NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required

How much research do you need to do for a children’s nonfiction picture book? Tons!

Nonfiction means that you have the facts straight, ma’am.

3 sources agree. Traditionally, writers look fora at least three sources to back up each piece of information. This means the content isn’t just a personal opinion or a poorly researched fact. Facts should be replicated in multiple studies and corroborated by multiple experts.

Primary sources. Just as in any nonfiction writing,it’s important to go to the primary source of information. Talk to scientists, look up research reports and email the authors of the study, go out and try something for yourself.

Dig deeper. Nonfiction picture books should dig deeper for information, for the meaning and interpretation of the facts, and for context. A biography of Shirley Temple, for example, would likely consider the Depression Era and the effects it had on the burgeoning film industry. For some, Temple’s films were seen as a cheap escape from the harsh realities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about her, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And of course, if I was writing a book with that quote, I would have to tell you where I found it. (It’s quoted here in the UK Guardian.)

Tools for Research

My favorite tools for researching for a nonfiction children’s book include:
Google, GoogleScholar, and more. Here are tips and more tips for searching on Google. Did you know you can restrict the search to a certain website or ask Google to only tell you about information posted in the last year? GoogleScholar searches research journals. See the full list of Google products here.

Wikipedia. I know, people feel that Wikipedia is unreliable. But Clay Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that over the long run, it’s more reliable because so many people are able to edit it. Crowd-writing-and-editing is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. And yet, I find it great for an initial look at a topic; and the references are often the primary sources that I need. Don’t discount this one.

Library Databases. I recently taught essay writing to a group of home-schoolers and we took a field trip to a public library to look at their databases. These are databases that either aren’t available on the web, or cost too much for an individual to subcribe to. Most public libraries subscribe to an incredibly rich set of databases that offer a world of information; often these are available online through your library’s website. It’s one of the first places I look for info.

Follow up leads. Often these resources will send me off in multiple directions scrambling for more information, emailing scientists, reading dense research reports and so on. It’s not where you start, but where you end up that matters. Follow the trails, question everything and search for answers.

Two Nature Books as Examples of Research

My two recent nature books took different tracks for their research.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Natural Disasters for over 60 Years required me to interview the biologist on Midway Island about the conditions there during the tsunami and its aftermath. I also looked at video of the tsunami that hit Japan, debris fields in the Pacific, and photos of the desolation on Midway Island. Researching the life and times of the 60 year old bird–the oldest known wild bird in the world–meant going back in time to find out what storms had hit Midway in the last 60 years. Other issues arose: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, longline fishing and more. Each subtopic meant delving into the research to find details to include in the story. Though it is only 850 words long, it entailed a lot of primary research.

AbayomiCover-250x250-150Research for my latest nature picture book took a different tack. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub The illustrator, Kitty Harvill lives in Brazil half the year and is involved in the environmental art community there. She heard about an orphaned puma cub and suggested the story. Because she knew the scientists involved, it meant lots of interviews, including Skyping with the scientists.

The reports about where the cub was orphaned included coordinates for the chicken farm where the mother was killed. I looked on GoogleEarth and found images of the exact locale, which helped me describe the events in more detail. Harvill actually visited the site and took photographs for reference for the art.

For this story, the context meant even more research. Why are pumas important in the Brazilian ecosystem? It turns out that there has been an increase in Brazilian Spotted Fever (similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the U.S.). The largest rodent in the world, the capybara is the primary host for the ticks that carry the fever; and the biggest predator of capybaras are pumas. I researched ticks and tick-borne diseases, checking the World Health Organization to confirm that the fever has increased in Brazil. I looked at capybaras and their habitats. Puma diet consists of many other small mammals, including rodents. Were capybaras a large portion of what they ate? The questions went on and on.

Through it all, though, there was this main question: where is the story?
For me, it’s not enough just to recite facts. I want the emotional impact of those facts, the story. I found it in the original report of the cub who was orphaned. The owner of the chicken farm where the mother was killed said that he had no idea pumas might be involved in stealing his chickens. He said, “I’ve lived here for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a puma.”

That thought sat around for a long time, before it became the basis of the story: pumas were invisible.

Nonfiction picture books require meticulous research and each project takes on a life of its own.

Check out other 2nd Grade Picture Books for examples of nonfiction titles to study.

