by Pat Miller
I took an informal poll at a writer’s conference, asking if they wrote nonfiction. If they didn’t, it was often because they thought it was boring, that the research was overwhelming, and that kids don’t read it.
As a long-time elementary teacher, librarian, and children’s author, I’d like to share why I think writing nonfiction is such a pleasure. It could be for you as well.
1. Curiosity comes first. Children are powerfully motivated by curiosity—think of a toddler. Imagination kicks in much later than curiosity. Being the one to write the books that pique and respond to children’s curiosity is immensely satisfying. Kids DO read nonfiction—they want to KNOW! For more about how children like nonfiction, read this article by Melissa Stewart and friends.
2. The ideas are already "out there". Whereas fiction writers must nourish the tender sprout of inspiration, nonfiction writers need hedge trimmers to shape the lush growth of information that is readily available.
Books, letters, journals, and newspapers from prior centuries are readily available, as are millions of historical photographs, census records, deeds, and obituaries. Many can be accessed from your home computer. Museums feature items from bygone days—clothing, toys, tools, inventions. Their collections are often accessible online. For example, The Black Cowboy Museum near me has video of their exhibits.
3. Experts are eager to help do the work. You don’t have to know what you are talking about when you write nonfiction. Part of research is to find someone who does. Medieval dress, pikas, Inuit wedding traditions--someone is passionate about it.
When I was researching the mariner who invented the doughnut, I got help from librarians, maritime history professors, docents at a maritime museum, and newspaper archivists. Don’t forget interest groups, scientists, re-enactors, documentaries, and restored homes, shops, and battlefields.
With nonfiction, you aren't alone with the blank page. Though you can conduct a lot of research online, visiting places and experts is fun and provides writers a bonus--tax write-offs!
4. Experience counts. Did you try parasailing on your honeymoon? Do you have a passion for genealogy, identifying birds, or making doll furniture? You can write about your interests. Keep a journal on your cruise, follow up on something you hear on TV, or interview kindergartners. It’s all fertile ground in which to grow a true book.
5. Mentor texts provide clues. When I begin research, I located books on my topic. Not only did each provide useful content, but they often showed ways to use dialogue, craft a narrative arc, or break down complex science into books that children understand.
Another bonus is that the authors lean in and whisper, “Look in the back—I left you a road map.”
Back matter includes author notes, books and sites used, and experts consulted. You can use those resources. And though Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source, scroll to the bottom of the article, and look for the resources used to write it. It’s a jackpot!
Exercise your curiosity and your creativity by giving nonfiction a try. You may discover that rather than being boring, writing true can be satisfying and addictive!
Pat Miller (www.patmillerbooks.com) is a former teacher and school librarian. She has written 20 books for school librarians and 10 for children. She is the author of the award-winning NF, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, illustrated by Vincent Kirsch).
by Peggy Thomas
*This is a shout out to Kathy H. and Ellen
who recently asked about organizing research.
My husband would tell you that I’m the LAST person who should talk about organizing papers. But I think I’m the perfect one because I used to be an old-school organizer. My method was THE BOX. Each project had its own box that I kept next to my desk to hold books, notes, articles, etc. But, for the last 3 books I have used OneNote to keep track of my online research.
OneNote is a program that comes with Microsoft Office, and it is also available for Macs. (Other similar programs include Evernote and Notability.) It saves and syncs everything as I work, and makes it accessible on every device. Rather than explain how to sign up and start a notebook, I’m going to let Microsoft do it. Here is a link to short how-to videos.
OneNote has changed my life. I used to photocopy EVERYTHING. Now, I stash all that information in a OneNote notebook. Each notebook has files. (Mine are arranged as tabs along the top.) Each file has pages. (Mine are listed on the side.) For my newest mid-grade biography, Hero for the Hungry, I have a file for each phase of Norman Borlaug’s life – Childhood, School, Mexico, Nobel Peace Prize, etc. (You're curious aren't you? Who is this guy?) I’ve also got files for the bibliography, interview notes, and additional subjects, like wheat and famine, that require more background research.
When I find an article online, I cut and paste it into a page. For example, in the school file I have: a page with an image from Norman’s yearbook; another page holds a newspaper clipping about the wrestling team; and a third is a Youtube video of a 1961 interview in which Norm talks about the lecture that changed his life.
THE BEST THING EVER is that OneNote automatically adds the website’s link at the bottom of the clipping. Brilliant!! It remembers where I got the info, even when I can’t! I also like the search feature so I can find key words in any document.
