmers. As an attorney he aided his clients. As a politician he cleared a path for his constituents. And with the creation of the USDA, the Homestead Act, Morrill Land Grant Act, Railroad Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation, he cleared a path for the future of America.
Q. Did you discover anything during your research that surprised you?
I discovered (or rediscovered) the importance of taking a step back and really listening to what my characters have to tell me. It's not about what I want to say. As a biographer, I can only write what is true to my subject, and to find that, I have to let them lead the way, and in this case Lincoln really did clear a path for me to tell his story.
Thank you, Peggy! I can't wait to see Lincoln Clears a Path!
To learn more, visit peggythomaswrites.com
Interviewed by Lisa Amstutz
This month, I am sharing an interview with one of the Nonfiction Ninjas, Susie Kralovansky. Susie is a talented author/illustrator with two books coming out in 2021.
Susie, please tell us a little about yourself!
I am a former librarian who began writing picture books for my students. They had a terrible time understanding the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus. The first book was What Would You Do with a Thesaurus? By the time I had written them a book about encyclopedias, I decided to submit my idea to a publisher. That submission ended up being a six-book series for ABDO Publishing.
I write both fiction and non-fiction picture books. In February 2021, I have two books being released. My first, WE REALLY, REALLY WANT A DOG, is a story about animal adoption. And The Book That Jake Borrowed, which was first released in 2108, will now be released in a bilingual edition: EL LIBRO QUE JAKE TOMO PRESTADO.
I love talking to kids at school visits and hanging out in libraries and bookstores. When I’m at home, you can find me discussing a new book idea with my two writing partners.
What are some of your recent books and what inspired you to write them?
My most recent book was inspired by a fire ant bite. I’m originally from Indiana, where ants are harmless. They march along in single file, and if disturbed, they simply get back in line. Then I moved to Texas. While planting flowers, I accidentally jabbed my trowel into a fire ant hill. No problem, right? Wrong! Tiny red ants swarmed up my arms and legs and began to sting. Ouch! I quickly discovered that fire ants are fierce! Those fiery ants gave me the idea for How Fire Ants Got Their Fire: A Texas Tale.
Do you always illustrate your own books? How did you get started doing that?
When writing my second picture book, Twelve Cowboys Ropin’, I knew I wanted it to be both a counting book and a book about Texas symbols. Rather than trying to describe how I thought that might work, I sent the editor a couple of pieces of collage art to demonstrate the concept.
When my editor offered a contract, she asked if I would like to illustrate the book. In my head, I screamed, “WOULD I?!?!? YOU BET!!!!!” But, ever the professional, my answer to her was, “I would love to!” Luckily, I have been able to illustrate my next four books with Pelican Publishing.
What type of media do you use in your work?
Normally, most of my illustrations are fiber art collage. But, due to Covid-19, and the fabric stores being closed, We Really, Really Want A Dog has a lot of watercolor.
What tips do you have for aspiring author/illustrators?
My best advice is to believe in your project and persevere. I knew librarians needed The Book That Jake Borrowed, and I was right. That book just sold out for the fourth time!
What kind of books do you like to read?
I love to read every type of picture book. Tuesdays are library day. Every Tuesday I have to force myself to give back the books I’ve checked out and then bring home a whole new stack to enjoy.
What work do you wish you had written/illustrated? Why?
Just about everything I check out on Tuesdays!
Susan lives just north of Austin in Georgetown, Texas. Visit her online at www.susankralovansky.com.
Note: This interview was cross-posted at the Song of Six Pens blog.
Excerpted from Writing and Selling Children’s Books in the Christian Market: From Board Books to YA by Michelle Medlock Adams and Cyle Young (New Hope Publishers, Available Now!)
You’re at your book-signing, Sharpie in hand, ready to sign one of the dozens of copies displayed on your table, and no one shows up. Even though you’re positioned in front of Starbucks, people find a path around you to avoid having to make eye contact with you in their quest for java. Ever been there? It can be the longest afternoon of your life; trust me, I speak from experience.
But it doesn’t have to be if you follow these six strategies for a successful book signing.
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.