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.
by Christine Liu-Perkins
We often labor over the beginnings for our books and articles, but do we pay as much attention to the endings? Endings offer the opportunity to leave a lingering impression on our readers. Strong endings can leave a reader satisfied, even inspired.
When I wrote the conclusion to At Home in Her Tomb, I wanted modern-day readers to feel connected with people who lived two thousand years ago. I knew many people would pick up the book because they were interested in mummies. But by the end, I hoped readers also recognized our similarity to people of the past "in our questions, in our hopes, and in our desire to understand the world and our place within it." (p. 63)
Here are a few endings to nonfiction books that impress me:
"Taking a look at the world's mummies can help remind us that, past or present, every person has a story to tell."
(Mysteries of the Mummy Kids by Kelly Milner Halls, p. 65)
"George's love of words had taken him on a great journey. Words made him strong. Words allowed him to dream. Words loosened the chains of bondage long before his last day as a slave."
(Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate)
"One last task. One final defiance. One way to deny his enemies his head.
Drawing his last breath, Yoshitsune gasped: 'Quickly, quickly, set fire to the house.'"
(Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, p. 155)
For more information and inspiration on different types of endings, here are some articles I found helpful:
Andrea Somberg loves variety in her reading and in the genres she represents. As a literary agent for Harvey Klinger, INC., her clients include writers of nonfiction, science fiction, romance, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. Andrea's clients have nominated for The Edgar Award, The Governor General’s Award, the Lambda Award, and named best books of the year by NY Public Library and Book of the Month Club.
She is on the look out for nonfiction that look at the world in a new, unusual way, or that give her insight into a topic that she's not familiar with.
Nonfiction Ninjas are excited to have a conversation with the incredible Ms. Somberg.
Why did you become a literary agent?
I’ve always loved to read — it’s my one, true passion in life — but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could become a career (before that I thought I might go into social work). I interned for a literary agency and loved everything about it — advocating for authors, working in a community where everyone loves books, and helping projects find their way out into the world.
What excites you most about working in publishing?
I love the excitement of reading a new proposal or manuscript, of thinking that this could be something I fall completely in love with or that could change my perspective on things. But I really love all aspects of my job — pitching projects, negotiating contracts, forging relationships with others who love books. I also love how the publishing industry is constantly changing — it keeps me on my toes! -- and I'm always on the look out for new opportunities for my clients and their work.
What are you looking for in nonfiction projects?
I love books that shine a light on topics in a fun way or that teach readers something they didn't know, especially if there is an interactive element. I also love books that engage the reader in someone else’s life, that give them a window into what it's like to live in a different place or time, and that helps to expand their world.
Are there specific topics that interest you?
I am very interested in OwnVoices projects and books that help the reader better understand an experience that might not be their own. I am also particularly interested in books that encourage kids to get involved in the world around them, to engage with their community and their environment, and to follow their passions.
What trends are you seeing in the industry?
Years ago it was hard to get books published by underrepresented voices but I’m happy to say that that’s changed. The Own Voices movement continues to gain momentum and we have been seeing this reflected on publishers’ lists.
Who is your ideal client?
Someone who is passionate about books.
Are you more interested in PB, MG, YA, or all three?
I tend to do more MG and YA, however I would love to find more OwnVoices PB.
What do you want to see in a nonfiction proposal?
The competitive books section is very important — I want to know what other books are out there, and how your book is different. Why is there a need for it? I also want to know more about you. Who are you and why are you interested in this topic? What is your background, your credentials? Do you have a promotional platform? (In other words, why are you the best person to be writing this book?). For children’s nonfiction, promotional platform isn’t necessarily as important for adult nonfiction, however it can certainly help. For more narrative-driven books ,such as memoir or biography, .the more sample material you have, the better.
What are some of your favorite kidlit nonfiction books?
There are so many I love! But if I have to name a few: for MG I love Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo and Ben Brooks’ Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different; for YA, Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives and Joanna Spathis’s Wake, Rise, Resist: The Progressive Teen's Guide to Fighting Tyrants and A*holes; and for PB, Jacqueline Woodson’s When You Begin and Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby.
What advice can you give to people who want to break into the nonfiction market?
Do your research. If you are interested in a topic, learn what else is out there. Make sure that your book is different, that it fills a hole in the marketplace and that there is a need for it. And then make the best case as to why you are the best person to write it.
And last but not least – are you a dog person or a cat person? And do you have a pet?
Both! Growing up I had several dogs, but when I married I inherited two cats (who have unfortunately passed away). No pets at the moment but I’m sure that will change soon.
