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
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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.