Sunday, February 20, 2022

Creating Compelling Nonfiction Characters For Kids

 by Andrea J. Loney

 

Early in my picture book writing journey, I started volunteering with a Saturday story time program for a local elementary school. I’d plop down on the rug with a half dozen kids, read them a picture book or a few chapters of a middle grade book, and make crafts with them after we’d finished the reading.

The response to our book of the month was always fascinating. With some stories, the kids would lean forward and whisper, “Then what, Miss?” until I turned the next page. Then during the crafting session, they’d continue to discuss the characters, the story, or the ways the book related to their own lives.

Watching those fiction and nonfiction books find a home in the hearts and minds of young readers always inspired me. Even now when I write, I imagine myself reading the manuscript at story time and asking myself “Are the kids excited for this next page turn? Or are they snoozing on the rug?”

So, after reminiscing on my story time adventures and rereading a stack of nonfiction mentor texts, I’d like to share these five tips for creating compelling nonfiction characters for kids.

    1)  Start a familiar story from an unusual focus
    2)  Make sure your topic is relevant to the interests of kids born after 2010
    3)  Drive your story with feelings that children can easily relate to
    4)  Use humor!
    5)  Write from your personal connection to the subject

    Now, you don’t need to use all five tips in every nonfiction book (well, except for #3). These tips can apply to nonfiction for all ages, including biographies, historical events, STEM topics, and even stories about inanimate objects. 
    

    1) Start a familiar story from an unusual focus

Before She was Harriet is one of the hundreds of books written about the legendary Harriet Tubman. But Lesa Cline-Ransome begins her version of the tale with Tubman as an elderly woman, then works backward through her life’s story until we meet the subject as a young girl gazing up at the stars. And her name’s not even Harriet… at least not yet. 

2) Make sure your topic is relevant to the interests of kids born after 2010

Today’s kids enjoy books that center on current topics and shared cultural experiences. Even though When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop begins in the 1970s, Laban Carrick Hills’ picture book shares how a Jamaican immigrant child’s love of music, family, and community led to an American musical artform that still influences popular culture across the globe.

3) Drive your story with feelings that children can easily relate to

If kids aren’t emotionally engaged in the struggles of your main character, they’re more likely to lose interest.

While writing VIP: Stacey Abrams: Voting Visionary, I knew that kids could understand how shy young Stacey’s love for her family and her community inspired her to speak up and fight for fairness. But I didn’t expect kids to share her interest in tax law, spreadsheets, or romance novels.

However, kid-sized emotions can encompass more than fear, sadness, or anger. Curiosity, awe, and wonder also keep kids turning those pages. Lori Alexander’s All in a Drop: How Antony Van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World  takes place almost 400 years ago in the Netherlands. But Antony’s insatiable curiosity about microbes and the shocking (and hilarious) things he does because of it make this chapter book biography a compelling (and itchy) page-turner for almost any kid.

4) Use humor!

In nonfiction, humor can shake up a bunch of “dry” facts and leave readers with a greater appreciation of the topic. For example, children can read a textbook chapter on how Pluto was discovered then later demoted as a planet. Or those kids can read Pluto Gets the Call  by Adam Rex and giggle their way through the delightful graphic novel format, the fun and informative facts about our galaxy, and poor Pluto’s misery over being roasted by the entire solar system (don’t worry – there’s a kid-relatable happy twist at the end).

5) Write from your personal connection to the subject

Writing about a topic that’s especially close to our own lives can add extra resonance to the story. Author-illustrator Don Tate is well known for his wonderful picture book biographies about Black creatives. But in the author’s note of his picture book Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth, he shares how the book tapped into one of his earlier passions – competitive bodybuilding. Don had personally faced some of the same physical challenges as Eugen Sandow. When he shares that book with schools around the country, kids get excited to show off their own muscles too.

As you hone your storytelling craft, I hope that these five tips can help you create nonfiction characters that stay in your young readers’ hearts and minds (and maybe even funny bones) for years to come.

 

Give It a Try:

Brainstorm at least 15 nonfiction story ideas using the five tips listed above.

