Monday, February 28, 2022


 by Helaine Becker


If you’ve ever typed “Florida Man” into your Google search bar, you know it’s true: real life is stranger than fiction - and often funnier. So it should come as no surprise that nonfiction books can be equally hilarious.

In the olden days (pre-Internet), information books for children tended to be dry bones fact delivery systems. Today’s books are much more than that. They offer context, connections, and narrative. And perhaps most importantly, they engage and inspire young readers.

Humor is a high-octane tool for hooking a reader. And a bit of rib-tickling makes the subject matter stick!  That’s why I use humor frequently in my own nonfiction writing, even for super-serious subjects.

Here’s how I keep kids cracking up from the Table of Contents straight through to the glossary.

     The Subject, naturally: When choosing which experiments to highlight in my book Science on the Loose, I opted to include “the famous fart experiment,” an actual study in which scientists in the UK measured both the amount and intensity of flatulence in male and female populations. While kids giggle and guffaw, they discover how to set up and conduct a scientific experiment (starting with a hypothesis, controlling the variables, accurate measurement, etc.) It’s real science, it’s really funny, and it’s explosively (!) engaging. 

     Approach:  Even when the subject matter is not inherently funny, like an authoritative biography of a forgotten math genius, a light touch can go a long way. As an example, consider the tone I used in Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of: “Emmy was much smarter than everyone else in her classes. The other students knew it and didn’t much like it. After all, girls were not supposed to be smarter than boys (See page 6: not be geniuses.”)”   The style is direct and wry. Lots of the side notes and captions are laugh-out-loud funny. The hits of humor highlight Emmy Noether’s own genial personality and acts as leaven for a text that might otherwise be dense with math and physics.

     Language: Anyone who’s had to slog through an academic paper knows that convoluted sentence structure and jargon can make even a simple subject hard to understand and deadly dull. When I write for kids, I pay careful attention to my word choice, with a special focus on the way words and sentences sound. I use rhymes and alliteration liberally and tons of puns. I up my game with major league word play, and up the chuckles with sly juxtapositions (see what I did there?).  

Some words are funnier than others. Words with the letter K in them, like kazoo or nincompoop, are widely considered the funniest. Repeated syllables also solicits smiles. In a choice between apples or bananas, I always go bananas.

Art: The illustrations are an important part of many books for children. They set the mood and convey lots of information that round out the text. A weighty subject, like dinosaur taxonomy, can get a lift from lighthearted pictures.

This is very much the case in That’s No Dino! – Or Is It?, my primary-level book about, yes, dinosaur taxonomy. Goofy, brightly-colored graphics by Marie-Eve Tremblay definitely get the giggles going – and clarify the subject matter in a way that is accessible to even young readers.

So if you’re no-nonsense about nonfiction, go for books that serve up giggle fits along with the facts.  Because well-researched information is absolutely a laughing matter.

Give It a Try: Choose a nonfiction topic that appeals to you. How can you make it fresh and fun?

First, noodle around with your approach. If you’re writing about the rainforest, for example, think about different, unexpected approaches that lend themselves to humor. For example, you might present the Amazon from the point of view of a sloth – upside down!  

Once you’ve got your angle, write a sample introduction. Try a variety of tones. Pick one that best captures the subject  - and your own unique voice.

When you’ve got something that you think has potential, tweak your text until it feels light and fun on your tongue. 

Humorous writing can be hard to pull off, especially if you feel nervous about putting yourself out there. Like all other writing skills, it requires practice and courage.  So, stick with it! The verbal skills you develop will be useful in all your writing.

Meet the Author
Helaine Becker is the award-winning author of more than 90 books for children and young adults, including the international bestseller Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 and An Equal Shot: How the Law Title IX Changed America Forever. Recent nonfiction titles include Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao and Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of. Watch for The Fossil Whisperer: How Wendy Sloboda Discovered a Dinosaur later this spring.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Shape For Your Story

 by Duncan Tonatiuh


The first nonfiction picture book I wrote and illustrated was about Diego Rivera. A big challenge I had while writing that book was deciding what to include in it. Diego Rivera was a very famous muralist. He was a larger than life, complex, and often controversial figure. Many articles and books have been written about him. There is a lot of information about his life available. I couldn't include everything about him in a thirty-two page picture book. So what do I include?

