Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ten Principles Guiding the Improbable Career of a Children’s Nonfiction Author

By Vicki Cobb

I never planned to be a writer. I had graduated college at 19 as a biology major and went directly to grad school from which I emerged with an MA in science teaching. I had written a grand total of two papers during my entire higher education. I married at 21 and promptly went to work as a science teacher so my husband could earn his PhD. My first son was born when I was 25 and our intentions were that I be a stay-at-home mother. 

But we still needed money and I needed something interesting to do at home. I saw an ad in the NY Times for teachers to write educational materials. Hmmm! I figured that after several years of teaching of talking about science, I could probably write about it. Not so fast, said the world.

Principle #1: Attributed to Dolly Parton, who said, “Never quit trying, never try quitting.”

I pursued the ad and after three revisions of the first chapter to make it “sound simple,” I received my first contract for a high school chemistry book. I got paid but the book didn’t get published. Found another publisher; wrote two more titles, Molecular Biology and Biological Measurement for a publisher who went bankrupt.  

Through networking, I was invited to lunch by an editor (who drank three martinis while the clock ticked for my babysitter.) I showed him my three unpublished books. “Vicki, you have to write a book for us.”  “Fine,” I replied. “How about The First Book of Logic?” (I had had one course in logic in college.) “Okay,” he said, “You give me an outline, I’ll give you a contract.  How long before the outline?”  “Six weeks,” I said, figuring I could learn enough logic in six weeks to write the outline; after that I would worry about the book.

Principle #2:  When opportunity knocks, think of these three things:

  • I might learn something.
  • It might lead someplace.
  • It pays well.

Two out of three and I grabbed it. Also, one very useful phrase is, “Let me think about it.”

My son was five years old when my first book was published. I was on my way.

I got a contract to write a book called Making Sense of Money for a multi-author series. My editor was a formidable older woman, Lillian McClintock. After I turned in my manuscript, she wrote me I letter that said, in part: “Writing for children is a serious endeavor. This work is entirely unsuitable. You have no business becoming a part of our profession.” Wow! Devastation! My husband said I should tell her to do something with the script that is anatomically impossible.

Principle #3: Don’t hesitate to bite the bullet when necessary.  I wrote Lillian by return mail: “Thank you for your comments.  [She had them all over the manuscript.] I hope my next attempt comes closer to your expectations.”

I couldn’t look at it for three weeks but then worked through it. It was published and I wrote another three books for her series. I read some of the other authors who worked for her; we all sounded alike. 

Principle #4: Stand your ground when forced to work against your nature.  My biggest hit, which established me, is Science Experiments You Can Eat. Its editor, who had moved to a different publisher, commissioned me to write Lots of Rot. The opening sentences went like this: “Want to smell something rotten?  Take a deep breath by a garbage can. If it’s rotten your nose knows. All it takes is one sniff. Yuck!”

The heavily blue-penciled manuscript by a junior editor had changed the language thus:

“Have you ever smelled something rotten? You probably have if you’ve taken a deep breath by a garbage can."  No “Yuck;” no play on words. I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. I requested a meeting with publisher and editor. I prepared a document, “In Defense of Lots of Rot.” I bought a new suit.  I pled my case. Three days later they told my then agent, “If Vicki won’t write the book the way we want it, we won’t publish it.” Anticipating this, I had another publisher lined up. So, I told my agent to pull it. And it had a run of 25 years with the second publisher along with a couple of other books in the same vein. 

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink was a touchstone book for me. It defined the three most important things we all crave to find fulfillment in our work after procuring a livelihood.  It led to the next principle.

Principle #5:  There are four goals to having a happy working writer’s life:

  • Source of a livelihood.  (If you are not bankrolled by a spouse, do not underestimate what financial necessity does to productivity.)
  •  Autonomy
  •  Mastery
  • Purpose

Now, I’m going to sum up five more principles that don’t need lengthy anecdotal embellishment:

#6.  Don’t be a diva.  Meet deadlines. Indeed, be early.

#7.  During times when cash flow become a trickle, do something every single day that could potentially a lead to money. Keep asking yourself “What CAN I do?” Then do it.

#8.  Regard your agent as a partner in your career.  My second agent, who came into my life more than 20 years ago, hounded me to obtain rights reversions. Never knew so much work could be sold again and again.

#9.  Refine your brand.  What do you, as a human being, bring to your work that is distinctive? Mine is in my logo.

