Tuesday, February 4, 2020

If There's No Hook, There's No Book

By Melissa Stewart


Let’s face it. Kids today have busy lives and a lot of entertainment options. If we want them to read our books, we have to get their attention. We have to make them curious. Really curious.

Look at these three book covers:




Each of these expository nonfiction picture books entices young readers with a strong hook—a unique, engaging way of looking at a concept—that’s obvious even in their titles.

That hook makes kids curious. They immediately start asking questions, and they decide to read the book so they can discover the answers.

In some cases, a hook makes a complex concept or process more relatable to young readers. It shows how the information in the book connects to a child’s everyday life or experience in the world.

A hook can also give readers the opportunity to think about a familiar topic from a unique perspective. It may encourage them to question what they thought they knew. It may even lead them to reconsider their view of how the world works and their place in it.

When I show students the cover of No Monkeys, No Chocolate during school visits, hands instantly shoot into the air. Kids are dying to know how monkeys are related to their favorite dessert.

Similarly, the title of An Egg Is Quiet provokes curiosity, and as readers explore all the different ways author Dianna Hutts Aston personifies an egg’s characteristics, they gain a new appreciation for something that might otherwise seem so common and familiar.

The first thing a child (or an adult) does upon reading the title of Never Smile at a Monkey is ask, “Why not?” Then they open the book to find out.

According to author Steve Jenkins, "Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember was inspired by that phrase popping into my head when I read that macaques sometimes react violently to a human smile (a display of teeth). From the beginning, I knew that I’d base the book on a series of similar admonitions (never clutch a cane toad, never cuddle a cub, never touch a tang).”


The concept for No Monkeys, No Chocolate suddenly popped into my mind, too, but only after I’d been working on the manuscript for years.


 


And that’s one of the challenges of writing expository nonfiction—coming up with just the right way to frame the information can take time. How long? Here are some stats:
 



Title
Amount of Time
Can an Aardvark Bark?
6 years
Feathers: Not Just for Flying
8 years
No Monkeys, No Chocolate
10 years
Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs
7 years
A Place for Butterflies
5 years
Seashells: More than a Home
6 years
Under the Snow
5 years



To come up with a great hook, writers need to thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning. It’s so, so important to be patient during this process because an irresistible hook involves finding your own unique and intriguing lens for viewing the information.

The good news is that when you finally stumble onto the perfect hook, all the pieces suddenly fall into place. You’ll know exactly what your manuscript needs to be and how to achieve your vision. And the result will be a captivating book that only you could have written.

Here are a dozen picture books to read and study as you think about crafting the hook of your nonfiction book:


To learn more about how a book’s hook can evolve over time, check out this interactive timeline about the process of writing Can an Aardvark Bark?.





 

It highlights the relationship between hook and text structure.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, including Seashells: More than a Home and Feathers: Not Just for Flying, both illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. She co-authored the upcoming title 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books. Melissa maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Science and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.


ABOUT THE PRIZE


Melissa Stewart will be giving away a 30-minute Q&A Skype session.


Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below. 

301 comments:

  1. This is great! I'm struggling to find a hook for my current WIP. I will definitely need to check some of these great books for inspiration.

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    1. Keep trying. It will pop into your head at the most unexpected time--while driving, taking a shower, just as your waking up.

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  2. Here's the link to the No Monkeys, No Chocolate Timeline: https://www.melissa-stewart.com/timelines/timeline_no_monkeys/10yr_timeline.html

    Here's the link to the Can an Aardvark Bark? timeline: https://www.melissa-stewart.com/timelines/timeline_aardvark/timeline_aardvark.html

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  3. I'm rethinking the title of my WIP because of your post. Thanks!

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  4. Makes me think more about the importance of the title. Thanks.

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    1. Ideally, the title, hook, concept, and text structure will all be interwoven.

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  5. Hi Melissa! Last year, as a 2nd grade classroom volunteer, I read two of your books in three classrooms: No Monkeys, No Chocolate and Feathers Not Just for Flying. Students loved, loved, loved both books. When little folks attentively sit and listen, bubbling with questions after the reading, you know the book worked! Your book hooks work! I really appreciate that you shared your process/timeline with us. I'm always trying to hurry. You just reminded us that this craft takes lots of patience. Thank you!

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    1. Thank YOU, Denise. I so glad to hear the students liked the books.

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  6. Rethinking hooks and titles thank you.

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  7. Great post! Thanks for all the mentor text titles. I loved your graft for Can an Aardvark Bark. Gail Hartman

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    1. Please be sure to click the links so you can watch the video explanations.

