12 x 12 Featured Author Melissa StewartYou guys are in for a real treat today. For the first time ever, we have an award-winning featured author who writes exclusively nonfiction–Melissa Stewart

I’ve been fangirl over Melissa for the past couple of years as my interest in writing nonfiction has grown, so when I ran into her at the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference in New Paltz this past June, I ran right over and asked her to be a featured author. Happily, she agreed.

PLUS, Melissa will be giving one lucky 12 x 12 winner a 30-minute Skype critique or consultation as a prize!

I know many of you in 12 x 12 are either already writing nonfiction or want to start. Well, dig in because Melissa gives us some meaty advice in this post. Please welcome Melissa!

You’ve been a lover of science all your life, but what led you to writing about science for kids in particular (as opposed to other types of science writing)?

When I went to graduate school to study science journalism, I thought I’d write about science for adult magazines like Discover or Scientific American, but when I graduated, a recession made those jobs hard to come by. I took a job editing high school science textbooks.

After a few years, I switched jobs and began editing school & library books about science. I loved working on books No Monkeys No Chocolatefor kids because I felt like I could really make a difference. Maybe one of the books I acquired would inspire a reader to become a scientist. Today, as a science writer, I see myself as a sort of science cheerleader. My goal is to introduce children to the beauty and wonder of the natural would.

Nonfiction picture books are getting more attention today, at least in the U.S., as a result of the Common Core State Standards. Has the implementation of the standards changed the way you approach your own writing?

No, but is has changed the way I market A LOT. For recent books, I have created a broad range of educational materials that are in line with Common Core. I even have a CCSS section on my website.

The CC standards are about teaching skills, so any book can be used. But if a writer wants teachers to use his/her book, he/she needs to show them how. That’s the goal of the educational materials I create.

Do you think it’s essential for nonfiction picture book authors to understand how their books fit in the Common Core, even before writing?

FeathersI think writers need to be familiar with the standards and keep them in the back of their minds as they write. When I start a picture book, I don’t really know exactly where I’m going to end up. So I need to just let the book develop in an organic way, but there may be subtle things I can do along the way that will help me to develop stronger marketing materials once the book is done.

For example, recently, as I was playing around with re-structuring a project that has been on the backburner for a number of years, I suddenly had a vision of an unusual compare/contrast kind of structure. One of the reasons I decided to pursue that brainstorm is because I know teachers are looking for mentor texts for teaching the compare/contrast structure.

But as I move forward with the manuscript, I need to really believe I’m doing what’s best and most authentic for my vision of the content. If I think it’s not working, I need to switch gears. I need to always stay true to the work itself. I can’t try to cram it into something that works for Common Core because (1) the quality will suffer and (2) by the time the book gets published, CCSS may be a thing of the past.

Let’s face it. Publishing a picture book takes a long time. I just signed a contract on Monday for a book that’s scheduled for 2017. With such a long waiting period, a book has to be able to stand on its own because educational initiatives come and go.

You and I both recently attended the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference in New Paltz. One of the speakers there said that, due to kids’ ability to find general information on Google, anyone writing nonfiction today has to conduct original research, potentially including in-person visits to places and personal interviews. What are your top techniques for researching your books?

I gather information in four ways: (1) books, articles, etc. (2) interviews with experts, usually scientists (3) the Internet (mostly to find the books, articles, and experts) (4) personal observations in the natural world. I don’t think it’s necessarily critical to conduct original research for every book. What is important is to look at the information in new and interesting ways, ways that you’ll never find on the Internet, which just offers straightforward recitations of the facts.

How is the submission process for nonfiction picture books different from fiction? Do you need to submit your sources along with the manuscript and/or fully completed back matter?

I don’t submit my sources with the manuscript. There’s no point worrying about the nitty-gritty stuff unless the editor Beneath the Sunfalls in love with what I’ve written. Sometimes publishers ask for my sources. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they my vet manuscripts. Sometimes they don’t. Ultimately, I’m responsible for the accuracy of what I write and publishers expect that a professional writer does his/her research.

