“My book appeals to older generations who remember zoo history, and children who like animal stories with pictures–so I’m an oddball at conferences for children’s writers,” I said.
That comment started a conversation about other children’s books that don’t fall into the blanket categories of Picture Books, Early Readers, or Young Adult Novels. Following that conversation, Anna Myers, Gwendolyn Hooks, and a few other writers formed a small committee to plan a Non-Fiction Writing Retreat.
In June 2010, fifteen of us gathered at the Mount St. Mary’s retreat center in Oklahoma City to focus on this specialized type of writing. Our presenter, Melissa Stewart, has written over 130 science books for children (see http://www.melissa-stewart.com).
Stewart’s mission? To get kids excited about the natural world.
“So many kids today don’t have chance to be outdoors,” Stewart said. “If my books get them curious enough to chase after a butterfly or look under a rock, then they will take a closer look at the world around them.”
She offered compelling reasons for writing non-fiction…
- Studies show that kids prefer to read non-fiction.
- Exposure to non-fiction increases the likelihood of long-term reading.
- The field is becoming more creative (layered text, multiple storylines, interactive features).
So, what’s the good and bad news for writers? Authors must work harder to present interesting stories. The Internet is an easy source for facts—so authors must dig deeper and find new angles.
What’s working these days? Well, books with titles like, Poop Happened, and Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, and Stewart’s own Do People Really Have Tiny Insects Living in Their Eyelashes?
Of course, bodily functions aren’t the only non-fiction topics that interest kids. Animal books, sports, heroes, and unusual historical characters are also good topics.
Stewart suggests that writers…
- Surprise readers with gross, silly and unexpected words.
- Use alliteration, rhythm, puns and rhymes.
- Choose creative comparisons (ex. an eyeball feels like a peeled grape).
It’s no surprise, however, that breaking into the market is difficult right now. The economy has caused book publishers to tighten their budgets. In addition, many publishers are now “closed houses,” which means that they only look at manuscripts submitted through an agent–not those submitted by writers who mail in their books unsolicited. Agents are reluctant to take on non-fiction writers because the profit is minimal.
In other words, non-fiction writers should go into the field knowing that they will be fighting the odds.
So, Stewart, remind us again why we want to write non-fiction?
- Non-fiction sells well in the school market.
- Researching non-fiction is easier than ever now that the Internet helps writers connect with field experts.
- Starting with non-fiction articles in smaller magazines can be a fairly easy way to break into print.
And, oh yes, writing non-fiction can fulfill a writer’s personal mission to share a message; whether it is natural science (such as Stewart’s books), or space robots, or Presidential pets, or recycled art, or the origins of ketchup.
So, if you have the writer’s passion and a love for information, you might choose to write children’s non-fiction. It will take patience and perseverance (and maybe some gross and gooey research)–but it is rewarding work. And that’s a fact!