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  8. Hello Melissa! I love your hooks and books. Thank you for sharing your process and an example timeline. Many days I take heart to know that great books aren't born overnight. I'm looking forward to reading your Five Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, as well as the mentor texts that I've not read yet.

    The weekend when I came up with the hook for my debut book I had been studying your books as mentor texts. Thank you for the inspiration!

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  9. The hook is definitely what it's all about! Thank you Melissa for great examples and reassurance with the stats chart too. Now I have many more examples to check out in my library.

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  10. It's the same with my freelance articles--when I nail the title, I know I have the concept down and what I need to write. Thanks for sharing concrete examples and the time line! I'm looking forward to reading your book and the others you recommend.

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  11. I love concept-driven NF picture books, and I'm a fan of yours especially, Melissa--because of exactly what you said: it's all about the hook! Thank you for highlighting this critical aspect of engaging readers. I also appreciate that you shared how long it takes for your books to come to fruition. It gives me hope and will keep me motivated!

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    1. It takes as long as it takes. We all need to be reminded of that when we're feeling stuck.

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  12. I have been rethinking a manuscript for 7 years. Thank you for sharing your timelines. It is encouraging!

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    1. Keep thinking. sometimes I like to hang upside down off the bed. It can help me see things in a different way--literally and figuratively.

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  13. I'd be so interested if when studying one hook, you find another that would also be viable. The world is so interesting, it'd be tough to choose where to spend the time! My students love NF books! Thanks for making them so enticing.

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    1. I do sometimes try to brainstorm various possible hooks, but I always know when I've hit upon just the right one.

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  14. These are all great examples of nonfiction books with hooks! I often come up with my hook first, then center my story structure, examples, back matter etc. around it. Sometimes my hook evolves, as yours did in Aardvark. But usually it strengthens as I build on it. I do think having a strong and interesting hook is key in nonfiction picture books!

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    1. It sounds like you may be writing biographies since you mention "story." I wonder if the process is notably different for narrative nonfiction and d expository nonfiction. I've never thought about that.

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  15. The idea that jumped out at me from Melissa's post was *framing* because I had just spent a looooong time at Michael's trying to find an ACTUAL frame for an important photo. Plain or fancy, modern or matted, each frame shaped a different feeling for the image. Choosing the best one took time and a few steps away. Can use this approach for my manuscripts as well!

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    1. I like the idea of "framing." That's a great analogy.

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  16. Thank you for those timelines! So helpful!

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    1. Please be sure to click through to watch the videos.

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  17. Elizabeth Pagel-HoganFebruary 4, 2020 at 6:27 AM

    Honestly the timelines helped a lot. I liked hearing how the "titles popped into your head" - BUT it was because you'd been thinking about the topics for years. I think a lot of people don't realize it's both a moment of inspiration after thousands of moments of thought. - Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

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  18. My favorite part was the line that the concept for NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE came suddenly — after years of work. So incredibly helpful.

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  19. As a docent at a zoo in the past, I likewise found it useful to find a hook to keep kids engaged when they were all wiggles and chatter on a field trip. Thanks for the essay!

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    1. Oh, yes, I can see how that would be a similar situation.

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  20. Leslie Ross-DegnanFebruary 4, 2020 at 6:39 AM

    Finding a 'hook' is one of the bigger creative challenges writers set for themselves. What I really appreciate in this post is the reminder to be patient with the process and that writers need to 'thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning." from it. Thanks for that gem Melissa!

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  21. Another master class from Melissa and encouragement from her chart to take time to find the right hook! Plus, ty, Melissa for that reading list. I really like April Pulley Sayre and Leeza Hernandez's newest on manners in DID YOU BURP?

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  22. Loved this post and your recent NF webinar from SCBWI! Thanks for sharing your wisdom. No hook = No book! That’s a fact!

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    1. So glad you liked the webinar, Doreen. Thanks for that feedback.

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  23. Oh wow, fascinating timeline. What a great visual. And lots of great info on hooks, to boot! Thanks for the great post today.

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    1. Be sure to click though and watch the videos that go with the timelines.

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  24. That you, Melissa! Titles as Hooks resonates with me. The best always make me pick up the book and open it. Great way to start Tuesday's writing session.

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  25. Thanks for sharing the key to a hook and encouraging us that these outstanding NF books take time :)

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    1. Thanks for reading, Aimee. Good luck with your writing.