I became very interested in Rivera's artwork after I got a small job doing an illustration for a textbook about Mexican history. I looked at Rivera's work for inspiration. In his murals Rivera painted the history of Mexico. He painted the conquest, the fight for independence, and the Mexican revolution. He also made murals about technology and science, like the one at the Detroit Art Institute depicting the process for making a car. He painted epic and pivotal historical moments. While looking at his artwork I began to think What would Diego Rivera paint nowadays? Would he paint the computers and smart phones we use nowadays? Would he paint satellites and the internet?

That question –What would he paint nowadays?—turned out to be a good guide. It helped me decide what to include in the book and it helped me find a shape for my story. The first part of Diego Rivera: His World and Ours is a short biography depicting formative events is Rivera's life. But then the book takes a turn and asks what would he paint nowadays and compares it to things he painted. Would he paint a modern metropolis as he painted the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán? Or would he paint students at their desks like he painted factory workers in the production line?

There are different shapes a story can have. A very good and very common shape for a picture book is the arc. There is a beginning, a conflict, and a resolution. But it is not the only shape. Diego Rivera: His World and Ours has a “juggling” sort of shape that jumps back and forth between information and questions. I used that shape again in my book Funny Bones; Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.

In college, for a fiction class I took, I read a book called Making Shapely Fiction. In the book, Jerome Stern presents different story shapes like facade, juggling, iceberg, and onion among others. I recommend it. Even though the book is aimed at adult fiction writers I think that his insights can be useful to nonfiction children's book authors.

Give It a Try: What are different shapes for a story that can you think of? Find picture books with different story shapes, especially ones that don't have a traditional arc.

When you are working on a book I encourage you to make a book dummy, especially at the early stages. Don't worry if you are not an illustrator. Your mockup doesn't need to be detailed. It doesn't even need to have drawings. Your book's illustrator is usually the one that will decide how to break up the text once the story is finished. But I think it is a good exercise for writers to make a dummy while working on a book and to think of how the text could be split up. I think it can help writers find the flow of the book and the shape for the story.

Meet the Author

Duncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-tee-YOU) is an award-winning author-illustrator. He is both Mexican and American. He grew up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and graduated from Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College in New York City. His artwork is inspired by Pre-Columbian art, particularly that of the Mixtec codices. His aim is to create images and stories that honor the past, but that are relevant to people, especially children, nowadays. Two of his recent nonfiction books are Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War and Danza!: Amalia Hernandez and el Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Gamification: A Cool Way to do Nonfiction Picture Books

By Roxie Munro

For my work about architecture or places, nature and science, art, and other nonfiction or informational content, I find using "gamification" as a writing/illustration technique challenging, and fun. It can impart a lot of information for children in an accessible, creative and lively way. 

Because I am an artist - a "visual thinker" - as well as a writer, I often create my books first in images (a storyboard, a dummy, rough sketches), and then write the text to coordinate with the art, not visa-versa (which most editors prefer!). Thinking visually is a form of cognition. My books are dependent upon strong visual ideas. The art dictates the format, sequence, and even the content.

I wrap the content around a device - a conceit or a construct. Studies show that engaging in games helps children learn, concentrate, set goals, problem-solve, work together and collaborate, persevere, and celebrate achieving goals. Many games also help with decision-making and critical thinking skills. They make kids think ahead and plan steps in advance, sometimes teaching alternative ways to solve problems. Working with mazes has been shown to improve children's handwriting. Game ideas are particularly suited to reluctant readers, boys, and special needs children.

People don’t always think of print books as being interactive, or using games, but they are and they do. To engage children and keep them interested, and to impart information in a compelling way, I create books with mazes, guessing games, inside-outside concepts, search-n-find, lift-the-flaps, ABCs and numbers, puzzles, size/scale relationships, hidden objects, and more.

My books often follow a similar structure. I start with front matter (an introduction giving an overview - maybe some history and context, how the book was researched, what's to come). Sometimes there are "instructions" to help navigate the game-like format, and maybe quirky factoid-like questions (answers in front or back matter). Then the main content - the body of the book - usually two-page illustrated spreads with expository text. Often there's a big illustrated finale, and then the important back matter, which usually consists of the following: "the answers" to the maze, seek-n-find, counting or alphabet game, often with smaller B&W versions of the spreads; maybe a schematic illustration showing, say, the featured animals in scale relative to each other and/or their environment; sometimes extra content (facts not mentioned in the body text) like each animal's species/scientific name and/or pronunciation, size or habitat, breeding habits; an "essay" (lately discussing global climate change, species preservation, or a call-to-action); a map if appropriate; glossary (usually the word is highlighted first in the main body text); a bibliography; and an index.    

