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Sunday, January 30, 2011


Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That's the way I feel when I start writing a new book. It's all in my mind. My task is now to get it out onto the page--or the computer screen.

I know some people are intimidated by all the blankness of that starting point. I see it as pregnant with possibilities. For one thing, this is the moment to make key decisions, ones that will make all the difference in what kind of book you write. It’s like collecting flour, sugar, butter and eggs and then deciding whether you’re going to make a cake, bread, or cookies.

As you can see, the beginning stage of writing your book is important. So to get you started, let’s go through the initial choices you’ll need to make one-by-one.

First, you’ll need to choose who you’re writing for. Publishers divide children books into four general age groups:
Baby through 3 years
Young children ages 4 through 8
Older children ages 9 through 12
Young adult ages 12 and older

The book’s structure, or format, how long it is, and the vocabulary and sentence structure you use will be guided by who you select as your target readers. So will the book’s length. Books for the youngest group are usually twenty-four or thirty-two pages long. These, of course, are generally picture books meant for an adult to read aloud to the child. Books for children ages 4 through 8 are most often a minimum of thirty-two pages and more frequently forty or forty-eight pages. Books for children 9 through 12 and young adults are often sixty-four pages, or longer. However, a nonfiction book for children is rarely much more than a hundred and fifty pages.

Next, be aware that each book contains the following:

A title page (at the very beginning of the book)

A page with the copyright information, dedication, any acknowledgments, and any photo credits. This may come at the beginning of the book (called the front matter) or at the end of the book (called the back matter).

Nonfiction books for children also frequently include one or more of the following optional extras:
A glossary of key words
Amazing facts
A list of books, websites, or other sources of additional information suitable for your target reader
An index
A hands-on activity

Before you go any farther, I suggest you spend some time in the library, a book store, or even on one of the on-line sites that lets you look inside books. Check what age group the book has listed as its target audience. See how many pages long the book is. And take a close look at what is included in the back matter. While you’re at it, read a little of each book you sample and note the vocabulary and sentence structure.

Once you’ve homed in on who you’re writing for, how long you think your book will be (something that can change within reason once you start writing), and what extras you’ll include, you’re ready to make the next major decision. You’ll need to choose the structure or format you’ll use to present your book’s special information. I always think of this as building the book’s skeleton. Then the information and pictures will flesh out that skeleton and bring the book to life.

Today it’s a given that children’s nonfiction books are heavily illustrated. Whether your book will include art or photos, the format you choose is all about deciding how the text and illustrations will fit together.

Here’s a look at five different formats I frequently use to give my books good bones.

Integrated: Finding Home (Charlesbridge, 2008) shows how the text just naturally merges with the illustration.

Boxed: Spiders: Biggest! Littlest! (Boyds Mills, 2004) is a good example of how photos appear in boxes with the text above, below, or to one side.

Boxed Plus: Animals Marco Polo Saw(EXPLORERS SERIES) (Chronicle, 2009) Demonstrates how, in addition to separate boxed illustrations, some extra information may be boxed.

Arachnid World: Black Widows: Deadly Biters (Lerner, 2011) provides another example of using boxed text. In this case a special shape is used to highlight the additional information.

Sidebars: Animal Heroes: True Rescue Stories (Lerner, 2008) shares an approach for layering information. The book presents a main stream of information. However, from time-to-time, key concepts need further explanation. Or there may be a related bit of extra information that’s longer than a sentence or two, like this discussion of why cows float. To avoid interrupting the main flow, this extra info is shared in a sidebar. The reader may choose to read this first or skip over it and come back to it. It’s definitely a stand alone section.

Dual: While I’ve only ever used this format once in How Many Baby Pandas? (Walker, 2009), it was very effective. I will definitely consider using it again in the future. Basically, it lets the book reach two different groups of readers simultaneously. For example, the BIG idea for How Many Baby Pandas? is to use baby giant pandas, which little children love, to create a counting book that also shares how giant pandas grow up and what’s being done to help preserve this endangered species.

To make this book a fun counting book and still deliver the key concepts, the lefthand page of every spread is for Baby through age 3 readers. The type is large. Information is shared in a very simple way.

The righthand page of every spread is for older children and for adults to read and summarize for young children. It’s in smaller type, the vocabulary and sentence structure suits older readers, and there’s a lot more information being shared. Both pages in every spread have “Wow” photos guaranteed to grab readers of all ages and visually share basic information about how giant pandas change as they grow up.

Once you’ve made all of the key decisions needed to launch your book, you’re ready to go to work digging up the information you’ll share. You may want to read books and journal entries written by experts. However, I also highly recommend tracking down experts to interview. If you get a chance, do some research yourself. Writing my nonfiction books for children has allowed me fantastic opportunities to go places and investigate things first hand. Some of the wonderful places my books have taken me include, the South Pole.

In fact, here's a photo of me all smiles at the South Pole with a flag from my Alma Mater Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

I've also had the opportunity to experience working inside the trainer used by astronauts preparing to fly in the Space Shuttle, stand at the shoulder of a scientist dissecting one of the first ever recovered bodies of a giant squid, be in the operating room observing open-heart surgery, and lots more.

Once you've researched your BIG idea, I recommend outlining your book. To do this make a general list of what you'll share on each of the book’s spreads. A spread is a lefthand and a righthand page viewed together. It’s important to think of your book in terms of spreads because that’s the way your readers will see the information and accompanying illustrations.

To give you a feel for how I work through the early outlining stages of going from words to book, below you'll find the first page of the three earliest outlines I made for what became Slippery, Slimy Baby Frogs (Walker, 2006).


Is a general break down of topics to be covered. It includes possible experts to contact.


Lists more specific information to cover. Divides this into what will be shown on the lefthand and righthand page of each spread. Lists some photo ideas.


Detailed list of information to share on each spread. For some spreads, a first draft of the text. Every stage that follows moves closer to becoming a first draft for the book. I call this process "getting the clay out".

Here's a look at a finished spread from Slippery, Slimy Baby Frogs (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2006). I developed this as a thirty-two page book for children ages 4 through 8 using the Boxed format.

Okay, now you're ready to go to work, turning your BIG idea into a book.

Once you have a first draft, check back. What's coming up will help you turn that book into a winner--one publishers can't wait to buy and share with young readers.

Coming Soon

PART THREE—How Do You Make Your Work Sellable?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and process. I work for a children's nonfiction publishing company. My role is in content and series development. Our jobs are closely related and I reading your posts provides me with a different perspective of the creative process.