#10.  NOTHING IS WASTED!  Proposals that didn’t sell, dreams that were not realized, don’t reflect badly on you. The most elusive aspect of a hit is timing. Mine has been off for most of my career. 



Write a short paragraph on a principle you may be struggling with. Send the paragraph to Vicki will  select ten people to attend a free Zoom conference to discuss these issues with her.   



Vicki Cobb is the acclaimed author of 95+ nonfiction books for children, including Science Experiments You Can Eat. Her numerous awards include a Sibert Honor and a Lifetime Achievement Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012. Currently, Vicki is president/founder of INK Think Tank, Inc, a nonprofit that promotes the use of nonfiction literature in the classroom. Check out her websites:,, and



Saturday, February 27, 2021

Developing a Study Guide

By J.P. Miller

Early in my writing career I decided that my purpose for writing was to promote African American history, family, and to augment a child’s learning experience. I am a storyteller who enjoys writing about little known events and people in African American history. In doing so, I try to make the reading experience as informative as possible without weighing the story down with a lot of facts. As a result, I began developing study guides to enhance information from the story.

Who is Your Target?

If you are considering adding a study guide to your manuscript, I suggest that you first ask yourself who you are developing it for. Who is your target? Do you want to target teachers, librarians, home-school parents, students?

Let’s face it. In the busy life of educators (especially now that many are virtual), one might choose books with ready-made activities out of convenience. That being said, there are certainly benefits to targeting educators and homeschoolers. I personally target the student that picks my book up off the library or bookstore shelf when I develop my study guides.

After reading one of my books, I want the student to WOW their teacher with book reports, discussion topics, and activities they gained only from working through my study guide. This is the type of learning experience that reaches beyond the classroom allowing the student to learn independently and share what they have learned with their teacher/class. In other words, augment the child’s learning experience.

What is Your Content?

After determining your target audience, the next step is to determine what you would like to include in your study guide. You can never go wrong with vocabulary words from your story. This can be tricky. Make sure your vocabulary words are within the target age/grade of your story. I use Children’s Writer’s Word Book 2nd Edition. I swear, this book makes me look so smart. It lists words grouped by grade and has a thesaurus of the listed words. Now, I must admit, I do not list my vocabulary words, the pronunciation; give the definition . . . yada, yada, yada. Boring!  I like using my vocabulary words in fun stuff like crossword puzzles, scrambles, word searches, etc.

Next, I like to ask 3-4 Book Report Questions. These are always developed from something that I touched on in the story but did not elaborate on. For example, in a story about an Olympic gold medalist, the Book Report Question might look something like this:

(One sentence recap of story) What are the Olympic Games? Write a brief history of the Olympic Games.

The same holds true for my next category. I like to ask 3-4 Social Questions. These are something that the main character does or was involved in. Using the same example of the Olympic gold medalist, the Social Question might look something like this:

(One sentence recap of story) Are you a part of an athletic team, club, or organization? What do you enjoy most about being on your team or club?

Last, I like to end my study guide with an activity. The activity can range from being active to something more sedentary. Again, using the example of the Olympic gold medalist, the activity might look something like this:

(One sentence recap of story) Plan a sports event or family outing. What, when, and where will your event be? What food and/or supplies will you need?

There are many ways to develop study guides. Play around with your content to see what works best for you.


Work-for-Hire (WFH) is an area in writing I never considered. Well, it’s not that I didn’t consider WFH; I simply didn’t know it existed until my mentor recommended me for a project. Can I just tell you how grateful I am for my self- imposed study guide requirement? The publisher’s guidelines required a timeline, glossary, index terms, text dependent questions and an extension activity. Ding! Ding! Ding! Study Guide! So, if you’re thinking of WFH as an option in your writing career, by all means start developing study guides now. I promise you; the skill will come in handy throughout your writing career.

Educational Standards and Resources

Bravo to those who already develop study guides to accompany your manuscript/book . Keep up the good work. But to those who feel that developing a study guide is a lot like diving headfirst into the deep end. . . Not to worry. There are online sources out there to help you meet school standards. A couple I find useful are:

Common Core State Standards Initiative -

Education World: -


Enjoy the process of developing a study guide. Know that you are playing a key role in educating our youth of today!

