Nonfiction and the Big Idea
Nonfiction offers a lot to young readers. It’s engaging. It opens doors into places, people, and creatures that might be outside a child’s immediate experience. It makes kids think and sometimes gets them up and doing something. In all that nonfiction does, it’s important for each writer to decide the core thing the piece they have written accomplishes. What do you want readers to take away from the words you’ve written?
Takeaway for Traditional Nonfiction
Most traditional overview nonfiction doesn’t have the kind of tight focus that makes it easy to aim towards a particular big idea or takeaway value, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring a lot to the table for young readers. With its broad scope within a single subject, traditional nonfiction offers readers an introduction to a specific subject. Traditional nonfiction engages readers who are predisposed to seek out that subject and therefore can help get a reader excited about learning.
Traditional nonfiction also requires meticulous organization to work and can introduce young readers to things like topic sentences and supporting ideas. It can demonstrate how to create smooth transitions between subtopics. All these things introduce students to writing.
Reading good solid nonfiction is a great way to teach it. Even as the child dives into yet another dinosaur book, he’s learning about how all nonfiction works and how to organize information. Readers also meet things like indexes and bibliographies in general nonfiction as well, tools they will use often as they write reports and do research throughout their school career.
Takeaways in Narrative Nonfiction and Focused Nonfiction
One huge takeaway that many modern nonfiction books offer is humor. Humor allows readers to consider complex ideas in a non-threatening way. Humor keeps readers reading when the vocabulary or ideas become more complex. Writers who take a light touch often find they become popular with publishers.
Humor isn’t the only possible takeaway for this kind of nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction, for instance, is often inspiring by focusing on the story of people and events that are admirable. Because most narrative nonfiction has a strongly hopeful tone, it allows readers to think about potentially scary topics without being overwhelmed.
Inspiration is more than a feeling. A nonfiction book may inspire a reader to action. A book about climate change, for example, is potentially scary, as the results of climate change are and will continue to be serious.
But most nonfiction for young readers also gives the reader a plan and things to do to help alleviate the problem. A huge problem like climate change cannot be solved by one child making changes but can inspire a child to join a larger company of people who are doing things to facilitate change. In this way, inspiration builds hope but also urges action in most young people’s nonfiction.
Hands-on is a Big Idea
Active nonfiction is all about doing something. Cookbooks, craft books, and science activity books all help build confidence in young people, as they are treated as if they can accomplish things. They can cook. They can learn a new craft. They can study the world around them in a hands-on way.
Also, these books are a special help for young people who are active learners, the ones who learn best when they can work with manipulatives, try things out, or create something new. These types of learners may feel left out in much of the learning in a classroom setting, but active nonfiction offers these children a connection to learning in a new way.
The bigger the takeaway value, the more it does for the reader, the longer the nonfiction will be remembered, and the more change results. As you’re writing nonfiction, no matter what form it takes or what length, give thought to the takeaway value the piece brings to the reader. What does this piece do for the child who reads it?
Knowing the takeaway value not only helps you strengthen connections to the reader, it also gives you a way to capture the editor’s heart when you’re offering the book manuscript or magazine article, so always mention your big idea or takeaway value in your cover and query letters. It makes a difference. And it may help you make a sale with the editor or agent who is always looking for a great big idea.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.