Thursday, February 2, 2023

Nonfiction Tips

By Dow Phumiruk

I’ve had the privilege of working on several nonfiction picture books by incredible authors. I thought I’d share a few tips from my experience.

Universal theme and drama

Not all nonfiction picture books need to be dramatic. However, if the book is based on an incredible, true story, your readers will be intrigued. So, consider starting with a gripping story! 

In TITAN AND THE WILD BOARS by authors Susan Hood and Pathana Sornhiran, a Thai soccer team is trapped in a flooded cave system, and efforts to rescue them come from all over the world. The universal theme of teamwork makes for wide appeal. Everyone wanted those boys brought to safety!

Susan’s beautiful, poetic writing heightens the emotion.

Think about what themes you want to share. Some common nonfiction biography themes in books I’ve worked on are persistence, bravery, loyalty, friendship, and innovation.

Sketch from TITAN AND THE WILD BOARS: THE TRUE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI SOCCER TEAM, by Susan Hood and Pathana Sornhiran, HarperCollins]


AN EQUAL SHOT: HOW THE LAW TITLE IX CHANGED AMERICA, written by Helaine Becker, released just before the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Though this law focused specifically on equality for women in government funded institutions in the United States, it paved the way for legislation to protect people of all different sexual orientations, races, and abilities as well.

What milestone anniversaries will happen in the next few years? Look back in history a few decades. You may be able to generate ideas for your next nonfiction project. Keep in mind, your book may take a few years to be published after it has been acquired, so I’d suggest working at least five years ahead. If your book isn’t published by the milestone anniversary date, it can still be an important addition to libraries and schools. And it’ll be ready for the next milestone anniversary!


Not unexpectedly, research is the most important part of writing a nonfiction book. You want to bring the most up-to-date, accurate, and thorough information you can find to your project. 

In HER NAME WAS MARY KATHARINE, Ella Schwartz brings the story of this early feminist to light with meticulous research on Mary Katharine Goddard’s life and work. Mary Katharine was a printer, the first woman Postmaster, and a fierce patriot. She printed the Declaration of Independence for circulation.

Ella was able to visit the Library of Congress to see some of the newspapers Mary Katharine printed. She was able to visit a copy of the Declaration of Independence with Mary Katharine’s name printed at the bottom as well. I, in turn, was able to use her photographs in the artwork: pictures of newspaper text became textured backgrounds in some of the spreads.


I’d suggest keeping organized records of your reference material. Your book will go through copyediting and fact checking, and you’ll want to be able to support all of your manuscript. You’ll also want to include sources in the book’s back matter. This way, students can be directed to additional reference material for further study. Teachers appreciate this!

Also, the illustrator may appreciate having your “scrap” materials. In general, authors and illustrators do not interact when working on a project together. But for nonfiction, we may make an exception with respect to researched materials. The publisher served as a go-between for this.

Connecting with a primary source is ideal when feasible. Helaine Becker talked to Katherine Johnson by phone for our book COUNTING ON KATHERINE. On the other hand, online resources abound for many public figures and field experts on just about any imaginable subject, so it is possible to write a successful nonfiction book from internet interviews, books, and images.

Helaine skillfully tells Katherine Johnson’s story tackling issues like racism and physics (such as how Katherine used math to predict the trajectory of the space shuttle) in an accessible, child-friendly way.

, by Helaine Becker, Christy Ottaviano Books]

What to include and what to leave out

For a picture book biography, you may gravitate to a cradle-to-grave format, but this isn’t always necessary. You can frame the story around a smaller portion of someone’s life, such as from middle childhood to one of the person’s peak accomplishments. Children will be interested in the main character’s childhood, so including some aspect of the main character’s youth is a great idea.

In A LIFE OF SERVICE, Christina Soontornvat expertly focuses on key events of Senator Tammy Duckworth’s life to make the story work well. For example, Christina shares about Senator Duckworth’s love for flying as a helicopter pilot for the U.S. army before talking about the tragedy of her near loss of life after Senator Duckworth’s helicopter was shot down by Iraqi insurgents. This juxtaposition adds additional impact and weight to the horrific event. Then we follow Senator Duckworth’s recovery and eventual run for office. By highlighting key life events, we better understand Senator Duckworth’s drive and determination.

, by Christina Soontornvat, Candlewick]

In TITAN AND THE WILD BOARS: THE TRUE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI SOCCER TEAM, the majority of the book covers just a few weeks’ time.