Some of my early books used an inside-outside device to show places and cities (New York City, Washington DC, Paris, London, Texas, and American libraries). Others, for example the lift-the-flap paper-engineered books, like Go! Go! Go! (about transportation), Circus, Rodeo, and Doors (you learn about what’s in a doctor’s office, horse barn, a train, mechanic’s garage, space station, etc), are a little quirky and are occasionally even considered “novelty” books. They don’t fall neatly into the nonfiction category, though they are about "real" life. There are guessing games incorporated into the flaps, which hide items, show action or motion, and how things work.

EcoMazes: 12 Earth Adventures uses mazes to explore and understand ecosystems, and a finding/counting game to learn about which animals live in the habitat. In Hatch! an egg or a clutch of eggs is shown. Children try to guess what kind of bird it is from hints (“The bird that lays these eggs is found on every continent except Antarctica.” “…fastest running two-legged animal on Earth. But it can’t fly.”). In Busy Builders children see a bug up close, and then turn the page to check out the unusual structure it makes, and why. In Slithery Snakes, they figure out what kind of snake it is from the close-up scaly skin patterns shown, along with tantalizing facts about the critter.

Several of my nonfiction concept books teach the alphabet, vocabulary, and counting. In Mazeways: A to Z, the alphabet letter forms a maze … A is for Airport, H for Highway, L for Library, R for Ranch, and so on – children are playing, but also learning about places and how they function. Ranch and Desert Days, Desert Nights combine a search-n-find game with information. In Market Maze children explore where food comes from and how it arrives at their town greenmarkets (also involves a counting and finding game). Masterpiece Mix explains art genres, ending with a large finale where you find 37 classic paintings in a modern scene context. The back matter, as with other books, has a B&W schematic with the "answers" and more information on each artist.



Lately I've shifted back to nature. Recent books use size as a device: Rodent Rascals: From Tiny to Tremendous - 21 Clever Creatures at their Actual Size; Dive In: Swim with Sea Creatures at Their Actual Size (you take a journey; each spread leads into the next at the top, bottom, or sides); and Anteaters, Bats & Boas: The Amazon Rainforest from the Forest Floor to the Treetops (a walk with actual size creatures, again, each page leads into the next). The last two books have a giant 4-panel foldout to show size.

Give it a Try

You should explore different methods of casting your nonfiction content. Think outside of the box - play around with formats and ideas. Can you impart your content in a fresh, new, or different way? Give it a try - have some fun. Use your unique skills and point-of-view. A reviewer once grumpily wrote that "Munro's books are hard to categorize." A compliment. It's good to be original. The best nonfiction books are content filtered through an individual human consciousness.

About the Author:

Roxie Munro has written and illustrated more than 45 award-winning nonfiction and concept books, earning numerous starred reviews, the NY Times Ten Best Illustrated Award, NCSS-CBC and NSTA-CBS Outstanding Trade Book honors, the Bank        Street Cook Prize Silver Medal for STEM, numerous Notables and Best Book of the Year lists. She's also created a dozen interactive book apps and 14 New Yorker magazine covers. See:

Friday, February 25, 2022

Infuse Your Facts With Lyricism

By Gloria Amescua

Deepen the reader’s heart connection to your fact-based research using a lyrical approach through figurative language and rhythm. If you are reading this, you know that kids (and adults) love rhythm, sounds and images. You want to know more about how to infuse your nonfiction writing with the lyrical heart connection that’s so important. 

I can only tell you what I’ve done for my nonfiction biographies and what I love about other lyrical nonfiction books. I’ll give you a short list (but certainly not inclusive) of books and some strategies to try. 


