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.
When you write a picture book biography, usually you start by studying a person’s life and looking for a theme that that captures the person’s essence. But not always. Sometimes, I start with an object or something that fascinates me – and search for the person that brought it to be.
That is the curious case of The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England (illustrated by Luisa Uribe, published by Albert Whitman & Company).
I never set out to write about the wife of King George III, the British king during the American Revolution, who has become infinitely more famous after his featured role in Hamilton. Honestly, I didn’t even know King George was married, much less that he and his wife had 15 children together. But I was curious about the origin of the Christmas tree. How and when did that become a tradition?
Research led me to the story of this kind queen who dragged an entire tree into Windsor Castle and decorated it with lit candles, fruits, nuts and colored papers to delight a party of 100 children on Christmas in 1800, creating what would be an annual tradition that continues to this day.
Why did she do this? Working backwards from that event, I learned how she had grown up in Germany as a princess who cared about plants and children rather than fancy balls and jewels. When she married King George, the fancy ladies of the court made fun of her accent and her humble clothes that were not as fancy as theirs. She let her mother-in-law take charge of entertaining royal guests.
Instead, Queen Charlotte cared for children at court, patronized a hospital for mothers giving birth, expanded Kew Gardens, encouraged the arts – including young Mozart who named a composition for her, took a stand against slavery by boycotting sugar that grown by slaves on plantations, and became the first royal, along with her husband, to make charitable giving part of royal duties.
The only reason Queen Charlotte was not more famous for the Christmas tree is that it was not until there was a picture of her granddaughter, Queen Victoria, carrying on her grandmother’s tradition of the tree in a British and later American magazine, that her idea became more widely known. After that and ever since, Christmas trees have been lighting up the world.
They say books don’t grow on trees. But this one actually did.
Many people are surprised to learn that I love writing nonfiction. A frequent comment is, “But you aren’t a serious person!”
Yes, writing nonfiction is serious business… but it can also be funny! Here are five tips (and mentor texts) to keep in mind if you want to add a touch of humor to your nonfiction.
Choose a fun narrator.
Instead of just presenting information in the typical manner, let your subject take over and share their own story!
One Proud Penny – Randy Siegel
PENNY proudly explains how it’s made and offers lots of fun details about money – in his own voice.
Gross is good.
Dig deep for the most fascinating, gross, unusual, weird and amazing facts. Your readers will thank you for it!
Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History – Lois Miner Huey
This book contains lots of fun historical facts and doesn’t shy away from the gross stuff!
Add a fun sidebar.
Even if your subject is fairly serious, if you do find a fun fact or light-hearted example, put it in a side bar. This can be a breath of fresh air or some comic relief.
Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog – Adrienne Sylver
Its sidebars are full of extra facts and anecdotes relating to the humble hot dog. Really stretch and think outside the box to come up with tidbits that will surprise and delight readers.
New angle or twist.
Look for a unique way to present your information. Turn your topic upside down and inside out and shake it all about! Love geography? Want to introduce readers to the Arctic? Instead of presenting facts and figures, make the reader feel as if they are there.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be…A Polar Explorer – Jen Green
This series focuses on the nasty and negative aspects of jobs, lifestyles, and places throughout history. Written in second person, it helps the reader get up close and personal with the subject.
Language, puns, inside jokes.
Use words and phrases that match your topic. And remember that kids LOVE puns and fun word-play!
I Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are – Bridget Heos
Get it? BUZZ? Cracks me up every time!
No matter how serious you are, or how serious your subject is, a touch of humor can coax a smile, and maybe a giggle out of your reader. Go forth and be funny!
By Susan Kralovansky
One tough but necessary part of the writing process is receiving feedback. Unless you are a genius or an idiot, as my high school English teacher used to say, you can’t do your writing in a vacuum. It takes a village to produce print- worthy work, and your critique group is there to help.
You hope your manuscript will be universally loved. You want to hear, “This is perfect! Absolutely perfect!” but that’s not reality. Nearly every critique partner, editor, or agent will have an opinion on your work. Don’t get angry over the feedback given. Accept those nuggets you believe are valid and use those as a plan for revisions.
On the other hand, it’s not always easy to give feedback. The critiquer’s job is to be both helpful and honest. If you see a problem, say so, but be specific on why you find it awkward.
A great technique for constructive criticism is called the "sandwich method", in which you sandwich the criticism between two positive comments. Instead of saying "You did a lousy job writing this biography," using the sandwich method, you say "You did a great job on the introduction. The section on her childhood seemed to drag. With a bit more work, I'm sure you can tighten up that segment."
Remember: Critiquing makes you a better writer. And, being open to criticism also makes you a better writer.
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.
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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.