OneNote does a lot more. It lets you handwrite notes, draw, record video and audio, and if you collaborate with someone, you can share notebooks. Maybe someday I’ll expand my skill set and learn its many other features, but for now, I’m just happy creating notebooks and saving paper.
(My husband is too.)
What is your best tip for staying organized? Share in the comments.
And keep sending us your questions.
We’re here to help.
Writer to Writer with Meeg Pincus
By Nancy Churnin
Today we welcome author Meeg Pincus to our blog.
Meeg- could you tell us about your work?
Thank you so much for having me on Nonfiction Ninjas—I love your group’s blog! Here’s my formal bio:
Meeg Pincus writes nonfiction picture books about “solutionaries” who help people, animals, and the planet—including Winged Wonders (Golden Kite & Eureka! Nonfiction Honors), Miep and the Most Famous Diary (Kirkus & SLJ starred reviews), Cougar Crossing (an NSTA Best STEM Book), Ocean Soup (Eureka! Nonfiction Honor), plus forthcoming Make Way for Animals!, So Much More to Helen!, and Door by Door. Meeg is a long-time nonfiction writer/editor (from newspapers to books), educator (from school classrooms to online workshops), and diverse books advocate (see her website’s “Solutionary Stories Central”). She lives with her family in Southern California and online at www.MeegPincus.com.
As for my mission, I discovered the concept of “solutionaries” when I was working in the field of humane education (teaching about how to solve systemic problems of people, animals & the planet). I’ve carried the concept into my work as a nonfiction children’s book author, as I think it’s key to a compassionate, healthy, sustainable future. So, my mission is to share diverse stories that inspire kids to become solutionaries for people, animals, and the planet (and to love books & reading in the process!).
Meeg’s new books are Make Way for Animals!: A World of Wildlife Crossings, illustrated by Bao Luu, published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, about wildlife crossings around the globe, slated for an April 5th release and So Much More to Helen!: The Passions and Pursuits of Helen Keller, illustrated by Caroline Bonne-Müller, published by Sleeping Bear Press, about the many sides of Helen Keller, slated for an April 15th release.
And just to let us all get to know Meeg better, here’s some additional information about her:
Something fun to know about me is that I love performing arts and grew up singing, dancing, and acting (though I’m also an introvert, go figure!). I worked as a character at Disneyland as a teenager (yes, it’s hot in there!) and I still sing, with a nine-woman acoustic group I’ve been with for almost a decade. In fact, I actually love to think about writing picture books as creating little pieces of theatre (and I’m currently crafting a new workshop to explain how)!
Social media/website links if you have them or any other website where you want to send people to find out more about you and your books.
I can be found online at www.MeegPincus.com, where I have an email newsletter signup and try to offer lots of resources on my books, other great books, and nonfiction writing.
What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?
I love this question and, in fact, one of the workshops I teach is called “Risky Nonfiction” because I think we must take calculated risks and think outside the box to sell our nonfiction stories in today’s crowded market. I’ve tried to take different kinds of risks with my various books, from style to setting to topics to structure.
With Ocean Soup, I risked using a rhyming poetry style for a serious topic. With Miep and the Most Famous Diary, I risked setting a picture book during the Holocaust (and worked very hard to make it age-appropriate—this is the “calculated” part!). With So Much More to Helen! and Winged Wonders, I risked tackling topics that may be seen as “overdone” but tried to present fresh takes on them. And with Cougar Crossing, I risked an unconventional dual structure (using the real scientists I interviewed as sidebar commentators).
As you can see, none of these risks are outlandish, but each is a way of bringing something fresh, innovative, or even a tiny bit daring to the table, which hopefully helps these stories stand out for kids (and editors!).
Where do you go to get constructive criticism of your work?
Another great question, and a topic I love to talk about with writers. First, I’ll say that I turn to my handful of trusted critique partners when I need feedback on a manuscript. It’s not a critique group, just individual writers I’ve met, mostly through nonfiction workshops I took early on, with whom I’ve mutually agreed to call on each other for feedback when needed. For me right now (as a homeschooling, working mom), I prefer this to a regularly-meeting critique group. I also turn to my agent, and I sometimes take advantage of editor feedback opportunities at professional conferences when I’d like a neutral/tough eye on something.
Second on this topic, I love to share with fellow writers some advice I heard and scribbled down at a live talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert several years back. She said she has learned to only listen to feedback from people for whom she can answer “yes” to these questions:
1) Do I trust your taste and judgment?