I do submit the backmatter as I envision it because it’s an important part of the manuscript. This is more true than ever in the Era of Common Core. Editors need to see and understand my vision for the backmatter. But like the rest of the manuscript, it may go through considerable changes during the revision process.

I think the most important difference between submitting fiction and nonfiction is that editors expect NF writers to have a vision for the ”package.” What kind of art will the book include? What kind of design? Of course, they won’t always agree with what a writer has in mind, but they want our input.

How much responsibility does a nonfiction author have for supplying photographs (if applicable), sidebar, and other reference material when submitting a book?

It depends on the publisher. Most nonfiction picture books are illustrated by artists hired by the publisher. I usually play a role in choosing that illustrator. Editors ask me what kind of medium and style I think would work best. Do I have any specific illustrators in mind? Again, they want to understand my vision. Sometimes they adopt my vision, sometimes we discuss ways to modify it. Sometimes they hire an illustrator I recommend. Sometimes they use my ideas as a starting point for their own search.

I don’t submit reference material with my initial submission. Like I said earlier, there’s no point worrying about the nitty-gritty stuff unless the editor falls in love with what I’ve written.

Sometimes I am asked to provide reference material after an illustrator has been selected. Other times, the publisher prefers that artists do their own research.

Nonfiction picture books usually don’t have sidebars, per se. They may have layered text or other kinds of special features. These are considered part of the manuscript and should be submitted as such.

Trade nonfiction picture books still seem to require “artistic flair” or “voice” over and above the facts. How do you balance the two in your own writing?

Today, ALL nonfiction (picture book or long form) requires a strong, distinct voice. It can range from lyrical to sassy. That’s what I’ll be talking about at SCBWI-Los Angeles this month.

The voice of a manuscript is dictated by the topic and the author’s approach to the topic. Writers need to have a hook, an angle that makes their book unique and interesting. Today’s nonfiction must delight as well as inform.

Finally, do you have any tips for picture book authors just starting out writing nonfiction?

Once you have a topic in mind, read and STUDY at least 100 picture books that are in some way similar. If you are writing a picture book biography, for instance, read as many of them as possible. Think about how the author starts the book? What kind of voice does he/she use? What point of view? How is it structured? What do you think drew the author to the person he/she wrote about? If the book is well done, that should be fairly obvious to the reader. Even a biography has an angle, a unique perspective depending on what the author brings to the project.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 nonfiction books for children, including No Monkeys, No Chocolate; Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Under the Snow, and Animal Grossapedia. She maintains the blog Celebrate Science (http://celebratescience.blogspot.com) and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Find her on the web at www.melissa-stewart.com.

Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Picture Books, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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110 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting. Attempting my first nonfiction pb biography and comparing older books to newer books you can really see the difference.

  2. I enjoy reading nf books, especially pb biographies. It was good to read about your experiences, Melissa!

  3. “When I start a picture book, I don’t really know exactly where I’m going to end up. So I need to just let the book develop in an organic way,”

    Thanks for keeping us mindful to let the story unfold as it will and save the tweaks for further in the process. It’s too easy to get caught up in the nit picky at the beginning.

  4. Thanks Melissa! Reading at least 100 picture books in the style of my non-fiction PB is fabulous advice. My kids and I have really enjoyed reading some of your books!

  5. “Doing what’s best and authentic” is terrific advice, and your focus on that instead of meeting/fitting into a trend or current expectation is a powerful reminder. Thank you, Melissa..

  6. Wonderful post. I would love to hear you speak and hope you attend NJSCBWI one year.

  7. Love your books. Wish I was at the LA conference to see your session and meet you. Thanks for the interview.

  8. I have just finished writing my first non-fiction text and love it. Your advice really helps. thanks so much for sharing.