Jeanne Walker Harvey’s style in writing MAYA LIN: ARTIST-ARCHITECT OF LIGHT AND LINES is light and lyrical, lending an artistic style to parallel the life of the main character. In creating the artwork, I also leaned into a style that would match Maya Lin’s: clean lines, soft colors inspired by nature, and the inclusion of some abstract elements. Together, I feel the subject, text, and art are cohesive as a result. So, think about your approach to writing based on your subject.

by Jeanne 
Walker Harvey, Christy Ottaviano Books]

An artist’s biography can be an artistic book. A comedienne’s biography or book about a funny subject can be written in a humorous style. I even imagine jokes peppered throughout the text! Don’t worry: your publishing team will find the right artist whose style will match your manuscript.

I hope you find some of these tips helpful. Good luck on your nonfiction writing journey!

Meet the Author:

Dow Phumiruk writes and illustrates children’s books, with twelve in print and eight more to come. She is the illustrator of A LIFE OF SERVICE, written by Newbery Honor winner Christina Soontornvat. She is one of the illustrators of YES WE WILL, by NYT bestselling author Kelly Yang. She is also the illustrator of COUNTING ON KATHERINE by Helaine Becker. MELA AND THE ELPHANT and HUGSBY, both written by Dow, are Colorado Book Award finalists. Dow is a retired pediatrician who teaches medical students part time. For more about her, visit

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Writing a Rhyming Nonfiction Picture Book: A Game of Jenga™

WELCOME TO NF FEST 2023! Learn the art of writing nonfiction for children one blog post at a time. To start the month off, we have an excellent post from Debra Kempf Shumaker about writing in rhyme. 

By Debra Kempf Shumaker

Writing rhyme is fun, but challenging. Writing a nonfiction rhyming picture book adds another layer to the challenge, since not only do the rhyme and meter need to work, it has to be accurate as well!

Two of my books—FREAKY, FUNKY FISH and PECULIAR PRIMATES—are rhyming nonfiction. They start with common features for fish or primates, then progress to strange ways they look and act.

For me, writing a nonfiction rhyming book is a lot like playing a solo game of Jenga™—trying to keep my story from falling apart as I shift, slide, and add text.

First step: Taking Notes—Preparing My “Blocks”

I prepare my “blocks” by taking pages and pages of notes from websites, books, and articles. Any feature/behavior that seems unique is listed.

After I have a lot of facts, I jot down words/phrases connected to those facts that can be stated briefly. In this phase, I’m trying to find the base for rhymes.

For instance, for PECULIAR PRIMATES, I noted that proboscis monkeys had really large noses and that they could swim, which is rare for primates. So I wrote:

Droopy nose.

One has a nose
that hangs far down.

One can swim.

I frequently write the same feature in different ways, never knowing which word I’ll find a rhyme for. If any potential rhymes pop in my head, I write them down. My paper gets very messy. These lines and partial lines become my “blocks.”

Second Step: Writing a First Draft—Building My Tower

To write my first draft, I skim all of my lines and partial lines, looking for potential pairs to write a rhyming stanza. At this point, I don’t focus on meter. I just want to be sure I can find features/behaviors that rhyme. My rhyming dictionary and thesaurus get a work-out here.

I “stack” the pairs of rhyme into a rough draft.

While my final goal is 12 - 14 stanzas for a finished manuscript, I start by writing at least twenty. At this point, the same animal may be in the story twice or more, but I use them anyway, knowing that when I’m revising, I’ll fix that.

For instance, in my first draft of PECULIAR PRIMATES, I had the proboscis monkey twice:

One kind has
a droopy nose. <proboscis monkey>

One has teeth
that always grows. <aye-aye>

One kind likes
to sit and soak. <Japanese macaque>

One has learned
the doggy stroke! <proboscis monkey>

Third Step: Revision—Moving Blocks

Once I have a draft of twenty or more stanzas built, it’s time to revise and focus on meter. If the meter is off, can I change any word that will provide the right syllables to get the meter to work? My thesaurus becomes crucial. If I can’t get the meter to work, I remove that “block” and slide in another. Thankfully I have “blocks” to spare.

I also might find new facts and write more stanzas. About halfway through my revision process, my document has an “Other Possibilities” section, sort of like a second Jenga™ tower. It comes in very handy in my next stage.

Fourth Step: Polishing—Ensuring the Balance

After I have enough polished stanzas, I step back and look at the overall “tower” to ensure a balance of several things:

• Are my facts unique and “fun” enough?

• Is there a balance between animal appearance and animal behaviors?

• Have I used the same animal too often?

• Do I have at least two legitimate sources to support each fun fact?