Activity: Let’s Build a Vocabulary List

Go through your manuscript and choose 8-10 words that you think will increase the vocabulary of your reader. In doing so, you may want to select a couple below and a couple above your recommended reading level to challenge readers at all levels. Some choices to consider are words with suffixes or prefixes, compound words, and/or hyphenated words. Now shuffle your words and follow the directions below. This is one of many ways to present vocabulary words in a study guide. Enjoy!


In this exercise match the shuffled vocabulary word from Column A with the correct vocabulary word in Column B.

          Column A


Column B






Though I’ve been writing many years; 2020 was my breakthrough year. I signed my first contracts (Work-for-Hire) in 2019 and completed 16 books. All but 6 were released in 2020, including  my 6-book Leaders Like Us picture book series with Rourke Educational Media. The series was very successful and garnered reviews from Booklist Review and the Library School Journal.

Next, was my 4-Book Black Stories Matter Series published by Hachette Children’s Group-United Kingdom. This picture book series is filled with over 50 biographies of people of African Diaspora from around the world. It was purchased stateside by Crabtree Publishing, release date TBA. Careers in the U.S. Military, a 6-book series, and  Leaders Like Us (8-book series) will be released in 2021.

Visit my website at:



J. P. will give away a paperback set of Leaders Like Us.


Friday, February 26, 2021

It’s All in the Family: Tips for Finding Family Sources

By Nancy Churnin

In nonfiction, your stories are only as sturdy as the facts that you use to build them. So where can you find facts that will hold up? We’ve had and will have many great posts about where and how to do research during NF Fest. I want to address sleuthing something more personal – family sources.

How do you find family members of your subjects to interview and verify information? Put on your detective hat, take out your magnifying glass, and look for clues. When I wanted to write about the artist Laura Wheeler Waring in Beautiful Shades of Brown, I couldn’t find books about her. What I did find were images of her paintings – in particular, one of Marian Anderson – that I wanted to include in my story. The painting was my first clue. It led me to search for the museum that had those paintings in their collection. That museum was the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

It was hard at first getting someone at the National Portrait Gallery to answer an email or the phone. But I was persistent. Finally, a kind person directed me to the archives and someone at the archives provided me with an email that eventually put me in touch with Erin Beasley, who provided me with a wealth of information on Waring. Erin Beasley also reached out on my behalf to Waring’s heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb.

Each subject presents its own puzzle. Because Waring was a painter, my research path led me to a museum. When I was researching Katharine Lee Bates for For Spacious Skies, the clue that opened up my research path was that she had been the chair of the English department at Wellesley University. I reached out to English department at Wellesley, and was referred to Rebecca Goldsmith, college archivist at Wellesley College, who provided copies of some of her papers that gave me access to Katharine’s thoughts in her own words. Rebecca Goldsmith also put me in touch with her heirs and great-great grandnieces, Katharine Lee Holland and Elizabeth Olmstead Null.


Clues can be found in the subject’s work history and/or profession. If you’re exploring a sports figure, try contacting any hall of fame or sports organization where that person is honored. If the person is a scientist, find out where that person worked or taught. In each case, someone in that institution may provide you with valuable information and be able to put you in touch with family members. The way this often works is that the institution, respecting the family’s privacy, will forward your request and leave it to the family if they wish to be in touch with you.

Now you may wonder if you need to contact family members. Sometimes, there is already a lot of information available in books about your subject. Sometimes, talking to family members is not always possible. When I was researching Queen Charlotte for The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, I didn’t bother trying to reach out to someone in the royal family for an interview as I knew it was highly unlikely anyone there would return my call. However, I did reach out to Dr. Carolyn Harris, a royal commentator and professor of history who wrote multiple books about the history of the royal family, including Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting (Dundurn Press 2017).

If the person is a public figure, you aren’t legally obliged to reach out to family members. But I’ve never regretted trying. Not only can family members correct mistakes that are floating out there about your subject, but family members have supplied my best nuggets of information. Children have told me that a favorite moment in Beautiful Shades of Brown is when Waring bribes her siblings to sit for portraits by giving them peppermints that she kept in her pockets. That detail came from Waring’s great grandniece, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who laughed on the phone as she shared the memory of how Waring bribed her nieces and nephews with candies, too.


So put on your detective hat, get out your magnifying glass and look for clues. Is your path through your subject’s alma mater? A workplace? A museum that holds paintings or artifacts or plaques of commemoration? Is there a source or survivor named in your subject’s obituary, or maybe a reporter in the person’s hometown or last city of residence who might be able to point you in the right direction? You never know what precious facts are out there, glittering, waiting to be found.