  9. I may not have NFPB writing in my future, but Melissa’s passion and dedication are motivating! I do read a lot of them (thanks for all the terrific recommendations, Kirsten Williams Larson) Melissa’s are definitely some of my favorites!

  10. What great information that I KNOW I will reference again (and again!!) – extremely helpful. Thanks so much!

  11. Terrific advice, Melissa–as always!

  12. Thanks Melissa! You have some of the best advice around for writers of nonfiction. Thanks for being so generous with your expertise.

  13. Excellent post Melissa, as always! This is why other authors cite you in their presentations!

  14. Thank you Melissa! I’ve so enjoyed your books and I love your advice. I’m working on several NF manuscripts now, and this advice is spot-on!

  15. When I grow up, I want to be just like Melissa Stewart!

  16. Thanks for great advice!

  17. This was a such a thoughtful post! I have such respect for you as an author. So helpful to get a look inside your process. Thanks!

  18. Thank you, Melissa. You have wonderful advice about your writing process and the process of bringing your book to publishing fruition. I am encouraged by how you slowly and steadily arrange your back matter — it can be overwhelming collecting it all and getting it just right otherwise.

  19. Thank you, Melissa. This has been very helpful for me as I am currently working on my first NF picture book manuscript.

  20. Love getting to “meet” one of my writing heroes! When I review my mentor texts, yours are front and center, Melissa.

  21. Thanks for the great insight into the nonfiction side of things.

  22. Melissa, thanks so much for sharing all that extremely helpful information. Did you really mean we should read 100 PB books on a topic or was that a typo?

  23. I LOVE this interview. It answered SO may questions that I have about starting to write non-fiction. Perfect nuts and bolts information. Of course, I need to start reading nonfiction first. Not usually my go-to section of the bookstore or library. Science would be my direction, so I’m planning to start with a few of Melissa’s books. Yay!

  24. I just started researching the nonfiction side of children’s publishing, I find it very intimidating. Thank you for sharing your experience; it relieved my budding anxiety. Enjoy the LA conference! I wish I could attend your presentation!

  25. Melissa, your books are favorites of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed your timeline for “No Monkeys, No Chocolate” on your website…helped me to realize what a long–but rewarding–journey a NF book can take. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  26. I’ve been batting a NF idea back and forth with Self. Now that I’ve read your wonderful post I’ve decided to try and hit the ball out of the ballpark. Great one! Thank you. 🙂

  27. Wow! So many great suggestions in this post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  28. Thank you Melissa. I’ve been playing around with a NF book idea for a while. After reading your post I realized that it is time to get serious. My first goal is to read 100 NF PB.

  29. So helpful all the way through. Love the tip to read 100 books in the style you’re interested in writing in, also appreciate the accompanying questions. Thank you!

  30. Great Post! “Nonfiction picture books usually don’t have sidebars, per se. They may have layered text or other kinds of special features. These are considered part of the manuscript and should be submitted as such.” Would it be possible for you to actually show how this is done in a manuscript, Melissa? Folks allude to it all the time, but I’ve yet to see what a ms looks like with layered text or special features included. :0)

    • Hi Donna,

      Here’s how I wrote the layers of text in my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying. You can compare it to the final book to see how the manuscript translated into the final design and layout.

      [pages 4–5]
      Feathers can warm like a blanket . . .
      On cold, damp days a blue jay stays warm by fluffing up its feathers and trapping a layer of warm air next to its skin.

      [pages 6–7]
      or cushion like a pillow.
      A female wood duck lines her nest with feathers she has plucked from her own body. These feathers cushion the duck’s eggs and keep them warm.

      Melissa

  31. Wonderful information and advice. Thank you so much, Melissa.

  32. This is a wonderful and helpful post Melissa. Thank you for sharing. I appreciated you staying true to yourself. It is a great reminder.