Nonfiction Picture Books: 7 Choices

I’ve written before about writing a children’s picture book in this 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book Series and the basics remain true. However, nonfiction picture books are currently getting a fresh look, mostly because of the education reforms known as Common Core. It requires elementary students to read 50% nonfiction, 50% fiction. That percentage of nonfiction rises to 70% in high school, which impacts longer nonfiction. But today, I’ll concentrate on the impact on picture books.

One of the more interesting developments is that educators, publishers and writers are looking at nonfiction in seven new ways.

  1. Narrative Nonfiction. The last 25 years has seen the rise of narrative nonfiction, or nonfiction that is told with fiction techniques. Sometimes called creative nonfiction, this genre emphasizes the story embedded in the search for information. Nonfiction writers use scenes, sensory details, and work for a traditional story arc with a problem that is resolved in a climax. This type story has been popular because it readily engages readers.

    Examples of narrative nonfiction picture books:

    • Turtle Tide
      Turtle Tide: The Ways of Sea Turtles This book is one that has you hanging on the edge, waiting to see if any of the 100 sea turtle babies will survive. Fantastic build to a satisfying climax.
    • Wisdom, the Midway Albatross. My own picture book about the oldest known wild bird in the world uses a series of vignettes that climaxes with the Japanese tsunami overrunning Midway Island.
  2. Data (Facts First). Let’s face it: some kids just like facts. Browseable books like the Dorling Kindersley books (white background with stunning photos and related facts) are filled with data. It’s rather like flipping through an encyclopedia of a certain topic until you find the information that fascinates you, stopping to read, then flipping on. It’s the Guiness Book of World Records. Just the facts, Ma’am.
  3. Expository (Facts Plus). Taking it a step farther are nonfiction books that give facts but connect them in some way. It’s an explanation of some kind, but doesn’t have to have the story. Often in a picture book, the author reaches for a poetic voice, but the intent is still just an explanation. For an example, look at Frogs by Nic Bishop
  4. Books in the Disciplinary Thinking or Experts at Work are nonfiction books that ask how scientists and historians ask questions, evaluate research and develop theories. Sometimes these are biographies of a scientist or historian.

    The Scientists in the Field Series from Houghton Mifflin is the perfect example of this type books. See the 2011 Siebert Winner Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot , written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.

  5. In Inquiry (Ask and Answer) Books, the author begins mimics the process of scientific discovery by asking a question and then allowing the readers to follow the process of finding the answers.

    The Elephant Scientist is one of the Scientists in the Field Series from Houghton Mifflin, and a 2012 Siebert Honor book. Unlike some of the other book in the series, this one begins with a question: how do elephants hear? Is it possible that they hear sounds through their feet? This leading question is woven throughout the book and indeed, gives it even more of a narrative nonfiction feel. It’s easy to from this book that the subgenres will be hard to tease out. Is this book narrative nonfiction, Experts at Work, or Inquiry? It’s all three. Still, even thinking about it in this way means that we, as writers, have more choices, even when we choose to cross subgenres.

  6. Interpretation or Point of View nonfiction titles are not popular right now, but may become a stronger subgenre under the Common Core, as it asks students to do analytical thinking. Here, an author researches a subject in detail, then provides an interpretation of the information. Such books would model what students are required to produce in their own essays.
  7. Action Books invite kids do more than sit in a chair and read. Some include activities or experiments, and some are a call to action. They encourage kids to go out and do something that will make a difference in the world.

    I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help you and your Kid Discover the Wonders of Nature asks kids and parents get outdoors and do something.

Writing the Nonfiction Picture Book

When you look at a topic—maybe Dads in nature—there are multiple slants you could take on the subject. And now, there are multiple ways to approach the research and writing.

Narrative nonfiction. For this category, there’s no book without a storyline. As you research, you are looking for the story embedded in the details.
Data/Facts. Here, you are looking for solid, reliable, verifiable facts. Of course, you are in any of these categories, but for this category, it is the facts that shine. You will have to organize the book in some way, but the natural divisions in the data will determine the book’s structure.

Expository. Explanations include facts that back up a certain premise or statement. As you research, you are looking for an overarching idea that the facts will explain. Sometimes you’ll start with what needs explanation but sometimes, it will emerge from the research and writing.