Create a family tree for a subject of interest and fill it out as thoroughly as you can. List at least three specific sources for where you would you go or who would you contact to fill in the missing parts or to make sure you have all the key members of the tree, such as your subject’s alma mater, hometown, places of work, home at end of life, places that have recognized or honored.


Nancy Churnin, one of the Nonfiction Chicks and a Nonfiction Ninja, is the author of 10 nonfiction picture books, two of which are coming out in October: Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah. Among her awards: South Asia Book Award, Sakura Medal finalist, Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, three Notable Social Studies Trade Books, three Silver Eurekas, three A Mighty Girls, a Notable Book for a Global Society, a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable and multiple state reading lists. Nancy lives in North Texas with her husband, a dog named Dog, and two cantankerous cats. Visit her at; on Facebook at Nancy Churnin and Nancy Churnin Children’s Books; and on Twitter and Instagram @nchurnin.


Nancy is giving away an autographed copy of For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates, and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful,” A Mighty Girl book, illustrated by Olga Baumert (Albert Whitman & Company).





Thursday, February 25, 2021

From Memory to Memoir

By Andrea Wang

With the number of incredible inventors, amazing activists and artists, and unsung heroes that remain to write picture book biographies about, it’s easy to forget that our own lives are rich sources of nonfiction, too. More and more memoiristic picture books are being published these days, such as Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat, A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui, The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and Khoa Le, and I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith. All these books are written in a memoir-like style and based on the memories of the authors. Instead of “writing what you know,” try writing what you remember.


How do you choose a memory to write about?

Memories can be elusive and temperamental. Some refuse to be found no matter how hard you try to recall them. Others pop unbidden to the surface at the most random of times, only to disappear again for years. And then there are the memories that stick with you, that you can’t seem to keep locked away in your mind’s file drawer, and you don’t know why. It’s this last type that inspired my upcoming memoiristic picture book, Watercress, which is based on my childhood memory of picking wild watercress by the side of the road. I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t let this event go, why it kept occupying my thoughts. It was just this thing my parents made me do, or so I thought. Your own sticky, significant memory could be the foundation of your next story, too.


How do you turn a memory into a memoir?

Let’s start with a brief description of what a memoir is – a collection of the author’s memories that share a theme. The author/narrator reflects on these selected events of their life and tries to understand the emotional truth behind them. I love author Nikesh Shukla’s definition: “A memoir is a story we have to tell that we wrap events from our lives around to illustrate.” And, like fictional stories, a memoir contains elements such as character, point of view, setting, plot, and theme. The main character is the author, narrating the story from a first-person point of view.

In much the same way a picture book biography often features a single event in a subject’s life, a memoiristic picture book usually focuses on one significant memory. The memory you choose then determines the setting and the plot. You are taking a slice of your own life and asking the questions, “Why was this event particularly significant? What did it mean? Why is it important?” These questions will help you find that universal, emotional truth at the heart of your memory, that will, in turn, become the theme and heart of your story. For example, in Drawn Together, it’s the truth that love can transcend words. The Most Beautiful Thing is about finding beauty in unexpected places. Both A Different Pond and Watercress have themes about not fitting in and not being aware of what the main characters’ parents have lived through.



I think it’s important to point out that a memoiristic picture book doesn’t have to be about a painful memory (even if those are the ones that often stick with us the most). They can be about joyful events like celebrations, or small, intimate moments of connection between characters. What matters is that it is a memory that carries emotional heft.


Why write a memoiristic picture book?

Digging deep into a significant memory and writing a memoiristic picture book can provide us with a new understanding of an event that shaped our lives. And that book can, in turn, inspire readers to be more empathetic, show them how to make sense of their own experiences, or, simply, make them feel less alone.  



In a quiet moment, jot down a few of the childhood memories that won’t let you go. Choose one and make note of your feelings about it, both from the perspective of the child you were and the adult that you are now. Ask yourself why this memory is important.



Andrea Wang is the APALA Honor award-winning author of The Nian Monster. Her picture book biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, is a JLG Selection and received a Freeman Book Award Honor as well as the Sakura Medal. She has two books releasing in 2021: Watercress (JLG Gold Standard Selection, four starred reviews); and The Many Meanings of Meilan, her debut middle grade novel. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market. Visit for more information.




Andrea will be giving away an autographed copy of Watercress.