  33. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on incorporating Common Core in your books. I worry that authors are focusing so much on CC that they stray away from giving children a wonderful story to enjoy.

  34. Thank you Melissa for your inspirational post. I feel you are a great teacher and PB author, teaching one reader at a time, multiplied by thousands. Do I want to know about a newt’s winter world? I do now.

  35. What an excellent interview! I, too, love Melissa’s books and also appreciate her insights on how to get NF PBs published. I have a strong science background but the info on how to parlay that into a PB was priceless. Thank you!

  36. Wonderful interview and entry discussion into Non-fiction picture book writing.

  37. Thanks for such great information on writing NF. I haven’t branched out into NF but this post will be invaluable if I do. I did love hearing about your process because I love reading NF picture books and find it very interesting.
    Julie, thanks for another great author of the month 🙂

  38. This was very helpful in background for writing non-fiction. I have considered doing it but Melissa’s advice to read other non fiction books on the subject will help a lot. Thanks

  39. Thank you, Melissa! I love your work and enjoyed your workshop at NESCBWI Conference, as well. As I begin to revise my nonfiction projects, I will be revisiting this post and my conference notes often!

  40. I was at an SCBWI Conference a few months ago and there were editors just RAVING about Feathers: Not Just for Flying–such a great book!

  41. Such an impressive body of work! I can’t even imagine ALL that research. I love reading non-fic, but I might be too lazy to write it! 🙂

  42. What a fascinating peek into nonfiction PBs! I’d love to write one, and appreciate the info.

  43. Thank you for sharing how you approach a nonfiction book. I have always thought I needed to have a degree or an expertise in order to have what I have written validated.

  44. Fantastic post, Melissa! Thanks!

  45. Thanks for posting. I find that I have no trouble coming up with non-fiction picture book ideas, but writing them in a way that is unique with a strong voice is not easy!

  46. Thank you for the wonderful insight into writing nonfiction for children. 🙂

  47. Non-fiction and common core are very new to me, not to mention a bit intimidating. I appreciate all that you shared and will chew on it for a bit as I give NF a try. Thank you! 🙂

  48. I always feel so badly when I post my comment at the end of the month. The only thing that helps me feel a little better is that a bunch of others do as well. Also, when it comes to reading great material on a much talked-about subject, it’s never too late. 🙂 Thanks for a great post, Melissa. I’m writing non-fiction now – thanks to taking Kristen Fulton’s awesome class. And I’m having so much fun! I’d love to win the consult with you. 🙂

  49. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Melissa. I especially love the idea of staying true to the work/heart of the story rather than trying to cram it into something that works for Common Core.

  50. Thanks Melissa for a wonderful, instructive post. I am going to bookmark the post for reference with a NF text I’m working on. Thanks again.

  51. Sheila Hausbeck

    Thank you for the very informative and interesting interview. I love the idea of getting children excited about science and the natural world and often try to weave bits of my own appreciation for it into my manuscripts.

  52. Thanks for your inspiration to science-loving kid lit writers. It’s especially validating in today’s atmosphere of some disrespect for science.

  53. Thanks for the insider tips, Melissa. And I enjoyed your workshop at NESCBWI in May. So full of info and great advice. Loved your little marginal characters in NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE.

  54. Melissa, love that you are a science cheerleader for our kids! Great advice. Looking for that voice!

  55. Excellent advice in this post. Thanks 🙂

  56. Great advice! Thank you for sharing.

  57. Thank you, Melissa! Great insights and a wealth of encouraging advice.

  58. Thanks for the great information. Sorry posting so late. I also heard you speak at the Hubb Conference a few years back. Love your books.

  59. Thanks for all the excellent insight about writing NF. I attended your workshop at the MA SCBWI Conference this year and I was really blown away with your presentation. Great point about the importance of a book being able to stand on its own since Educational a Standards and expectations are constantly evolving.