Experts at Work. This is a fun category because it means you must seek out experts and follow them around. Writer George Plimpton, who recently passed away, if famous for joining the Detroit Lions American football team in order to give his readers the most intimate sense of playing in this team. This type of immersive journalism may be an extreme example of Experts at Work, but it certainly fits the goals. The story here (and it is often a narrative) is about the expert not necessarily about what the expert is studying or doing.

Interpretation or Point of View. In some ways, picture book biographies are an interpretation of a person’s life. Because the space is limited, these biographies can only cover a portion of a person’s life and by necessity become an interpretation. Dizzy, by Jonah Winters, is about Dizzy Gillespie, the famous Be-pop trumpeter. It leaves out many issues of his family and uses literary techniques to create a sense of what be-pop music is like. It’s a definite point of view. When you write this type story, look for what grabs you personally in a story or set of facts; how can you bring that to the forefront? Are these popular? Dizzy got starred reviews in five different review journals.

Action Books. While facts inform the action book category, it’s what the reader does with those facts that matters. In fact, the emotions evoked by the facts are as important as the facts themselves. It turns into a sort of persuasion essay, using facts to back up the need to do something. Look for facts that back up the actions you want readers to take. Build a strong, emotional case for that action.

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The Oldest Mother in the World Wins Book Award

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, the subject of my 2012 picture book has returned to Midway Island and laid a new egg. She was banded by Chandler Robbins on December 10, 1956 while sitting on an egg and presumed to be a minimum of five years old. That makes her at least 62 years old–and she’s going to be a new momma. Wow!

Wisdom and her mate prepare to begin their first shift of incubation, Photo credit: Pete Leary, USFWS

More from Pete Leary, the wildlife biologist on Midway.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross by Darcy Pattison
We also have exciting news about the book: it is the winner of the 20th Annual 2013 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, in the children’s picture book category. Among other prizes is a $1000 cash award. Winners will be officially announced in the February issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Read more about alternate publishing. Read more about how to write a children’s picture book.

Picture Book Idea Month 2011

Logo art by

After flirting with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, I decided instead to do PiBoIdMo, or Picture Book Idea Month, the 30 days of November in which I am supposed to come up with 30 picture book ideas.

It makes sense. I am attending the SCBWI Eastern NY Falling Leaves Master Class retreat where five picture book editors will talk to 30 lucky people, including me. Editors attending are Kate Fletcher (Candlewick), Dianne Hess (Scholastic), Sylvie Frank (Holiday House), Marilyn Brigham (Marshall Cavendish) and Kelly Smith (Sterling). Since I had decided to devote part of my fall to picture books anyway, the PiBoIdMo is right up my alley. Focus my efforts. And the writing exercises we do at the retreat will hopefully add to my ideas list. Late next week, look for reports on the retreat.

Meanwhile, I am visiting the dentist this morning, so I’ll think about a tooth fairy story. Not.

Picture Book Revision Takes 25 Years

Writing is rewriting

Guest post by Anastasia Suen

For years I have been saying that writing is rewriting, and now I have a book that shows it quite clearly, my new picture book, Road Work Ahead (Viking 2011).

This picture book is short, like most of my books. It’s only 120 words, but those words have been rewritten over and over again. Yes, this one has been a lo-o-o-ong time coming. I started this book when my son was 2…and now he’s 27!

Picture Book Inspiration

When my son was 2, he loved to look at all of the trucks and machines along the road, so I started snapping pictures for him. I made him a “look book” that later turned into a picture book. I loved the story in that book, so I sent it out to editors, but it kept coming back, over and over. Editors said they loved it, too, but it wasn’t quite ready. So I kept rewriting it and sending it out…and now 25 years later, it’s finally a book you can hold in your hand.

The 6 Ws of Story

So what made the difference? I used ALL of the 6 Ws this time. I made sure the story had who, what, when, where, why and how. Using all 6 Ws made it a story, not just a list of machines along the road. Stories sell, but lists…well, not so much.

New Beginning and Ending. After the story finally sold I thought it was ready to go, but my editor thought it needed something more. She asked me to write a new beginning and ending, so we knew why the little boy was on the road looking at all of the road work. That also added a who, by showing us the little boy before he got into the car.