In my earlier example, I had the proboscis monkey twice. I decided the big nose was much more fun than the fact that it swims. But I loved the visual of Japanese macaques soaking in hot springs and wanted to keep that animal if I could. I needed to find another animal feature to pair it with.

So I looked at my notes and saw that chimpanzees can learn basic math. Hmmm. . . I could rhyme “bath” and “math”. So I changed “soak” to “bath” and came up with:

One can learn
some basic math. <chimpanzee>

One kind even
likes a bath! <Japanese macaque>

But, I wanted the primates to be in their natural habitat. If the chimpanzee is learning math, it’s with humans. I slid out chimpanzee. Using word associations for bath, I wondered if I could rhyme “splash.” Aha! Reading my notes, I found a primate with a mustache.

One primate wears
a cute mustache. <Emperor tamarin>

Another likes to
soak and splash. <Japanese macaque>

Every time I fixed one stanza, I had to see if it impacted any others. Frequently it did. If the same animal was in the book twice, or I couldn’t verify a fact with two sources, or a feature wasn’t unique enough, I moved stanzas out and slid in new ones from my “Other Possibilities” section. Then repeated the process.

At times I worried my manuscript was wobbly and would completely fall apart. Could I get it to work? But after eight or nine revisions, I finally had a solid “tower” with perfect meter and a balance of interesting and fun facts.


Finally, it was time to focus on the back matter. But that’s a blog post for another day. :-)

Meet the Author:

Debra Kempf Shumaker loves weird and fascinating facts. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys hiking, gardening, and watching Jeopardy. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, three sons, and two cats. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (2021), TELL SOMEONE (2021), and PECULIAR PRIMATES (2022). Visit her online at, on Twitter at @ShumakerDebra, and on Instagram at @debrakshumaker.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Something BIG is Coming!!

The Nonfiction Ninjas are excited to announce our very first Writing Contest! 

Your job is to spend the next month soaking in the advice and writing instruction from our marvelous guest bloggers. And then - get ready to show us what you've learned!
We will be holding a nonfiction writing contest in 2023. You could win a mentorship from the Nonfiction Ninjas! More information will be coming.
In the meantime get ready for NF Fest 2023!
The fun starts TOMORROW!!!

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Nonfiction can be - Funny??

By Linda Skeers

Many people are surprised to learn that I love writing nonfiction. A frequent comment is, “But you aren’t a serious person!”
Yes, writing nonfiction is serious business… but it can also be funny! Here are five tips (and mentor texts) to keep in mind if you want to add a touch of humor to your nonfiction.

Choose a fun narrator.
Instead of just presenting information in the typical manner, let your subject take over and share their own story!
One Proud Penny – Randy Siegel
PENNY proudly explains how it’s made and offers lots of fun details about money – in his own voice.
Gross is good.
Dig deep for the most fascinating, gross, unusual, weird and amazing facts. Your readers will thank you for it!
Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History – Lois Miner Huey
This book contains lots of fun historical facts and doesn’t shy away from the gross stuff!
Add a fun sidebar.
Even if your subject is fairly serious, if you do find a fun fact or light-hearted example, put it in a side bar. This can be a breath of fresh air or some comic relief.
Hot Diggity Dog:  The History of the Hot Dog – Adrienne Sylver
Its sidebars are full of extra facts and anecdotes relating to the humble hot dog. Really stretch and think outside the box to come up with tidbits that will surprise and delight readers.
New angle or twist.
Look for a unique way to present your information. Turn your topic upside down and inside out and shake it all about! Love geography? Want to introduce readers to the Arctic? Instead of presenting facts and figures, make the reader feel as if they are there.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be…A Polar Explorer – Jen Green
This series focuses on the nasty and negative aspects of jobs, lifestyles, and places throughout history. Written in second person, it helps the reader get up close and personal with the subject.
Language, puns, inside jokes.
Use words and phrases that match your topic. And remember that kids LOVE puns and fun word-play!

I Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are – Bridget Heos
Get it? BUZZ? Cracks me up every time!
No matter how serious you are, or how serious your subject is, a touch of humor can coax a smile, and maybe a giggle out of your reader. Go forth and be funny!

Linda Skeers loves to write funny nonfiction. You can learn more about her work at

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Fun with Primary Resources - Seriously!!

By Stephanie Bearce

Being a nonfiction writer, I tend to geek out over research. I love digging through old photos, visiting historical sites, and delving into library stacks. The happiest of all research is when I get to dig into primary resources. So many cool things!!!!

I've read Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory notes, visited L.M. Montgomery's home, and climbed the same cliffs as Mary Anning. Primary sources can add a whole new dimension to your work.

