Thursday, January 27, 2011


I’ve read lots of articles about writing fictional stories, but few about writing nonfiction—even fewer about writing nonfiction for children. So I’d like to share what I’ve discovered during a career’s journey spanning nearly thirty years that’s produced over two hundred books for young readers, including ANIMAL PREDATORS: Mountain Lions (Lerner, 2009).

Happily, many of those books have been honored with awards.

So, if you want to write a nonfiction book for children, where do you start? First, you need something to write about—an idea. It needs to be something that interests you because over the next three to six months—possibly longer--you’re going to be thinking about it a lot.

In fact, like Animals Christopher Columbus Saw (Chronicle, 2008) was for me, it’s going to be as if you’ve been dropped into an unexplored frontier without a map. You’re going to have to find what you need onsite to survive, gain insights from the natives so you can thrive, and finally figure out how to find safe passage home. It’s going to be an adventure. But take heart in knowing that the more discoveries you make and share the more interesting your book will be for readers.

As for tips on where to find ideas, the truth is my built-in idea antenna is always on. I pay attention to what’s going on around me, collect news stories I chance upon while travelling, and just plain take time to let my mind wonder. I constantly search topics that interest me on-line or in print, looking for a new break-through or discovery. I read about the bush fires in Australia and went digging for a real life story to tell. That story became Finding Home (Charlesbridge, 2008).

I keep files and make lists. Right now, on a pull-out section of my desk, I have notes for three potential book ideas. When I need a break from the current book I’m writing, I play with these ideas by seeing what else I can find on them. A lot of the ideas I generate—even ones that go so far as to be ones I spend some effort developing--are never used. Or get filed to think about again some time in the future. However, out of all the many seed ideas come the ones that sprout into a BIG idea.

What makes an idea a BIG idea like the one that became Hip-Pocket Papa (Charlesbridge, 2010)?

A BIG idea is one that excels when put to these three tests:
1. Is it something children will want to read about?
2. Is it going to share fresh information or a fresh angle on a subject?
3. Will it fill a hole in the market?

To find out if children are likely to want to read a book based on my idea, I talk to teachers, librarians, and parents. I don’t usually ask children if it’s something they’d like to read about because they’re so kind they always say, “Yes.” However, I do visit libraries and schools and read books aloud to kids. I read and watch their faces and gauge which of several different kinds of books make their eyes light up. Make them want to know more.

Happily Hip-Pocket Papa lit up a lot of faces. I'm pleased to share it was a 2010 Junior Library Guild Selection, named to the 2011 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 list, was honored as a 2011 ALA Notable Children’s Book and selected for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) 2011 best-of the year list in The Natural World category.

I’ve learned over the years that publishers value books with a curriculum connection. So it's also good to think whether an idea could offer stealth learning, presenting concepts in a way that's so enjoyable learning just sneaks up on children.

Slowly over several years, three of my series built a strongly interwoven curriculum connection that shared different habitats and food webs from the predator's, the prey's, and the scavenger's points of view. These series are: Animal Predators, Animal Prey, and Animal Scavengers (Lerner).

Finally, for me, the key difference between whether an idea is just interesting and whether it’s BIG enough that I’m willing to commit the time and effort to turning it into a book is its freshness.

For example, I’ve always been interested in penguins. While digging for a fresh angle, I discovered little had been written about the female emperor penguin’s role in the life cycle. While, on the other hand, there are books galore about the male emperor penguin hunkering down to keep the egg warm during Antarctica’s fierce winter. I might add what I discovered about the female’s role made me feel her job was, frankly, a whole lot harder. And that the female emperor penguin, thus far, had been largely unappreciated.

So I wrote A Mother's Journey, (Charlesbridge, 2006), the story of the huge effort a female emperor penguin has to go through to find her way across miles of ice to the sea to feed and while there avoid fierce predators. Then she has to return, in the dark and through terrible storms, across a landscape that has now totally changed and find her mate in time to deliver a belly full of food to her newly hatched chick.

WOW! When I wrote out the BIG idea for A MOTHER’S JOURNEY, I was immediately hooked, and I knew kids would love this story. The idea also received a BIG idea tick when I tested it against the third question. I checked on-line and visited bookstores, looking for what books on this topic for children were already in print and what was scheduled to be released in the near future. I was searching for that allusive hole in the market. Most of the time we think of a hole as a negative, but, when it comes to thinking of the next BIG idea to write about, a hole is a wonderful thing to find.

Here are a few other examples of my recent books. Check them out in a bookstore, a library, or online. Decide what pushed each of these ideas into the BIG idea category—and then into print.

HOW MANY BABY PANDAS? (Walker, 2009)
SHARKS: BIGGEST! LITTLEST! (Boyds Mills, 2008)

Coming soon:
PART TWO—How Do You Go From Words to Book?

PART THREE—How Do You Make Your Work Sellable?

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