1)  How could you revisit a well-known topic by starting the story at an unexpected point in the timeline?

2)  What topics can you find that reflect the immediate interests and existential concerns of today’s kids?

3)  How could your story give kids inspiration and hope for the future?

4)  Can you find the funny in your topic?

5) Could any of your interests, passions, or hobbies inspire a nonfiction story?


Meet the Author: 

Andrea J. Loney’s books include the new middle grade biography VIP: Stacey Abrams: Voting Visionary, picture book Double Bass Blues (Caldecott Honor), and the biography Take a Picture of Me, James Vanderzee ( (Lee & Low Books New Voices Award Winner and NAACP Image Award Nominee). Her upcoming works include the picture book biography Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of LA ARCHITECT PAUL R. WILLIAMS (Knopf), and the futuristic chapter book series Abby in Orbit (Albert Whitman & Company), all coming in September 2022. Andrea lives in Los Angeles with her family. Learn more at andreajloney.com.

45 comments:

  1. Hmmm… “existential concerns of today’s kids” makes me wonder. Thank you.

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    1. Yes-- it's always fascinating when little kids share their big worries and their huge dreams with us. Sometimes they feel so tiny and powerless compared to everything around them. One of my favorite books on this is topic is the poetry anthology NO VOICE TOO SMALL - FOURTEEN YOUNG AMERICANS MAKING HISTORY, edited by Jeanette Bradley, Lindsay H. Metcalf, and Keila V. Dawson. It's so empowering. :-)

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  2. This list of 5 sounds perfect for exploring possible stories.

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  3. great tips, Andrea... and short enough to list on an index card (and tape to my wall). Thanks!

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  4. I have been thinking and thinking about attempting a non fiction picture book for quite some time. Didn't believe I was up to the task. Your list of 5 gives me hope that I just might give it a try.

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  5. Andrea, thank you for these terrific tips and examples.

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  6. Andrea, thank you for your observations and tips! I'm looking forward to reading your books.

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  7. I love how you broke down the process with examples, Andrea!

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  8. Thank you, Teresa. It was so hard to pick just a few books and examples to share!

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  9. Thank you for sharing your concrete tips on creating page turns, Andrea! I'm excited to read your book on Stacey Abrams and other books coming out later this year.

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    1. Thank you, Robin. Reading to wiggly wriggly second graders really changed how I look at page turns. And I'm excited for you to read my upcoming books too!

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  10. Thanks for all of your tips. I look forward to reading more of your books.

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  11. Thanks for all these actionable tips! Looking forward to your Stacey Abrams book!

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    1. Thanks, Melissa! I had a great time writing for the VIP book series.

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  12. Andrea! Thank you for sharing these five fantastic tips.

    Suzy Leopold

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  13. Thanks for these great tips and examples - always so helpful to see read mentor texts to really see how things come together!

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    1. Thank you, Traci -- it was so hard to narrow the mentor texts down to those few books -- there are so many awesome nonfiction books out there!

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  14. That reading program sounds so fun! Thanks for your great hints and examples.

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    1. Thanks, McMarshall. It's the Reading To Kids program in Los Angeles and I have learned so much about children's literature just by volunteering with them.

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  15. Your tips for non-fiction helps the writer bring out the human element in writing about human beings. Thank you.

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    1. Awww, Sue, I love the way you phrased that! "...helps the writer bring out the human element in writing about human beings!" That is exactly what I was hoping to capture in this post. Thanks!

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  16. The science of back matter...who knew?? We do now! Thank you.

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  17. Thank you, Sue! I am a HUGE fan of back matter! It's like the afterparty of the picture book, but everyone's invited!

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  18. Great ideas. Thank you for sharing and for volunteering in the schools.

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  19. Thanks, Andrea! This post inspired me to brainstorm more NF topics, based on your suggestions.

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  20. Great tips and great titles for examples. Thanks.

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  21. This post and suggestions came in handy when I needed to connect my idea to the reader. Thank you, Andrea!

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  22. Thanks, I look forward to brainstorming.

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