When I revised my manuscript from prose to a lyrical approach, I first wrote a poem about Luz Jime... Even though I've written poetry since I was a kid, it felt daunting to write a biography using a lyrical approach. But I'm thankful I did. A poem for me comes from my emotional connection to the subject. It gave me details and metaphors such as "flower-song people," "shadow-people," and "words disappearing in the wind." It also led me to use flowers as an extended metaphor and "flower-song" to represent the Nahua people and their spirit: "The budding flower in Luz's heart might have withered./ But it did not" and "her dream seemed to swirl away forever/ like petals on the wind." I also varied sentence lengths and repeated words, phrases and sentence structures to enhance the rhythm. "Just by being Nahua,/ just by being herself,/ Luz breathed life into xochicuicatl, the flower song of the Nahua,/and carried their fading voice into the future."

The following are examples of how beautifully the following authors have created lyrical/poetic books of nonfiction with poetic devices.

FRY BREAD: Using the rhythmic refrain “fry bread is…,” Maillard describes the literal description of what fry bread is as food with dimensions of size, shape, color and specific sensory details and alliteration, “Fry bread is sound. The skillet clangs on the stove./ The fire blazes from below/Drop the dough in the skillet/The bubbles sizzle and pop.” Then fry bread becomes symbolic of history, place, and the people, “Fry bread is history/the long walk/the stolen land/strangers in our own world/with unknown food….” “Fry bread is nation. /Fry bread is everything.”  

SONG FOR JIMI, a biography about musician Jimi Hendrix, fully creates a musical experience through its overall structure as a song, its rhythmic verse, repetition, rhyme, onomatopoetic words, alliteration, assonance, metaphor and voice. Here are several examples: “So Jimmy lived the blues,/ oh, yeah, Jimmy lived the blues,/ from his tattered family tree/to his cardboard-soled shoes”; “He already had the song/but needed a musician,/and there before his eyes/stood a git-tar magician,/ a sonic tactician,/ a Picasso with a pick/painting in the blues tradition.” “Eyes popped,/ jaws dropped/and ears almost bled/when Jimi plucked the fireworks/exploding in his head.”

RISE! Here are a few examples of lyricism: “Momma Henderson—/as tall as a Sycamore, /as dignified as a Queen--/rules the roost”; “the seesaw of the South”; “…the twisting, turning/conga line of language/that pulses across the page”; “…a voice that is/as gravelly and gritty, /as jubilant and joyous/on the page/ as on the stage.” Throughout, Hegedus’ use of metaphor, alliteration, repetition of words and phrases, rhyme, and sentence structure convey the facts but definitely appeal to the heart.

In 30,000 STITCHES, Davis uses the repetition of “the fabric of America with a varying verb to show the evolving emotional healing of our country through the symbol of the 9-11 flag’s repair. Along with alliteration, other repeated phrases, varying sentence length, the text develops a clear rhythm, “The flag wove its way across America--/crisscrossing borders, cross-stitching lives.”  “Throughout the journey, stories of/tragedy transformed into triumph--/repairing scars,/ restoring faith,/ uniting people.”

MARTIN & MAHALIA: Pinkney uses short repeated phrases or sentences with a word change that develop the cadence of a sermon or song, as well as contrast, assonance and rhyme. “She sang the gospel/worked the gospel/led the gospel/spread the gospel” which echoes the words describing Martin’s.  Another example is “They wanted to/lift their gospel gifts higher/grow them bigger/shout them louder/make Americans even prouder.” She also structures the text around the symbol of the journey on a map. 

In STUFF OF STARS, Bauer’s lovely use of alliteration, repeated and varying phrase and sentence structures, specific details and onomatopoeia link the birth of the universe to the birth of “you.” “In the dark,/in the dark,/in the deep, deep dark,/ a speck floated, invisible as thought./weighty as God.” “And then/the beginning/of the beginning/of all beginnings/ went/ BANG!”

Give it a Try:

  • Write a poem letting the emotional connection you have to the subject lead you.

  • Draw a web/map with the subject at the center and add whatever comes to mind, brainstorming in a non-linear way. 

  • In one column write a short list of important characteristics. In the next column, write specific nouns, verbs and sensory words that might be associated with the words in the first column. 

  • And, of course, study mentor texts. I’ve used all of these strategies.

Things to Remember: 

You might overdo poetic devices at first and need to cut. (I did.)

You might try something and need to change to totally change it. (I did.)

Sometimes metaphors or specific/sensory details, rhythms just pop up! (That’s happened! Yay!)

I hope these examples and suggestions help you as you infuse your facts with lyricism!

