Tuesday, February 28, 2023


Dear Nonfiction Writer and Illustrator Friends,

We hope you enjoyed the 2023 NF Fest, which was made possible by all the incredible and generous writers and illustrators who shared their knowledge and tips.

BIG THANKS to Debra Kempf Shumaker, Dow Phumiruk, Annette Whipple, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Kari Lavelle, Jocelyn Rish, Katie Mazeika, Sarah Albee, Leah Henderson, Donna Janell Bowman, Songju Ma Daemicke, Selene Castrovilla, and Henry Herz, who posted alongside your faithful Nonfiction Ninja hosts.

Consider showing your thanks in a way that means the most to #kidlit creators: leave a review of one of our books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads; post about one of our books on social media; request our books to be ordered in your library; recommend us as presenters in your schools and libraries.

Now that you are fired up on your nonfiction writing journeys, we have a goal for you: work on a nonfiction manuscript to submit to our very first NONFICTION WRITING CONTEST!! Coming this
fall! Each participant may submit one unpublished manuscript to be judged by the NF Ninjas. There will be prizes! Stay connected with us here on our website for rules and deadlines – as well as our weekly NF Ninja blog posts – and in our NFFest group on Facebook.

We'd like to take this moment to remember and honor the person to whom we have dedicated the 2023 Nonfiction Fest: our good friend, Pat Miller, who helped forge us into the Nonfiction Ninjas, and conceived of the NF Fest.

After a long illness, Pat passed away peacefully in the arms of her loving family on October 11, 2022. Pat was a retired school librarian and award-winning author of many books, including the much adored THE HOLE STORY OF THE DOUGHNUT, a delicious nonfiction treat illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, 2016). 

Pat believed passionately in encouraging others to discover the joys of telling true stories and working on our craft to make them irresistible to children. She hoped that these true stories would stimulate children’s curiosity and wonder and inspire them to share stories with friends and new generations. As do we, the Nonfiction Ninjas: Lisa Amstutz, Stephanie Mowry Bearce, Nancy Churnin, Susie Kralovansky, Christine Liu-Perkins, Linda Skeers, and Peggy Thomas.

In honor of Pat, we hope you’ll enjoy a doughnut, share her books with kids, check out her author page, with lots of wonderful activities, and listen to her read The Hole Story of the Doughnut.

If you have the means, we would be thrilled to see you participate in a book donation in Pat’s honor. If you are able to donate a nonfiction book of your choice – it could be any book, but we would especially love to see you honor one by Pat, one of our contributors, and/or the Nonfiction Ninjas -- to a school or library in your community. Then post a comment here or a picture on the NF Fest Facebook site. If you want to post a picture of yourself enjoying a doughnut in Pat’s honor, that’s good, too!

Above all, keep dreaming, keep researching, and keep writing. There is nothing that would make Pat – and all of your Nonfiction Ninjas – happier.


Stephanie, Nancy, Lisa, Susie, Christine, Linda, and Peggy

NF Ninjas hard at work: Lisa, Chris, Pat,
Linda & Stephanie

NF Ninjas taking a break: Linda, Chris, Susie, Pat, Stephanie and Peggy  

Monday, February 27, 2023

Creating a Marketing Plan

By Susan Holt Kralovansky


The biggest surprise in my writing career was that I wasn't done, not even close to done, once the book was in the editor's hands. I needed to promote my book?! I knew nothing about marketing. I am not a salesperson. I didn't even like selling Girl Scout cookies when I was a kid. But I wanted my books to reach readers. And, was I going to say that to my editor? Of course not. I did what any clueless person would do - I jumped right in, shifting from one promotional activity to another. It was exhausting.

Before I started my second book, I came up with a Big Idea. I put anything even remotely related to my subject in a file, that turned into a box, that turned into a bigger box.

Using my book WE REALLY, REALLY, WANT A DOG!  as an example, you can see my mess. I collected everything from comp titles to ideas for query letters, book trailers and activity sheets, lesson plan ideas, and even ideas for illustrations. This clutter necessitated my second Big Idea - a Book Marketing Worksheet – which has been a lifesaver.

I'm sharing my worksheet to help you come up with your plan. I've used my worksheets to work through everything from writing the book proposal to organizing my marketing ideas.

My Book Marketing Worksheet gives me a promotion blueprint while keeping me focused. It also gives me a great way to measure my progress and see what is and isn’t working.

I challenge you, wherever you are on your writing journey, take some time to develop your own book marketing plan. You’ll be amazed at the ideas you’ll come up with.