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  26. Please save the monkeys, I'm a chocoholic!!! Thank you for your information on hooking the reader, and doing the research. I will get the books from the library and read them :)

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  27. Wow, those titles sure do attract attention. Your timelines were very informative. Thanks for sharing.

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  28. I appreciated seeing how long the manuscript was with an editor before it was acquired. Thanks for sharing the timeline Melissa!

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  29. Melissa, what a great post! Thanks for sharing the chart of how long some of your books took. I'm facing years with many of my books as well. My favorite line from your post: To come up with a great hook, writers need to thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning. Love it. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Debra. And thanks for all your support on Twitter.

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  30. Thanks for all your insight! It's comforting to know that sometimes an idea just needs to sit a while.

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    1. Yup. It's like making soup, all the flavors need to coalesce.

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  31. Such fresh titles and approaches. I think I need to climb out of my box.

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  32. Seeing those timelines is eye opening (and reassuring). Thanks!

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  33. This hook thing is major, and I especially appreciated the timelines where you show how the hook evolved over time and how long it took you to come up with a winner. This gives me hope!

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  34. Great post. A relief to see how long some of these projects took to create.

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  35. My favorite sentence is; "To come up with a great hook, writers need to thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning. It’s so, so important to be patient during this process because an irresistible hook involves finding your own unique and intriguing lens for viewing the information." And once is does she adds, things fall into place. What fun!

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  36. Fascinating info about letting your mss marinate (for years!) while searching for an irresistible hook!

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  37. The hook makes the book, I get that. But it makes me wonder how you know when you've got the right hook. I try writing the book different ways, but I'm not sure which way is best. Maybe I've never found the right hook. I'm going to go through all my work that is percolating and see if I've missed the best idea.

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    1. Sometimes I think I have a good hook, but editors keep rejecting the manuscript. Then I know I have to go back to the drawing board and try again. I'm at exactly that point with a manuscript right now.

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  38. I attended a session by Melissa Stewart at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference, two years ago, and was in awe of her. Impressive, and reassuring to me, is the amount of time she puts into writing her wonderful books.

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    1. Thanks for attending my presentation, Melanie. Good luck with your writing!

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  39. Great post! I was surprised over the lengthy timelines for the books, Melissa. How do you juggle so many topics at once? Or maybe inspiration comes at odd moments when you're not expecting them because they have been cooking in the back of your brain.
    Thank you for sharing the URLs for the two images -- I was frustrated that I could not read them. Then your post took care of that problem.

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    1. I always have a bunch of manuscripts. I toggle back and forth among them depending on which one I'm most excited about on any given day or week.
      Sometimes I work on a manuscript for weeks and hit a snag. Then I switch t a different manuscript for a while.

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  40. I think coming up with the best hook for any idea is so hard and so important. Thanks for the great resources!

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  41. This article reiterated what I've been learning the last few days and that is, nonfiction writing is more meaningful when you find YOUR meaning and when you can relate it to kids. I love the idea that the "hook" should even be in the title! My wheels are spinning now! Thank you! And thanks for the great list of titles to look into.
    -Rebecca Blankinship

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    1. YES! I love this insight--"nonfiction writing is more meaningful when you find YOUR meaning." finding your connection to a topic and approach is critical.

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  42. Wow--your patience and tenacity in finding the right hook and bringing these stories to the world is impressive, Melissa!

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  43. This makes me feel a bit better about some of my WIPs. I really enjoyed the timeline videos. Your website is a goldmine of info. Thanks!

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  44. Wow is right. I feel much better about how long I am taking with some of the history topics I am working with after seeing that time chart.

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  45. Great post, Melissa. And a good reminder that good writing takes time. Thanks for the list of "hook" book examples - heading to my online catalog to request a couple.

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  46. We all know the importance of the hook for fiction but I think we forget that it's equally important for NON-fiction! (Or maybe that's just me. :-) Thanks for the timelines and the reminder re: patience!)

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    1. Yes, great nonfiction requires all the same kinds of craftmanship as great fiction.

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  47. What a great post on the need for hooks in nonfiction. Thanks, Melissa! I love that you gave us examples to read so we could see the hook in action. And I love your timeline. What a great example of the patience we need as writers.

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  48. Titles and opening lines need to hook a reader. Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your expertise on the importance of hooks=a book.

    Suzy Leopold

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  49. Thank you for posting your timeline. I am a journalist by trade, and I am used to writing a story, sometimes with the deadline of, say, yesterday. Your entire post is a great reminder that there's no deadline clock, better to slow down and find the nuggets that will appeal to readers.