Example Nonfiction Picture Books: 

30,000 Stitches: The Inspiring Story of the National 9/11 Flag (2021) by Amanda Davis, illustrated by Sally Were Comport.

Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua by Gloria Amescua (2021), illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln (2019) by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López. (Metaphor, repeated phrase structure, alliteration, internal rhyme)

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (2019) by Kevin Noble Maillard, illus. by Juana Martinez Neal.

Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston) by Alicia D. Williams, illus. by Jacqueline Alcántara. (Personification of the sun and more, word choice, dialect, voice, metaphor)

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (2013) by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illus. by Brian Pinkney.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou (2019) by Bethany Hegedus, illus. by Tonya Engel.

Song for Jimi: The Story of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix (2021) by Charles R. Smith, Jr, illus. by Edel Rodriguez. 

A Songbird Dreams of Singing: Poems about Sleeping Animals (2019) by Kate Hosford. (Individual poems with specific meter and rhyming structure)

The Stuff of Stars (2018) by Marion Dane Bauer, illus. by Euka Holmes 

Survivor Tree (2021) by Marcie Colleen, illus. by Aaron Becker. (Word choice, metaphor, symbols and circle structure)

About the Author:

Gloria Amescua’s (Ah MES qua) debut picture book biography, CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA is illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books, 2021) and was awarded a Pura Belpré Author Honor.  It was also listed as a Junior Literary Guild Selection, ALA Notable Books and various Best of Nonfiction/Informative lists for 2021/2022. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of Gloria’s poems for their national textbook literature series. Gloria is an educator, poet and children’s book writer. Connect with her on her website or Twitter @GloriaAmescua.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Opening Doors: STEM Learning and Access for All

By Kristen Bott Nordstrom

As both a teacher in a public school for over 20 years, and a nonfiction writer, the question of how to deeply engage my learners and readers is always on my mind. What is their entry point? How do they connect?

I’ve discovered there are so many ways. Listening to my students play a math game always brings a smile to my face. The number patterns they discover as they hop around a hundreds chart is exciting!  Could it even be sifting through a pile of dirt in earth science? There’s gravel, sand, clay, and even humus in that brown blob!

Maybe it’s an interdisciplinary project-based investigation like the one we are into now. We’re researching a wildlife crossing that is being built in our area. With student questions driving our project, and excellent nonfiction books in our hands to answer them, we’re researching why and how animals will use this bridge. We’re even building our own wildlife crossings with guidance and feedback from the landscape architect that designed the project, a UCLA biologist, and the project manager.

At the core, the students connect to this project through their questions, the experts we bring to our classroom, and through their desire to help the diverse wildlife population in our area - mountain lions, black-tailed deer, California quail, and even tarantulas! They wonder, investigate, make sense of things, and contemplate how they could make a difference in the world.

These are the essential elements to dynamic learning that I believe open doors for all learners. These ideas have pushed me to new places as a teacher and are ideas percolating in the back of my mind as I write.  


Four years ago I became a founding member of a Title 1 STEAM school. At the time, I felt the world was changing in troubling directions, and I was inspired to work with other dedicated teachers and one awesome principal to bring the power of hands-on science to a beautiful and diverse group of students including children on the autism spectrum, bilingual learners (Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish) and foster youth. We use the Next Generation Science Standards coupled with project-based learning as our guide, but the true center is the curiosity of our learners. This is where we engage our learners and access the curriculum. We start by asking questions, strive for conceptual mastery, and learn the vocabulary along the way. It was also during this transition in my teaching practice, that I found the final “layer” in my nonfiction writing. Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature was in the editorial process with Charlesbridge Publishing. My biomimicry story was finding a way to integrate with the brilliant illustrations of Paul Boston for the first time. It’s been a journey. Here are some of the tidbits of truth I’ve gleaned along the way.

1. Be honest. If you’re an educator, has your school or district mandated a curriculum that has reduced your teaching to scripted guides and worksheets? Find a place to bring back curiosity in the classroom. Maybe start with daily read-alouds using excellent books that inspire your students to wonder about the world. As a nonfiction writer juggling loads of information, I had to work hard to keep the curiosity at the core of my writing. The beginning of Mimic Makers was scientifically correct, but the questions were gone. A revision brought them back plus an opportunity to weave the theme of children-investigating-the-world into the text, illustrations, and back matter.