So I added my mother and her famous homemade oatmeal cookies to the book. (We used to eat them right after they came out of the oven. Yum!) Driving to Grandma’s house for fresh, warm, homemade oatmeal cookies is definitely a reason to keep going despite all of the traffic delays due to the work along the road. And when you get to eat them at the end of the book, ah, sweet reward! Adding 2 short stanzas was all it took.

The change I made was used by the Publishers Weekly reviewer to describe the book.

“A batch of Grandma’s homemade oatmeal cookies beckons, but for this backseat narrator, the sights and sounds along the road to her house are equally compelling:
“Road work ahead./ Move over. Go slow./ Jackhammers crack./ Look at them go.’”

The text quoted in the review was the original beginning of the story. I had jumped too far into the action. What worked better was taking a few steps back and letting the reader know who the narrator was and why he was on the road in the first place.

Yes, writing is rewriting! (And a good editor makes ALL the difference. Thanks, Regina!)

For more on writing and revising picture books, see

99 Picture Books to Study

Over at Playing by the Books, the UK blogger (bilingual Dutch/English), is talking about picture books. The UK Secretary for Education, Michael Gove has suggested that kids read at least 50 books a year.

Playing by the Books took up the challenge:

I approached six brilliant UK-based illustrators and asked them to contribute towards a list of books every child should be read. Tim Hopgood, James Mayhew, Jan Pieńkowski, Katie Cleminson, Viviane Schwarz and Clara Vulliamy all very gamely accepted my challenge of producing a list of 10 or so books each that they love.

The result is this post:
50+ picture books every child should be read – a non-prescriptive list for inspiration

In a follow-up, though, Playing by the Books realized that many of the books on the list were classics. She wondered what a list might look like if the titles were restricted to the last five years.

To help me in this quest I turned to this year’s winners of the Booktrust New Best Illustrators Award. These illustrators “represent the best rising talent in the field of illustration today, [they] demonstrate remarkable creative flair, artistic skill and boundless imagination in their work“, so who better to ask for some suggestions as to the best, fresh picture books?

Here’s the list of 49 recent, recommended books:
49 brilliant picture books from the past 5 years as chosen by award winning illustrators

Yes, these are UK books, but what a visual feast both these lists are. The short descriptions are instructive, too, in how to pitch a picture book.

What books, published in the last five years in the US, would YOU recommend?

How To Write A Picture Book: Resources

12 Updated Resources for 2011

  1. State of the industry. First, a basic question: Are picture books dead? Not according to Karen Springen and PW.
    Don’t Write the Obit For Picture Books Yet, By Karen Springen, Dec 12, 2010
  2. Writing Encouragement. Natl Pic Book Writing Week May 1-7, 2011

    National Picture Book Writing Week is a take off on the National Novel Writing Month and encourages writers to work on children’s picture book manuscripts.

  3. Basic Resources for Writing Children’s Picture Books

  4. 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book. Children’s picture book author, Darcy Pattison has 30 posts about how-to write a children’s picture book. Answers questions like, where do I find an illustrator? (You don’t! See why.) This is also available as an ebook.

  5. Getting Started: The Basics of Children’s Writing and Illustrating, by Harold Underdown
    Introductory information for people wanting to get published as a children’s book writer or illustrator in the United States, by former editor.
  6. Picture Book Editing Checklist
  7. Authors on How-to Write a Children’s Picture Book

  8. So You Want to Write a Picture Book–advice from author Mem Fox.
  9. Nancy Antle on Writing Children’s Literature: Interview about Dos and Don’ts of Writing Picture Books.
  10. Philip Bell: Capturing Childhood Magic With Picture Books

    Updated Information on Self Publishing a Picture Book

  11. Why I’ve Switched to CreateSpace for Picture Books, by Aaron Shepard

    Long-time self-publisher has insider knowledge about various POD options and explains why he’s switching to Amazon’s CreateSpace.

  12. How to Write a Rhyming Picture Book

  13. How To Write a Rhyming Picture Book and Get it Published — Part 1: A Writer’s Perspective.
  14. How To Write a Rhyming Picture Book and Get it Published — Part 2: A Publisher’s Perspective.
  15. How To Write a Rhyming Picture Book and Get It Published — Part 3: A Reader’s Perspective.

  16. Write a Rhyming Picture Book blog article, by author Patricia Thomas

Other Posts about Picture Books on Fiction Notes
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Baby – Toddler Story Time

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