By Pat Miller
Have you had the experience of pouring your efforts into a nonfiction project, only to read about a contract offered on a similar project in Publisher’s Weekly? Do you have to abandon your project? Does every writer need to come up with a unique subject? How does one do that? The answer is no, you don’t have to be the first to write on your subject, but you do have to be different.
For example, my public library has 122 juvenile titles about sharks. You’d think that was more than enough for the most avid shark lover. But last month, I made a surprising discovery in the new book section. There were FOUR new shark titles, all published in the last few months. And there were two copies of each!
So why would a publisher say yes to another shark book? Why would a librarian buy multiple duplicate titles from her tight budget? Because the topic is popular and each of these four books had a unique viewpoint. Here’s what I noticed about each that might have made an acquiring editor say “YES!” Could your work benefit from a closer look?
I Am the Shark. by Joan Holub, illustrated by Laurie Keller. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021.
Who knew sharks could be funny? They are in the hands of Holub and Keller. Great White Shark brags that he is the greatest shark in the book. Before each subsequent page turn, a speech bubble says “No, you’re not.” Kids can guess what shark will be next and why. As the sharks argue, they share key shark facts with readers. This narrative nonfiction is not useful for report-writing, but is definitely a gateway book to the world of sharks and their cool abilities.
Everything Awesome About Sharks and Other Underwater Creatures by Mike Lowery. Orchard Books, 2021.
Unlike the previous title, this book was not intended to be read cover to cover. Mike Lowery starts his book with a note to readers explaining that his book is “totally loaded with info, weird facts, and jokes that will keep you hooked.” It is packed with labeled line drawings, fact boxes, and a breezy format that invites readers to skim and dip in. This is the type of book Melissa Stewart calls browseable nonfiction. At 124 pages, this book will keep even the most knowledgeable shark lover engaged.
The Shark Book by Steve Jenkins, illustrated by Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.
This is another browseable nonfiction, though it has much less text, more white space, and colored illustrations. The facts are intriguing. Throughout the book, a silhouette of a man is shown next to each shark mentioned to give perspective. It ends with a comparison of how many unprovoked fatal shark attacks there are annually (seven) and which sharks are nearly extinct due to human interference. A last chart names each shark in the book with its conservation status, whether it’s dangerous to humans, and where it lives. Steve and Robin show what amazing animals sharks and make the case for protecting them.
Are You Smarter Than a Shark? by David George Gordon, illustrated by Josh Lynch. Quarto Publishing, 2021.
The title and humorous cover design are irresistible. Along with interesting facts about shark intelligence are shark illustrations spouting puns – Seal to shark: “How did you ever get so smart?” Shark: I grew up in a school.” But more than just a compendium of facts, this book has numerous simple experiments students can do to understand shark senses and how they think. Experimenting with tapping in the bathtub illustrates how sound travels in and is magnified by water. It, too, ends with a plea for shark conservation, stating that more people are killed each year by falling coconuts than by shark attacks.
Each of these books takes a different approach to the same subject. Several use humor and conversation bubbles, all use sidebars or labeled illustrations. The content is detailed and interesting, and the author talks to kids like they are young scientists. These are qualities that appeal to readers, publishers, and librarians.
Does your current NF project have any of these qualities?
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