Writing Nonfiction Picture Books

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What You Need to Know About Writing Nonfiction Picture Books

When most writers think about writing picture books, they picture stories about imaginary children and maybe animals experiencing life. But not all picture books feature imagined characters. Nonfiction picture books are not only an important part of many publishing lists, but these books are also beloved by children. Writing a nonfiction picture book takes as much care, thought, and research as any nonfiction.

Quote Writing Nonfiction Picture BooksConsider this, from an essay by Scholastic Parents: “Reading nonfiction is about taking in new information, layering it on top of what you already know, and drawing insights from the connections you make to the new information. In other words, intake is proportionate to existing knowledge.”

This quote is about reading, but it contains concepts important for the writer of picture book nonfiction, namely that writers need to keep in mind existing knowledge the reader is likely to have and build the nonfiction on top of that. If you jump way ahead of what readers know then the reader will have no knowledge pool to draw on to understand and draw insights from the new information. In other words, you’ll simply confuse that reader. No learning will take place.

What Will You Write About?

As you consider what you’re going to write your nonfiction picture book about, you need to consider several things. First is picking a topic that excites you sufficiently that you’ll bring that energy to the writing and to the research. If you’re only choosing a topic based on what you think will be popular, but it doesn’t interest you at all, you’ll only look at very surface research, and the result will be lackluster with little to excite readers, educators, or publishers.

Consider all the things you find interesting: your hobbies, news stories that have caught your interest, and your favorite subjects from your school days. Wherever your interest lies or anything that inspires curiosity in you is a potential topic for a nonfiction picture book, but we need to go beyond what you love and consider other factors as well.

Writing Nonfiction Picture Books CANVA Construction VehicleAs the quote from Scholastic Parents suggested, you must consider the reader as much as you consider your own interests. You will need a topic that excites kids and about which they are likely to have enough existing knowledge that they can understand what you are presenting.

For example, young children often love books about vehicles, dinosaurs, sharks, and other scary animals. These topics are so popular that most children have a decent basic knowledge when they are still quite young. That means if you write a book about construction vehicles, you’re not going to need to explain basic things: that vehicles have wheels, drivers, and motors. Instead, you can begin by assuming basic knowledge and go further with the new things you bring to the subject.

Keep in mind that topics that are popular with children also have many books already in print. If you want to write a book about scary animals, you’ll need to include research into what scary animal picture books are already in print, so that you can find a way to make yours stand out. If you are writing something that has been done over and over, it may be harder to find a unique slant or new, unexplored areas that will make your book of interest to publishers and book buyers, but not impossible.

Another thing that can help a nonfiction book succeed is if it will interest teachers. Taking time to consider what topics are introduced in early primary grades can help you add that little bit of extra appeal. Or it can help you see how best to describe your book idea to publishers. Explaining how your book will interest teachers will make it interest publishers more too.

Learn to Love the Digging

Imagine you decided to write a book about fossils and you’re going to call it Stone Bones because you want to explain the process of how an animal becomes a fossil. You will have a limited number of words in which to accomplish this task, but you will need to read many, many times that many words to prepare for writing those few.

Writing Nonfiction Picture Books CANVA FossilNonfiction picture book writers research until they are experts about the topic they intend to cover. Scant knowledge is not enough. Things you think you know are not enough. You need to deepen your knowledge obsessively in order to produce the best possible book.

That means you will read about your topic. You’ll read other fossil picture books, both because you want to be sure you know everything that’s been covered, but also because it will often give you a solid jumping-off point for your own research. But that’s not enough. You’ll also research academic works, casual books for adults, and articles on the web about your chosen topic.

Using the web to deepen your knowledge of a topic is a double-edged sword. You can find cutting-edge information on the web, but you can also find oceans of bad research and wrong information. You’ll find topics spun to suit the interests of companies or individuals. Develop a skeptic’s eye and a researcher’s passion for learning what is behind every bit of information you discover. Who said it? How did they know? How can I go closer to the original source of this information to be more certain?

As you read, collect questions that pop into your head and note points of interest so you can use them as guideposts to what you need to learn more about. Follow the rabbit trails, because they can take you to knowledge you didn’t even know you needed.

What’s Your Point?

As with fiction picture books, nonfiction picture books are more than they appear to be on the surface. Fiction has themes. Nonfiction has goals as well. You need a goal for the book. One goal it must have is to be entertaining and enjoyable, but you need a specific goal for this specific book. Do you want to inspire action? Do you want to inspire the child to dream of a possible future? Do you simply want to make the natural world clearer? What do you want the book to do? Having an overall goal for the book will deepen the writing and help you with organization as well. When you know the goal, you’ll know what you want to put in and what you want to leave out.

Writing Nonfiction Picture Books CANVA Read-aloudYour slant, or the specific piece of the overall topic that you intend to explore, will be honed by the goal. Consider the hypothetical book about fossils I mentioned above, Stone Bones. I won’t be describing the life cycle of dinosaurs. I won’t be talking about how different creatures appeared in different eras. Instead, I will stick to looking at how ancient creatures became the fossils that paleontologists discover today. My goal will be to give the reader a sense of how things can undergo astonishing changes over time, and I’ll do it through the specific exploration of how a dinosaur became a fossil bone. I may also look at fossil remains of creatures that never had bones, as that will be a rabbit trail that is closely enough related to my slant and my goal.

What Must Nonfiction Picture Book Writing Do?

Nonfiction picture books have something important in common with fiction picture books. They are meant to be read aloud. That means that you will need to accomplish much with few words (since read-alouds are limited to the time constraints of the reader). You will also want your writing to have good flow and sound. As a result, you’ll read the manuscript aloud over and over and over. Fiction picture book writers do this to get a text that sounds good and rolls easily off the tongue. Nonfiction picture book writers need that as well. If the book is hard to read aloud, it will be hard for the reader to understand, and will not become a book that is read over and over. It will lack the popularity to have real staying power in the market.

Your book will also need its own energy when read aloud. That means it needs to have a sense of going somewhere with a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, you’ll grab the reader’s attention with something fun or surprising. In the middle, you’ll explore the information in a clear, orderly manner. And in the end, you’ll wrap it up—usually in a clever way—so the book has a satisfying endpoint. To better understand how this works, read recent nonfiction picture books at  your local bookstore or check them out at your library. Studying mentor books that handle voice and organization well, and also have great beginnings and endings will be a huge help in making your own book stronger.

So, give picture book nonfiction some thought. It can be as exciting to write as any fiction story, and you’ll help a new generation of young people fall in love with learning. What could be more fulfilling than that?

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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.

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