Meet the Author:

Susan Holt Kralovansky is a former librarian and the author of 19 picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, five of which she has illustrated. Her most recent book, THE BOOK THAT JAKE BORROWED - EL LIBRO QUE JAKE TOMO PRESTADO was awarded the Silver Medal for the Best Children's Fiction Picture Book – Bilingual by the International Latino Book Awards

Friday, February 24, 2023


 By Henry Herz

Just like kids need a balanced diet in what they eat, young readers also benefit from consuming fiction and nonfiction. Even when I write fiction, I figure out a way to include some nonfiction elements, offering entry points into developmental conversations between child and parent or teacher. My fictional LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH has an author's note offering some interesting tidbits about cuttlefish and tiger sharks. My fictional GOOD EGG AND BAD APPLE is loaded with word play not critical to the story, but great for English language learning. My 2 PIRATES  + 1 ROBOT  includes a tiny flying robot who asks questions about what's happening in the story. The math and physics  underlying the answers are laid out in an author's note for when the child is ready for them.

But what about when I'm writing nonfiction? It should come as no surprise that I sprinkle in fiction, like salt enhances food's flavor. Fictional elements can entertain young readers, increasing their interest in the underlying facts in a subtle, engaging way. Fiction can be the melted cheese we pour on top of the broccoli of nonfiction.

There are some picture books with anthropomorphic characters, but I'd never seen smoke treated as a character. And who better to explain the various ways in which people have employed smoke over the ages and across the world than smoke itself? With that approach in mind, I researched the chemistry of smoke. It turns out that wood smoke is primarily carbon dioxide, ash, and water vapor. One thing leads to another in planning a book. Water vapor got me thinking about the water cycle—water evaporates from rivers, lakes, and oceans to form clouds. Eventually, the water precipitates as rain or snow. Rinse and repeat.

Then I considered the carbon dioxide given off by wood smoke. Two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom. Carbon... Inspiration struck like lightning splitting a tree. Plants are the lungs of the Earth. They breathe in carbon dioxide through their stomata. They drink up water through their roots. Sunlight provides energy to split those molecules. The plant forms cellulose from carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, sequestering more and more carbon as they grow. Conversely, burning tree branches releases the stored carbon. Eureka! Smoke has a “cycle” too.

Subverting expectations is a tried and true writing technique. When people think of smoke, they often think of fire. And both are dangerous. But what about the beneficial uses of smoke? More research followed. Be forewarned—research is a risky undertaking for the intellectually curious. For we can easily tumble down the rabbit hole of Google and forget why we're doing the research in the first place. But what fun things I discovered.

Smoke has been used to coax seeds to sprout, to drive out pests from homes, to send signals over long distances, to cover foul smells, to calm bees when harvesting honey, to flavor and preserve food, as part of religious ceremonies, and even to heal. I wreathed all these uses within the framework of the aforementioned smoke cycle.

“I am smoke. I twirl in dark dance from every campfire.”


Meet the Author: 

Henry Hertz is the author of ten picture books including I AM SMOKE (Tilbury House). His children's short stories have been published in Highlights for Children, Ladybug Magazine, and in anthologies for Albert Whitman & Co. and Blackstone Publishing. Henry also writes adult science fiction and fantasy short stories. He holds a BS in Engineering from Cornell, an MS in Engineering from George Washington University, and an MA in Political Science from Georgetown.

Thursday, February 23, 2023


 By Selene Castrovilla

I have always been drawn to amazing true stories. There’s something so urgent about the truth—we need to remember it, share it, keep it in people’s minds. In some cases, place it in people’s minds. The question is: how can we make a connection with readers, one which will resonate and linger?  For me, the answer lies in the heart of our story.

It strikes me as odd that the same stories are told over and over about our heroes. Like George Washington crossing the Delaware. A crucial tactical move, but was it really his greatest accomplishment? I learned, through a research rabbit hole, that Washington had saved his surviving men after the Battle of Long Island (the first Revolutionary War battle). He invented a plan to sneak all his men across the East River in one night, right under British noses. Not only would the fight for independence have ended had he not done this, but his men would have been killed. He did it to save his men. What an amazing true story to tell about George Washington, which hadn’t been told!

Only I didn’t have enough intel on Washington’s thoughts to create the nonfiction book I wanted. But I did have the memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, who was a teacher when the war broke out. We did not have a trained army like the British—we had people who sacrificed everything to head off and fight against the tyranny they were experiencing. Tallmadge, the son of a reverend, wrote about looking an “enemy” in the eye and realizing that he had to kill or be killed. Reading this chilling passage, I knew that every soldier must face this, in every war. This was the heart of my story: the universal, timeless element we can all relate to. This was humanity at its rawest.

