You 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 for 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?
I 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 falls 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: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Author, Books, Children's Books, Common Core, Julie Hedlund, Melissa Stewart, Non-fiction picture books, Nonfiction, Picture Books, science, Writer, Writing