Do you think Andrea might be the perfect agent for you? Email your submission to email@example.com
Please send along a query letter and the opening five pages of your manuscript.
by Michelle Medlock Adams
You might have heard that “Rhyme is a crime,” and that editors don’t like rhyming board books and picture books. That’s not exactly true. Editors just don’t like BAD rhyme. They like rhyming board books and picture books that are written well. It’s just that they have seen so much bad rhyme over the years, their hearts might be a bit hardened toward rhyme. But if you can write good rhyme—then go for it! Most of my children’s books are written in rhyme, and I continue to sell rhyming manuscripts. But, let’s write good rhyme! Don’t be a rhyme criminal!
Let’s take a look at the top rhyme felonies I see when judging contest manuscripts.
Felony #1: Letting rhyme dictate the story.
If your story has been kidnapped all to make a rhyme work, then you’re a rhyme criminal. In other words, if your story is about a lizard who becomes a wizard simply because the rhyme worked, then it’s probably not a very strong story and if you wrote the same storyline out in narrative, you’d soon realize that the rhyme is really the only thread holding it together, and that’s not enough.
Felony #2: Using odd sentence structures to make a rhyme work. #justsayno
For example, in the song you might’ve sung in Vacation Bible School, “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man” (Remember that one?), the lyrics go:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
A wee little man was he. (Why would we ever restate that he was a wee little man, and why would we say it in this odd sentence structure? Because we need it to rhyme with “see”.)
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see. (Again, we would normally write, He wanted to see the Lord. But we changed the sentence structure so we could make an easier rhyme…)
Felony #3: Being a lazy rhymer and settling for near rhymes.
For example, nursery rhymes and song lyrics get away with this lazy rhyme crime a lot, but it’s not going to fly with most of today’s picture book editors.
Here's an example from Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
Though “dame” and “lane” have the same long vowel sound, they aren’t perfect rhymes. They are near rhymes. A perfect rhyme would have been to rhyme “lane” with “Jane”—see how that works?
Felony #4: Writing a poem and calling it a picture book.
Just because it is a nice rhyming or rhythmic poem doesn’t mean it’s a picture book. It might just be a nice poem for you to sell to a poetry anthology for children or possibly a poem you can sell to a children’s magazine that features poetry.
For example, I wrote a poetry book for kids called, “My Funny Valentine” for Ideals Children’s Books, and it has over 30 rhymes in it, but they are simply fun poems—not stand-alone picture books.
I see her every single day.
I think she is the bomb.
I’m making her a valentine.
But please, don’t tell my mom.
I think I’ll write: “You really rock!
You’re very, very cool.”
But if I say that mushy stuff.
She might think I’m a fool.
So I won’t sign my name to it.
She’ll never know it’s me!
I’ll tell her that she rocks my world,
And makes my heart run free.
I’ll sign it, “From your biggest fan.”
I slide it in her locker.
But if she finds out it’s from me.
I’m gonna have to sock her.
Felony #5: Writing in rhyme and being the only one who can make it rhyme.
This is maybe the worst felony of all. If you can only make your story rhyme while standing on one leg and holding your head just right, it’s probably not written in good rhyme and meter.
Felony #6: Writing in rhyme just for the sake of it.
Sometimes stories can be told WAY better via narrative, not rhyme. You’re robbing yourself if you don’t try writing your story both ways. You might be surprised which version is stronger.
By Susan Kravlovansky
I’d like to introduce you to Nina Kooij, editor-in-chief of Pelican Publishing. I have had the pleasure of working with her on How Fire Ants Got Their Fire, and my forthcoming picture book, We Really, Really Want a Dog. Both books are fiction with nonfiction elements.
Nina, what path led you to editing as a career? My mother was a freelance editor for organizations (not publishers), and I always excelled in English classes. I served as editor of my high-school and college literary magazines. I earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English and interned at a book publisher. After that, I was accepted to the Denver Publishing Institute, where I met the vice president of Pelican. I interviewed for an open editing position there and my career began.
In your current position, do you wear other hats besides the editorial one? Since we are a midsize imprint, yes. I am involved in production (cover decisions, checking interior layouts, monitoring inventory, etc.) and sales (recommending backlist titles for upcoming store promotions, for example).
Are most of the projects you deal with fiction, nonfiction, or is it an equal amount of both? These days it is about 2/3 children's fiction.
How is editing nonfiction material different from fiction? Sources are important, as well as vetting of the material by experts and potential buyers.
What is the market for nonfiction like currently? The market is good, both for adults who are quarantining and for online classes with children.
What advice would you give a writer about breaking into the nonfiction market? Build up some publication credits in nonfiction children's magazines, which you can then list in your submissions to book publishers.
A huge thanks to Nina from the Nonfiction Ninjas for the helpful information!
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.