I wrote that book, my first book, called BY THE SWORD, from Benjamin Tallmadge’s point of view. He had given me the information to do so, in his memoir. He graciously gave me a beginning, middle and stunning end—when he realized he had left his beloved horse Highlander behind and risked his life to return and save Highlander. I still get chills when I think of this, all these years later.

But what about when you don’t have someone’s memoir? A great beginning, but no middle or end? This is what happened to me when I tackled the story of three freedom seekers who, on the night Virginia seceded from the Union, stole a rowboat and crossed the moat to Fortress Monroe—the only Union stronghold in Virginia. They asked for sanctuary from General Benjamin Butler on his first night commanding the fort. Butler was a lawyer, and he was so determined to help them that he thought of a legal argument to keep Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory at the fort. (The custom was to return freedom seekers back to the Confederates.) He called the three men “contraband of war” because they were being forced to build weapons stations for the Confederates. Contraband could be confiscated because it was used as weapons against the Union.

What a story! I had to tell it! But I hit a roadblock: Baker, Townsend and Mallory’s paths were untraceable after that night. We know they were granted sanctuary, but nothing specific about their lives at the fort.

I refused to give up. After much research I found the incredible story of a freedom seeker named George Scott, who risked his life to go on a mission for the Union, tracking down the Confederates in the woods who were conspiring to take down Fortress Monroe.

It turned out that George Scott’s determination for freedom at any cost was the heart of my story—SEEKING FREEDOM: THE UNTOLD STORY OF FORTRESS MONROE AND THE ENDING OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA, and I had no idea until I discovered him.

What if you have a passion you want to share, but don’t know how? My sons Casey and Michael both took dance during the era of “it’s a great time to be a girl.” Yes, but why did boys have to be bound inside their boxes of masculinity? I wanted to share my boys’ hearts—that anyone can do anything that makes them happy—but how? We went to see the tap dancer Savion Glover perform, and the answer poured over me. How did Savion Glover find his way to the stage? I had no idea—yet—but just from his energy I knew that sharing his journey would be the heart of my story: the story of a passion which had to be unleashed. It took 19 years to get THIS IS TAP: SAVION GLOVER FINDS HIS FUNK published, but it is here.

Every nonfiction book I have written started with a spark—but until I found the heart of my story I could not write it.

You have a story which must be told. But how? Are you overwhelmed with too much information? Or are you lamenting not enough information? You must be like Michelangelo, carving until you set that angel free. That angel is the heart of your story, the reason people will relate, no matter who they are. Because in that heart lies our common humanity, which is now more crucial to embrace than ever.



Meet the Author:

Selene Castrovilla is the award-winning author of 18 books, many of them nonfiction. You can read about her writing journey and her books at selenecastrovilla.com.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Deepen the Heart of Your Story by Embracing Your Heritage and Culture

By Songju Ma Daemicke

I grew up in China. Every Chinese mom is basically a Chinese medicine practitioner at heart. I remember vividly that my mom used smashed dandelions on my cheeks when I had the mumps. The cold mush soothed my inflamed neck and chin and the dandelion’s natural anti-inflammation properties helped me fight the virus and recover.

I remain a strong believer in Chinese traditional medicine. Here is a picture of a night lily I grew on the night it was blooming. (This mysterious flower only blooms in the nighttime and the bloom only lasts for a few hours.)

By the second day, the flowers will go into my soup. It has detoxifying properties, strengthens one’s lungs, helps one’s immune system, and even benefits one’s skin with its rich collagen. The flower is also both beautiful and yummy!

When Tu Youyou received the Nobel Prize in 2015 for the discovery of Artemisinin, which has saved millions of lives and made her the first Chinese woman to have ever been awarded this honor, I knew that I had to tell her story.

I wanted to tell not only Tu Youyou’s personal story, but also share Chinese culture and precisely, Chinese traditional medicine. Tu Youyou cherished traditional Chinese medical wisdom and embraced its possible use in the modern age. At the heart of my book, TU YOUYOU'S DISCOVERY: FINDING A CURE FOR MALARIA, is the idea of embracing and learning from one’s cultural heritage.

My story begins with Tu Youyou getting very sick with TB at a young age. While antibiotics saved her life, her mother’s herb soups helped slowly nurse her back to full strength. Youyou witnesses the power of both modern and traditional medicine. Inspired, she sets her heart and life goals in science, deciding to study medicine to help save lives.