  60. A terrific post, Melissa! I have always loved teaching children about nature and science, which is why most all of my manuscripts have bits and pieces bits of the natural world woven into them whether they are fiction or nonfiction.

  61. I’m sorry, my comment isn’t showing up. Thanks for this great post. Lots of helpful info in there.

  62. I like that you emphasized that text has to stand on its own. Writing only with CC in mind is not wise because this, too, shall pass.

  63. Thanks Melissa – such great information here and so interesting.

  64. A great interview! I love PB biographies and hope to one day attempt one myself. Your tips and suggestions will be very helpful. Thank you!

  65. Loved your post! Speaking in Canada soon?

  66. Wow, some great advice about nonfiction. Thanks for the post!

  67. I just wrote my first non-fiction and I agree with everything you said! 🙂 I will take you advice to come up with some Common Core supplemental activities. Thanks!

  68. Melanie Ellsworth

    Thanks, Melissa. This was so informative! I like your point that the most important thing to do when writing nonfiction is “to look at the information in new and interesting ways.” It’s not just the facts, ma’am.

  69. Great advice for non-fiction writers. And…I really enjoyed Feathers Not Just for Flying which I’ve read to my grandchildren and during library story hour (I read once a week at a library in Denver).

  70. Thank you for this information. I will apply some of your advice to two non-fiction drafts I started over the last 7 months. Great advice!

  71. This is an absolutely fantastic post. I love writing non-fiction, as well as fiction with non-fiction elements. As a former teacher, I totally get the want/need for backmatter! Melissa’s insights here are super helpful as I pursue this route. Thanks so much!

  72. Really fascinating and informative post!

  73. This interview is packed with great advice. I especially like the end – slow down and READ before starting to write.

  74. Thanks Melissa for the information!

  75. Melissa,
    Thanks so much! While reading your post I actually had an idea for a PB ….fiction, but with some non-fiction as a mix. Hmmmm….need to think some more about this. Thank you again!

  76. Wow, Melissa, this was exactly the info I’ve been looking for. I have spent the month of August reading and researching (and rewriting and re-researching) my first PB biography. Thank you so much!

  77. Love how you are able to tie all your interests together and share them with others through non-fiction picture books.

  78. Thanks for the great advice and insight to NF.

  79. I just purchased FEATHERS as a mentor text for my school. Thanks for sharing about NF!! 🙂

  80. Wish i had seen you in LA! I would drove to take
    a class on NF from you, if you teach. Let us know.

  81. Thanks so much for these insights! I love the title of “No Monkeys, No Chocolate.”

  82. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I appreciate it very much!

  83. Thanks for the great post. I’ve only written fiction so far, but non-fiction has been lingering in the back of my mind and I’m eager to learn more about it.

  84. Kathy Cornell Berman

    I have been writing a NF PB so I found your post very helpful. Thanks for pointing out the importance of the back matter.It’s fantastic that the editors listen to your input about the illustrator, etc.

  85. Really good post!

  86. Excellent post! Just as I’m putting together ideas, people and places to talk to/ call about a NF PB 🙂

  87. Today’s nonfiction must entertain as well as inform–so true! Thanks for this post.

  88. Melissa, this has been an incredibly jam-packed, insightful post which I will go back to time and time again. Thanks for inspiring those of us who write, or plan to write, non-fiction PBs!

  89. I read this post at the beginning of the month and have gone back to it several times since. Melissa you are my role model. I want to write the kind of books you write. I have a long way to go but I appreciate you sharing you experience and advice.

  90. im enjoying the world of non fic at present! thanks melissa

  91. Thanks, Melissa, for interesting information regarding back matter and voice.

  92. “stay true to the work itself” I love that line! Thanks Melissa.

  93. Thank you so much for a wonderful and informative post!

  94. This post is extremely helpful for how to go about nonfiction pbooks. Also love your feather book and the comment that you let the manuscript evolve organically.

  95. Thank you for all your wonderful comments. I’m so glad my post was helpful.

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