2. Be proactively inclusive.  We don’t take our togetherness for granted in my classroom. We talk about who we are as a community of learners, who we are as individuals, and how we can work as a team. We practice whole body listening, share our thoughts in community circles, and seek to understand one another in an accepting environment. Everybody has a place in the circle and everything we learn academically is dependent upon these conversations. Children learn in safe places that acknowledge and validate their existence in the world. Diverse books help us along this path. They expand our minds, our hearts, and start important discussions. We depend on authors to write relevant books to help us process our difficult feelings, celebrate our uniqueness, and honor different points of view and life experiences.                                                                              

3. Be patient. My favorite t-shirt that I wear to school is starting to fray around the edges. I’m going to keep on wearing it because the words on the front are my mantra: “Progress over Perfection”. This is the message I hope to convey to my students, and these are the words I remember myself as I chip away at another manuscript in the pre-dawn hours. We strive for excellence, but we measure our success by the progress we make. 

4. Celebrate the creative problem-solver. The shift from the old science standards, where students were expected to memorize, memorize, memorize, to the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) has been profound. We are no longer passive recipients of information.  We investigate, problem-solve, and design solutions all day long. We are thankful for all the books with feisty protagonists that inspire us to persist when we face setbacks. We are thankful for all the biographies that profile a diverse group of people who have faced adversity, served humanity, and accomplished great deeds. We need their stories.       


Give It a Try

Pick five of your favorite nonfiction books (the ones you wish you wrote) and go on a scavenger hunt.  For each book, find the way(s) the author stimulated a child’s curiosity.  Make a list.  Some things to look for:

      Are the readers wondering what will happen next? Is this part of a narrative nonfiction story that has captured the reader’s attention?

      Are there well-crafted page turns that have the reader flipping through those pages - curious to find what will come next?

      Is there a discrepant event or discrepant picture that gets a child wondering?  

      Has the author taken the child to a new place - the inside of a beehive or through the lens of a powerful microscope to reveal something new? 

       Does the author pose questions that prompts a child to wonder at key places in their book?  Where are those places?  How does this drive the flow of the book?                                

When you have this list, see if you can find a place in your manuscript where you can incorporate one or two good ideas.  Good luck :)

Meet The Author:

Kristen Nordstrom, M.Ed, has been teaching for more than twenty years and is a founding member of a Title 1 STEAM magnet school. She is nationally certified as a STEM educator and has extensive training with the Lawrence Hall of Science. Her debut picture book, Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature is illustrated by Paul Boston. It profiles ten working inventors from around the world that have studied nature, made a discovery, and applied their understanding to inventions that help people and the planet. It is a Junior Library Gold Standard Selection, CYBILS Nonfiction Picture Book Finalist, NSTA’s Best STEM Picture Books of 2022 List, and the AAAS/Subaru Best STEM Picture Book of, Twitter: @KristenNordstr1, IS: knordynord                                             

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Research with Confidence: Contacting Experts Despite Imposter Syndrome

 By M.O. Yuksel

Someone recently asked me what the most challenging part of writing was for me. I had to think about it for a few seconds. Should I say something predictable like revision or research? Or tell them the truth which, for an introvert like me, is to reach out to complete strangers to request help on a research topic. 

This was especially true prior to being agented and contracted for my first book, In My Mosque, in 2019. Two years earlier, I was working on my picture book biography, One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, and I had to contact experts to help me find answers to some questions.

Before each outreach, the ever-sneaky imposter syndrome would creep in, challenging me with questions like: There’s no guarantee your manuscript is going to get published, why waste their time being interviewed? You’re not an author, you’re not a professional, how are you going to introduce yourself? What if you ask the wrong questions, or the obvious ones, and embarrass yourself? This brutal echo chamber of self-doubt and imposter syndrome clamored in my head.

But I had to remind myself that many people go through spells of doubt. Even iconic authors like Maya Angelou experienced imposter syndrome.

“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad…I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” 

                                                                             ~ Maya Angelou.

Fortunately, my passion to share the story of Fatima al-Fihri, a trailblazing visionary woman, outweighed my fears and doubts and kept me going. If I was going to get my research done and my story written, revised, and ready to submit to editors, I had to silence my negative self-talk, face my fears, and reach out to experts, even without an agent or a guarantee of publication.

