I’ve had the privilege of working on several nonfiction picture books by incredible authors. I thought I’d share a few tips from my experience.
Universal theme and drama
Not all nonfiction picture books need to be dramatic. However, if the book is based on an incredible, true story, your readers will be intrigued. So, consider starting with a gripping story!
Susan’s beautiful, poetic writing heightens the emotion.
Think about what themes you want to share. Some common nonfiction biography themes in books I’ve worked on are persistence, bravery, loyalty, friendship, and innovation.
|Sketch from TITAN AND THE WILD BOARS: THE TRUE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI SOCCER TEAM, by Susan Hood and Pathana Sornhiran, HarperCollins]|
AN EQUAL SHOT: HOW THE LAW TITLE IX CHANGED AMERICA, written by Helaine Becker, released just before the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Though this law focused specifically on equality for women in government funded institutions in the United States, it paved the way for legislation to protect people of all different sexual orientations, races, and abilities as well.
What milestone anniversaries will happen in the next few years? Look back in history a few decades. You may be able to generate ideas for your next nonfiction project. Keep in mind, your book may take a few years to be published after it has been acquired, so I’d suggest working at least five years ahead. If your book isn’t published by the milestone anniversary date, it can still be an important addition to libraries and schools. And it’ll be ready for the next milestone anniversary!
Not unexpectedly, research is the most important part of writing a nonfiction book. You want to bring the most up-to-date, accurate, and thorough information you can find to your project.
Ella was able to visit the Library of Congress to see some of the newspapers Mary Katharine printed. She was able to visit a copy of the Declaration of Independence with Mary Katharine’s name printed at the bottom as well. I, in turn, was able to use her photographs in the artwork: pictures of newspaper text became textured backgrounds in some of the spreads.
|Sketch from HER NAME WAS MARY KATHARINE: THE ONLY WOMAN WHOSE NAME IS ON THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, by Ella Schwartz, Christy Ottaviano Books]|
I’d suggest keeping organized records of your reference material. Your book will go through copyediting and fact checking, and you’ll want to be able to support all of your manuscript. You’ll also want to include sources in the book’s back matter. This way, students can be directed to additional reference material for further study. Teachers appreciate this!
Also, the illustrator may appreciate having your “scrap” materials. In general, authors and illustrators do not interact when working on a project together. But for nonfiction, we may make an exception with respect to researched materials. The publisher served as a go-between for this.
Connecting with a primary source is ideal when feasible. Helaine Becker talked to Katherine Johnson by phone for our book COUNTING ON KATHERINE. On the other hand, online resources abound for many public figures and field experts on just about any imaginable subject, so it is possible to write a successful nonfiction book from internet interviews, books, and images.
Helaine skillfully tells Katherine Johnson’s story tackling issues like racism and physics (such as how Katherine used math to predict the trajectory of the space shuttle) in an accessible, child-friendly way.
|Sketch from COUNTING ON KATHERINE: HOW KATHERINE JOHNSON SAVED |
APOLLO 13, by Helaine Becker, Christy Ottaviano Books]
What to include and what to leave out
For a picture book biography, you may gravitate to a cradle-to-grave format, but this isn’t always necessary. You can frame the story around a smaller portion of someone’s life, such as from middle childhood to one of the person’s peak accomplishments. Children will be interested in the main character’s childhood, so including some aspect of the main character’s youth is a great idea.
In A LIFE OF SERVICE, Christina Soontornvat expertly focuses on key events of Senator Tammy Duckworth’s life to make the story work well. For example, Christina shares about Senator Duckworth’s love for flying as a helicopter pilot for the U.S. army before talking about the tragedy of her near loss of life after Senator Duckworth’s helicopter was shot down by Iraqi insurgents. This juxtaposition adds additional impact and weight to the horrific event. Then we follow Senator Duckworth’s recovery and eventual run for office. By highlighting key life events, we better understand Senator Duckworth’s drive and determination.
|Sketch from A LIFE OF SERVICE: THE STORY OF SENATOR |
TAMMY DUCKWORTH, by Christina Soontornvat, Candlewick]
In TITAN AND THE WILD BOARS: THE TRUE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI SOCCER TEAM, the majority of the book covers just a few weeks’ time.
Jeanne Walker Harvey’s style in writing MAYA LIN: ARTIST-ARCHITECT OF LIGHT AND LINES is light and lyrical, lending an artistic style to parallel the life of the main character. In creating the artwork, I also leaned into a style that would match Maya Lin’s: clean lines, soft colors inspired by nature, and the inclusion of some abstract elements. Together, I feel the subject, text, and art are cohesive as a result. So, think about your approach to writing based on your subject.
|Sketch from MAYA LIN: ARTIST-ARCHITECT OF LIGHT AND LINES, |
by Jeanne Walker Harvey, Christy Ottaviano Books]
An artist’s biography can be an artistic book. A comedienne’s biography or book about a funny subject can be written in a humorous style. I even imagine jokes peppered throughout the text! Don’t worry: your publishing team will find the right artist whose style will match your manuscript.
I hope you find some of these tips helpful. Good luck on your nonfiction writing journey!
Dow Phumiruk writes and illustrates children’s books, with twelve in print and eight more to come. She is the illustrator of A LIFE OF SERVICE, written by Newbery Honor winner Christina Soontornvat. She is one of the illustrators of YES WE WILL, by NYT bestselling author Kelly Yang. She is also the illustrator of COUNTING ON KATHERINE by Helaine Becker. MELA AND THE ELPHANT and HUGSBY, both written by Dow, are Colorado Book Award finalists. Dow is a retired pediatrician who teaches medical students part time. For more about her, visit