2) Do you have my best interest at heart?
3) Can you deliver it kindly and constructively?
4) Is there time to fix it?
This wisdom just resonated with me so strongly and I’ve followed it since I heard Liz say it. I hope it helps someone reading this, as it has helped me!
Whose books or writing do you admire?
Focusing on my genre of children’s nonfiction picture books, I admire so many! Especially ones that have a lyrical, poetic voice that really paints an emotional picture, and ones with a fresh, creative approach to a topic.
I love everything by Carole Boston Weatherford, Margarita Engle, and Nancy Churnin (a Nonfiction Ninja!). Favorite books by others that spring to mind include Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome (illustrated by James Ransome), Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (illustrated by Michaela Goade), The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander (illustrated by Kadir Nelson), The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basa (illustrated by Yuko Shimizu), Stonewall by Rob Sanders (illustrated by Jamey Cristoph), and Giant Squid by Candace Fleming (illustrated by Eric Rohmann).
I’m excited to have recently curated many of my favorite “solutionary stories” (nonfiction picture books) into a shop on Bookshop.org—organized by topics—through my website and here directly: https://bookshop.org/shop/solutionarystories. It’s been a wonderful new way to share many books I love with others—and have them at my own disposal when I’m seeking inspiration, mentor texts, or examples for teaching. I’ll keep adding to my lists, too—hopefully with more books by folks in this wonderful Nonfiction Ninjas community!
Congratulations and Thank You!
Thank you for telling us what you want to learn this year! We are looking forward to bringing you information on agents, editors, research, mentor texts, illustration, hooks, and more!
And - CONGRATULATIONS to our drawing winners!
Susan Johnston and Sarah Hawklyn!
You have won a free critique of either a full nonfiction PB or a proposal.
Writer to Writer
By Susie Kralovansky
Today I’m excited to invite Cynthia Levinson to chat about all things writing. Cynthia tells true stories about brave people, and the injustices they’ve faced. She is the author of several books, but her latest, The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art has received five starred reviews, and is a Horn Book Fanfare Pick, a Golden Kite Award, is a National Jewish Book Award finalist, AND is a Sibert winner! Wow!
Cynthia, how do you generate ideas?
I’m always on the prowl for topics that will intrigue kids, keep me engaged through years of research, and, ideally, appeal to a publisher. Whenever I read the newspaper and books, watch movies and plays, go to concerts, and talk with friends, a side of my brain is wondering, “Is there something here I can write about?” Or, one project can lead to another one. That’s how The Youngest Marcher, my second book about civil rights in Birmingham, came about. When I’m really lucky, an editor asks me to write a book. That happened with Fault Lines in the Constitution and my bio of Hillary Clinton. And, then, sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea pops into my mind, like, hey, what about an Arab-Jewish children’s circus? (Watch Out for Flying Kids!) And, gee, I wonder, Who Owns the Moon?
What’s the wildest thing you have done for research?
Just one? It’s a toss-up between spinning on a lyra (which is a circular trapeze bar), leaping onto a trampoline, and dangling from silks attached to the ceiling in a circus ring, on the one hand, and doing research in a condemned building surrounded by yellow police tape, on the other.
What’s your best marketing tip?
Help other writers. Help them improve their writing; support their books on social media and in presentations; go to conferences; maintain friendships and professional relations. Then, they’ll genuinely want to help you make your writing better and share your books.
What keeps you going?
A combination of fascination with a topic and deadlines. Hardly anything makes a subject more interesting than an editor who’s expecting the next draft.
What’s your favorite research source?
That depends on the subject, of course, but, for me, nothing beats being there—whether “there" is a circus ring or living with Arab and Jewish families in northern Israel or sitting at the piano where the head of the Birmingham Movement Choir practiced “This Little Light of Mine.” I have no idea how I’m going to write about space without going there!
What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing?
My least favorite part is the timeline. Everything in children’s book publishing takes soooo long. Often, it has to, so we get everything right for our readers. But, as the bookstore owner in Jenny Ziegler’s new book, Worser, says, “Sheesh!” My favorite part is learning what’s behind the magic curtain—how decisions are made about trim size, paper weight, printing, marketing. I find the business side of publishing fascinating.
You can find Cynthia on:
Twitter at https://twitter.com/cylev
Or on her website https://cynthialevinson.com/
By Stephanie Bearce
We Ninjas want to hear from YOU! As most of you realize we host the always fun and exciting NF Fest in February. For the rest of the year, we try to help the nonfiction community with information right here on the Nonfiction Ninja Blog.