For those of you who are new to nonfiction - primary sources are documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation and were often created during the period you are writing about. Diaries, newspapers, government documents, letters, memoirs, and oral histories are all examples of primary sources.

It's always exciting when you can make a trip to a historical site, but it's not always practical. Good news for when we have to be armchair researchers - the internet has some amazing websites that bring the primary sources right to your desk. And I've sourced them for you.

Here are some of the best websites for primary sources dealing with American History. Enjoy the research adventure!!
100 Milestone Documents
Includes documents that chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.
American Journeys
yewitness accounts of North American exploration, from Vikings in Canada in 1000 AD to the diaries of mountain men in the Rockies 800 years later.
American Presidency
Documents related to historical and current U.S. presidencies, such as speeches, official papers, and executive orders.
American Life Histories
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940.
C19 Index
Full text of North American periodicals from 1740 through the 19th century.
Chronicling America
Search and read historic newspapers published from 1690 to the present.
FBI Vault
Scanned and redacted – images of FBI files of famous individuals and groups.
New York Public Library
30,000 images of New York City, costume, design, U.S. history, etc. from books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as original photographs, prints, and, postcards, mostly created before 1923.
Printed Ephemera
Advertisements, forms, programs, catalogs, timetables time tables capture the everyday activities of ordinary people.
The Sixties
Primary documents and personal narratives, 1960–1974
World Digital Library
Collection of print and visual resources

Stephanie Bearce is an author, speaker, and teacher. You can learn more about her at

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Writing Lessons from The Great British Bake Off

By Peggy Thomas 

If you have a tendency to cram every bit of research into your nonfiction, then watch The Great British Bake Off!

Seriously.  It’s a lesson in editing.

Some of the challenges take 5 hours to complete. During that time, several cameras stalk the bakers, filming from every angle as they measure, sift and stir. But do we see every minute?

No, we do not. The show’s editors select only the images and audio needed to tell a specific story in the 1-hour time frame. They show only what we 
need to know.

We need to know enough about the recipe so we understand the challenge and will be able to judge who has excelled and whose soufflé flopped. We don’t see all the bakers; just the ones who are doing very well, and those who forgot to add the eggs.

Then, just before a commercial, judge Mary Berry says, “I’m worried about Jamal,” or Gasp! The top layer of a cake tilts. The editors want us to worry. They strategically created mini cliffhangers to hustle us back from the freezer with our Dove bars.
You need to be selective too. 

Show readers only what they need to know. Select the facts and anecdotes that provide enough background so they will understand the subject.  That might mean skipping over the middle years in the development of an invention or leaving out the spouse in a bio. 

Then create mini cliffhangers by placing a problem or question at the turn of a page in a PB, or at the end of a MG chapter.
The ingredients, or research, you didn’t use?

Bake another cake!

You can learn more about author Peggy Thomas and her writing at


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

You NEED a Picture Book Dummy!

By Lisa Amstutz 

Does your picture book lack that spark that pulls the reader from page to page? Do people keep saying it feels like an article? If so, I have three words of advice: MAKE A DUMMY. I critique hundreds of picture book manuscripts every year, and often advise making a dummy because IT WORKS!

Here’s why:
1. It forces you to think visually. There’s an interplay of art and text in picture books that isn’t present in any other book format. As you create your dummy, make sure each spread is a separate scene, and that there is enough variety of scenes in the book to make it visually interesting.
2. It tightens your prose. Look at your text again, and take out anything that will be shown in the art. When you finish, read it aloud to yourself or a child. Does it read like a picture book? Make sure the language is sparse but strong.
3. It forces you to think through page turns. Add transitions or suspenseful language so the reader MUST find out what happens next. Study current picture books and note how the author entices you to turn the page. This doesn’t happen by accident!
4. It helps with your story’s pacing. Look at how many words are on each spread. Have you devoted a lot of text to one scene and very little to the next? Also keep in mind the age and reading level of your audience. How much text can they handle without getting overwhelmed?
A picture book dummy is easy to make. Simply fold eight sheets of blank paper in half and staple them in place. Leave the first and last spreads blank to leave room for the title page, author’s note, etc. That should leave you with 13 spreads. Cut out and paste your text onto the dummy or write it out by hand. Sketch out scenes to go along with it. Stick figures are fine.
If you don’t want to staple pages, use an online template. At the very least, paginate your manuscript.
Sure, it takes time. But it’s worth a try. It may just take your story from drab to dramatic!


Lisa is an author, literary agent, and ecologist. You can learn more about Lisa and her projects at