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  50. Thank you! I love NF books that pull kids in like this.

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  51. Wow! I need to start learning patience. Thanks for that timeline, and your post, Melissa.

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    1. Letting ideas percolate makes all the difference.

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  52. LOVE the interactive timeline! Thanks for sharing.

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  53. I totally “get” that timeline. My manuscripts stew for a long time, and I’m finally able to start using some of them! Thanks so much for the candor and the list!

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  54. Wonderful post on finding the right hook. Thanks for sharing the timeline. Great perspective.

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  55. What a clear and useful definition of hooks in expository nonfiction. I appreciate all of the examples given, too! -Sara Ackerman

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  56. What a great list! Thank you!

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  57. Wow, thanks for clearly illustrating the importance of hooks! And, thanks for sharing with us the amount of time that it took to find the right framework for some of your books! And, thanks for the list of mentor texts! 🙂🙂🙂

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    1. Ideally, the hook and text structure are interwoven and compliment one another.

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  58. Love the line about the hook showing how the information in the book connects to a child's everyday life or experience in the world. Thanks, Melissa!

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  59. Great post, Melissa! There's so much to think about when crafting the perfect book. It's the hook that will get you! Thanks for sharing the list of mentor books.

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    1. Hi Cathy,
      I hope you're enjoying NFFest. Thanks for following along.

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  60. Thanks for the great post, Melissa. The timelines were very helpful. I'm heading to the library now to take out some of the mentor books you recommended.

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    1. I always find mentor texts so helpful, so I wanted to be sure to include some in this post.

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  61. I love how your books impart information in a fascinating way. Science is not my strength but I find your books mind-blowing.

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  62. Again, NFFest delivered incredibly helpful info for review and contemplation. Thank you so much for your post! Your title "hooked" me immediately!

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  63. Thanks, Melissa! I appreciate that you stated the importance of giving ourselves time. I find myself rushing to jam stories together when I really need to take a breath and let the information marinate. I'm curious if you've had any books take a short amount of time to find their hook?

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    1. Yes, very recently, I did have that experience. It was a real gift. That book hasn't been announced yet, so I can't discuss it. It's currently scheduled for publication in 2022.

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  64. Those stats make me feel good---I'm not alone. :)

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  65. Great post, Melissa. I found your timeline for your books' hooks and titles most encouraging. Also, I'm learning the importance of occasionally stirring the "simmering pot" of a w-i-p in order to prevent evaporation.

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    1. LOL. I do toggle back and forth between projects, so there's always lots of fermenting going on in my brain.

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  66. Loved your post, Melissa! What struck me most is how framing all the information can take just as much time as the research. There are so many avenues a nonfiction picture book can take, and finding the right hook is like striking gold. Thank you also for your generous Skype giveaway opportunity!

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  67. Thank you for posting this. I will order a few of these books to read to my children (and to study and analyze for craft purposes, of course.)

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    1. I think you'll really enjoy the books on this list.

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  68. omg! I love this post. Just seeing how long some of these ideas have gestated in the brains of writers is inspiring to not give up on some of my ideas.

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  69. I find the idea of "framing" so invaluable, as it reminds us that we each bring our own sensibilities and unique lens to a certain subject. Thank-you for sharing your knowledge and insight!

    Celia Viramontes

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    1. Yes, finding a focus that speaks to your heart is SO important.

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  70. Thanks for this dose of reality about the time it takes to work through the process!

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  71. Always a teacher's heart. Thank you Melissa!

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  72. Thank you Melissa for sharing how long your process took as well as links to your website timelines. Tons of good info to study;)

    Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  73. Wow! So much great information. Thanks for sharing!

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  74. Thanks, Melissa! You are always grounded in reality. I appreciate the reminder of how long it sometimes takes to find the best way to present information.

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    1. Yes, it can take quite a long time, but the journey is worth it.

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    2. BTW, I'm really excited that you're now writing nonfiction for kids, Rose.

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  75. I needed to hear this today. I have a few ideas I have been working on for years and felt like I was moving way too slow. This gives me hope and encouragement.

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    1. It takes as long as it takes, so it's important to enjoy the ride.

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  76. Wow! It takes a long time to research topics. I know I have taken several years to research my NF book. I didn't realize that others can take that long as well. Thanks.

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    1. Yes, research can take a while. But I find that figuring out how to present the information can take even longer.

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  77. Thanks for the reminder on how long it takes for an idea to take hold. Finding the best hook takes time!