We would LOVE to hear from YOU! What do you want to learn about? What burning questions tug at your nonfiction heart? Do you want to know how to snag the perfect agent? Curious about mentor texts? Need Pat Miller's recipe for perfect doughnuts?
Please leave a response in the comment section below, about what you would like to learn this year. (I've given a few suggestions, but feel free to get crazy and creative.) Everyone who comments will be entered into a drawing to receive one of two FREE manuscript critiques from our well-published Ninjas. (Full PB or NF proposal)
Just tell us what would you like to learn more about?
By Christine Liu-Perkins
When I began writing for children, revising was difficult for me. My first drafts were decent, but when critiques came in, I didn't know how to implement the suggestions. Sure, I could tweak words here and there, but I couldn't see the entire manuscript in a new way that enabled substantial changes. I was not at all ready for the kind of revisions editors would ask for.
I was surprised to discover that even well-known authors work through revisions. For example:
Clearly, if I wanted to publish, I had to learn how to revise.
If you're interested in revising skills, here are some sources that can help:
Book Promotion Teams
By Stephanie Bearce
Writers love writing. What we don't love is promoting. But the truth is, promoting is a part of the job, and rather than whining, we need to put on our big-girl panties and get to work!
Last week we talked about getting reviews. They ARE important. But that's just the first part of your promotion plan. The next step is to build a promotion team.
Remember how you're NOT supposed to use our mom, your kids, or your crazy aunt Hilde to critique your manuscript? Total opposite for promoting that baby book of yours. Contact everyone you know and ask for their help. Sure some people are going to say no, but you are a writer. You're used to rejection. AND you're wearing those big-girl panties. You can take it.
A promotion team is simply a group of people willing to help by sharing your media posts. The team will help you broaden your platform and expand your audience reach. Maybe you only have 10 FB friends and you've never heard of twitter. No worries - your promotion team will be lending you their platform by sharing your posts and promoting your book.
Make it easy on them by creating posts that are attractive and fun. Canva is a free graphic art tool that will make your social media posts look professional. (Watch out though - it's fun and can be addicting!) You can create posts for holidays and special events and share them with your promotions team. All they have to do is hit share on their favorite social site.
You don't need a big team. A dozen dedicated team members is better than a hundred half-hearted promoters. Make your team feel special by giving them the inside scoop on your publishing process, sharing your triumphs and disappointments, and of course, showering them with your genuine gratitude.
You can ask your team to post reviews on Good Reads and Amazon. Have them request that their local library purchase your book. Ask if they are willing to pre-order copies of your book. And have your team spread the word to their friends and family that you have a NEW BOOK!
By Stephanie Bearce
As kidlit authors it can be a challenge to get our books into the hands of our intended readers. Most four-year-olds aren't browsing Amazon for the newest picture book and ten-year-olds aren't really supposed to drive themselves to the bookstore. We need brilliant parents, librarians, and teachers to love our stories and get them into the hands of our readers.
There are many avenues for making these connections. book reviews, blog tours, speaking engagements, school and library visits, podcasts, and newsletters, to name just a few. Too many for just one blog post! (Hint, hint, we'll be giving away more promotional tips in the next few weeks.) Today we are going to concentrate on reviews.
Getting your book into the hands of reviewers is critical. Most publishers will make sure your book is sent to Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. But it's always a good idea to check with your editor and the publicity team. Nobody wants their book to be the one to "slip through the crack." YOU are the best champion of your work. So make sure you know it is getting out into the world.
There are a number of great blogs that review children's books and it is worth your time and effort to get a galley to them for review. In the waaay back olden days, you would have needed a copy of your book, but now with the miracle of the internet - you can send electronic galleys!! (with the blessing of your publisher, of course.)
Check out these blogs - and if you know of others - leave a comment! We'll add them to the list!!
The Children's Book Review
Happily Ever Elephants
Nerdy Book Club
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Mr. Schu Reads
Here Wee Read
From the Mixed Up Files
Only Picture Books
The Crimson Review
By Peggy Thomas
I am frequently the last in our group to hear publishing news like who won an award or when an editor moved to another publishing house. So, I asked my fellow Ninjas where they get their information. Which resources, publishing and otherwise, do they rely on? Here is what they had to say:
General Publishing News
Inspiration for Ideas
This is just a partial list. Please add your favorites in the comments below and we will create a resource list on our website that you can bookmark.
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.