So, here are some things I did that may be helpful for you as well:

1. Reference librarians are a gold mine of information. Contact local public libraries. Some universities offer library privileges to their alumni. Check to see if your library offers in-person or online access.

2. Research and read everything on your topic. I scoured through books, magazine and newspaper articles, websites, conference papers, podcasts, and documentaries.

3. Make a list of questions, and anything that needs clarification.

4. As you’re researching, make a list of anyone who you think might be most knowledgeable about the questions you have.

5. Here are some ways to find experts in your area of research:

    a.    Look at the acknowledgments section of the book.

    b.    Note any experts being cited or mentioned in sources like articles and documentaries.

    c.     Notice which experts are presenting at conferences, and workshops.

    d.    Make a list of university departments pertaining to your research topic. For One Wish, I reached out to departments of North African Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and Middle East Studies at different universities not only in the U.S. but also in Morocco and Turkey.

    e.    If it’s relevant to your topic, make a list of museums, professional associations, and historical sites.

    f.      Search the most unlikely places, ask family, friends, critic partners, and acquaintances - they might happen to know someone who specializes in your topic.

6. Once you’ve done all your background research and homework, it’s time to contact your list of experts.

But wait. Do I need to pay these experts?

I was happy to find out that most scholars and experts will gladly share their knowledge and area of specialization gratis, but it’s nice to do the following:

      • Offer to acknowledge them in your book.
      • Get permission to acknowledge them once you receive an offer of publication; not everyone wants to be named.
      • Send them a copy of the book once it’s published. 
According to Michelle Cusolito, author of the upcoming book Diving Deep: Using Machines to Explore the Ocean, many scientists have grants that require them to interact with and educate the public. So, sharing information with an author or illustrator would fulfill their grant requirements as well. A win-win situation!

So, did I find an expert?

With stacks of research, and various drafts of
One Wish, I started making cold calls, sending dozens of emails, and contacting referrals. After weeks, and in some instances months of waiting and receiving “we can’t help you” emails, I finally got a positive response.

Matthew Schumann, who was a graduate student at Princeton University at the time of my research in 2017, responded with an encouraging message. He had lived in Fez, Morocco for several years, was defending his Ph.D. dissertation on North African studies, and he was more than happy to answer my questions. Yay!

A few months later, Dr. Fatima Sidiqi at Fez University in Fez, Morocco also replied. She was excited about the topic of Fatima al-Fihri and was willing to help me. What serendipity to find an expert by the namesake of my main character, Fatima, who is also the Director of Women’s Studies at Fez University. I was ecstatic to have not one but two experts to work with.

As I was writing and revising One Wish, more questions popped up, more facts needed clarification, and more resources were needed as I dug deeper into the topic. Over a period of three long years, I contacted Matthew Schumann and Dr. Sidiqi many times, and they generously helped me. And over these years, the strangers I was anxiety-ridden about contacting became my close friends. I’m eternally indebted to them and acknowledged them in One Wish.

For my debut picture book, In My Mosque, I didn’t have to do as much intense and extensive research as I did for my picture book biography. But I did want to make sure the manuscript was factually accurate. So, I reached out to scholars Imam Khalid Latif, University Chaplain for New York University, whom I had previously met at Friday prayers at N.Y.U., and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Chair of Islamic Studies at Huron University, whom I met at a conference. They weren’t complete strangers, and much easier to contact for help.

Give It a Try

To overcome imposter syndrome and contact experts with confidence, imagine your manuscript is acquired by a publisher, and you have a revision deadline to meet. Ask yourself what fears and hurdles would you be willing to overcome to meet the deadline?

Now, give yourself a deadline and tell a friend or two to help keep you accountable.

Once you’ve completed steps 1-5, move onto step 6 – reach out to your list of experts.

Then, as you wait for replies and leads, celebrate stepping out of your comfort zone because, as writers, we’re going to do this again and again; each time, hopefully, becoming more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Meet the Author:

M.O. Yuksel is usually on the soccer field cheering for her kids, or traveling to exotic places, and immersing herself in the local culture when she’s not writing about little-known heroes and diverse cultures. She’s the award-winning author of In My Mosque, illustrated by Hatem Aly, and upcoming picture book biography One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, illustrated by Mariam Quraishi. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in the education field for over twenty years as an administrator and a teacher. Visit her online at