    Susan Latta

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  78. I'm amazed at the hours a non-fiction author puts into their work. Hooks are important in all books, not just non-fiction. Great post, Melissa. Thanks!

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    1. Here's a quotation from the amazing Candy Fleming: "“. . . the true tales I write spring directly from my experiences, passions, heartbreaks, obsessions, fears, quirks, curiosities, beliefs, desires. Writing nonfiction is like sitting before a blank screen and scraping off a piece of myself.”"

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  79. Thanks so much for the reminder that it's okay to take time developing ideas. I also write for the educational market, where timelines are tight and books are produced quickly, and I sometimes start to feel like my own projects are going nowhere.

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    1. Yes, writing for the educational market is a whole different kettle of fish.

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  80. Your timeline and videos are so helpful! Thank you for the pointing out how important it is to sometimes take a break from a project.

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  81. I wondered if any hooks were really easy for Melissa...and submitted/sold right away.

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    1. In 2018, I did write and sell a book in less than a year. It was a real gift. It's currently slated for publication in 2022.

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  82. Melissa is such a nonfiction guru! I always appreciate her advice. Although, I have to admit that it can be hard to be patient and let an idea percolate when you feel the clock ticking on a timely topic!

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  83. Thank you for this inspiration. And for reminding me to be patient!

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  84. Love the timeline for Can An Aardvark Bark!! That's pretty amazing! Thank you for a thought proving post and the list of books that are on my TBR list!

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  85. I'll be re-reading this over many times just to fully soak up Melissa's wisdom! I wish I could keep her next to my desk all the time as my personal nonfiction expert. :)

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  86. Melissa,
    Great list and nuggets of wisdom. Thank you!

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  87. Now I don't feel so bad. I've been working on one manuscript for over four years.

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  88. Thanks Melissa, for sharing such great information. I'm going back to make sure my hook, title, concept and text structure work effectively. Just getting ready to submit a manuscript. Good advice just in time.

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    1. Yes, they're all interconnected. Good luck with your submission.

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  89. Love the title of this post, the examples given, the research times chart, and the reading list. I just found NEVER SMILE AT A MONKEY at a bookstore and had to get it. It certainly hooked me as a reader. Thanks for the post!

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  90. I love being mindful of the beauty and wonder of inquiry. And writing so that young readers can continue to ask questions, and maybe question their previous view(s). Also, thank you for a wonderful SCBWI WWA webinar recently.

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  91. I had heard Melissa say that it took years to get the right hook and angle for No Monkeys, No Chocolate. I was interested to see that the ideas for many of her other books also took years to frame. Thanks for the encouragement to be patient.

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    1. Yes, finding the right hook and structure can take a loooong time.

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  92. Thanks Melissa for the great discussion of the importance of hooks. Your website is my favorite place in which to lose myself. I learn so much reading and re-reading about your work!

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    1. I'm glad you like the resources on my website. I spend a lot off time developing them.

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  93. A wonderful post highlighting patience, humor, and the almighty hook. The reading list is great too! Thank you!

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  94. Holy Moly - can I just say how relieved I am (but also rather terrified) to hear that it took you YEARS to get the right hook for your fabulous books?? Definitely, patience is necessary and plenty of research to help you marinate all the possibilities. I have been really struggling with 2 NF bios, trying to figure out the hook, and I was thinking that maybe they are just not meant to be written by me. But if it can take years to find a hook, there's hope!!! So thanks Melissa and thanks for all your amazing body of work.

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  95. I always remind myself, what is the connection to the child reader. How can they relate? What would make this interesting to them? Thanks for this helpful post on finding that right hook.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  96. Love your explanation of creating a hook and what a great hook does. Thank you for sharing!

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  97. A special thanks for listing several really hooky books for us to review :)

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  98. I can't believe how long it took to get to some of those hooks. Slightly depressing, but also encouraging to persist and keep going.

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  99. I'm not sure if I'm encouraged (that it also takes you years from idea to published book) or discouraged (because it takes years for someone as talented and published as you to go from idea to published book!) But I am very glad you stuck with it. I love your books! Thanks for being so generous in sharing your insights and experience with the rest of us.

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  100. Hooks - the bane of my existence! But I'm determined to continue plugging away in search of good ones. Your post is very helpful in pursuit of that quest. Thank you!

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  101. Thanks for an awesome post! "To come up with a great hook, writers need to thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning" is the point that struck me most, because I usually work in the other direction, coming up with an idea/hook and then delve into the details. I look forward to experimenting with reversing my process order and seeing how that works.

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