As the story progresses, Tu Youyou is assigned to head an important government project, one specifically designated to find a cure for malaria to help Vietnam soldiers during the Vietnam War. The first things she does are to study many traditional Chinese medicine books and then travel to visit Chinese medicine practitioners and malaria patients. She hears popular folk sayings recommending a qinghao/sweet wormwood remedy.

Embracing her heritage and learning from her ancestors leads Tu Youyou to an “a-ha moment”. When her experiments fail again and again, she turns to an ancient Chinese remedy book, A HANDBOOK OF PRESCRIPTIONS FOR EMERGENCIES, for inspiration. The book was written by Ge Hong, a pharmacist, 1700 years before. Youyou rereads the 15 Chinese characters specifically describing the ‘Qinghao remedy.'

青蒿一握, 以水二升渍, 绞取汁, 尽服之。

“A handful of Qinghao immersed in two liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all.”

She ruminates over each word in her mind and realizes that the temperature used in the preparation could be the key!

The book ends with Youyou being awarded the Nobel Prize in Science. Basking in the glory of this tremendous honor, Youyou graciously credits Chinese medicine for her amazing achievement. “Artemisinin (is) a gift from traditional Chinese medicine to the world.”

This is the heart of her work and also this book: Embrace your cultural heritage.

My hope is that no matter what background you may come from and whatever you might do with and in your life, value, embrace and learn from your heritage and culture. This will fill your life with deeper meaning and heart, and give your stories an extra set of wings to fly further.

Now it’s your turn. Give it a try:

1) What subjects/foods/traditions/holidays/animals/plants/events hold special meaning to you? Research them and find special persons or amazing subjects. Does the subject share some cultural heritage with you? Think about how you can make your story more personal and unique by utilizing or incorporating these cultural elements into your text, back matter, even your pitch. Write from your personal connection to the subject.

2) Research and brainstorm your own personal family heritage. Where did your parents or grandparents grow up? Have you ever visited that place? What is your most memorable moment/thing? Write that.

3) What is a favorite or interesting story that you heard from your grandparents? Can you reinvent/retell that story? The concept of my debut book, A CASE OF SENSE, came from a folktale I was told by my grandpa. (This book is one of 176 recently banned in Duval, Florida. )

4) Who were your heroes, imaginary or real, when you were little girl/boy? Perhaps you can tell one of their stories. My second book, CAO CHONG WEIGHS AN ELEPHANT, was inspired in this way.

Meet the Author:
Songju Ma Daemicke, a former software engineer, is an award-winning children’s book author. Her latest book, TU YOUYOU'S DISCOVERY - FINDING A CURE FOR MALARIA, is a finalist for the 2023 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Songju’s picture book, CAO CHONG WEIGHS AN ELEPHANT, was a Best STEM book, the Winner of 2018 CALA Best Juvenile Literature, an Outstanding Science Trade book, a Notable-Social-Studies book, and a Mathical Honor Book. Her next book, OUR WORLD: CHINA, is a board book, coming out from Barefoot Books in the Fall of 2023. Learn more at songjumadaemicke.com.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023


by Linda Skeers 

Sometimes the trickiest part of writing isn’t coming up with an idea, or writing and revising, it’s figuring out what to call your masterpiece! Titles can be so frustrating! Here are 8 tips and examples to help you come up with a terrific title that will catch a reader’s (and editor’s eye) and draw them into your book.

1.     Awesome Alliteration

Titles should be fun to say and easy to remember. That’s where alliteration can be an asset! Get out your Thesaurus and play around with key words about your subject. 

FREAKY, FUNKY FISH:  Odd Facts about Fascinating Fish – Debra Kempf Shumaker. 

GIZMOS, GADGETS AND GUITARS:  The Story of Leo Fender – Michael Mahn.

HERO FOR THE HUNGRY: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug – Peggy Thomas.

2. Rhyme Time

A close relative of alliteration is rhyme. It can make the title stand out and be memorable.

JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT:  How One Gutsy Pilot Saves the U.S. Air Mail Service – Jill Esbaum.

JOAN PROCTOR, DRAGON DOCTOR:  The Woman Who Loved Reptiles – Patricia Valdez.

 3.     Quirky Questions

Humans are curious creatures, and you can use that to your advantage. Ask a fun and fascinating question and readers will keep reading to discover the answer.


     WHAT’S IN YOUR POCKET? Collecting Nature’s Treasures – Heather Montgomery.

4.     Terrific Twist     

Turn your subject upside down and inside out – look for a new angle or perspective. This works well if readers already know a little about your subject but you want to dazzle them with new and surprising information.

 BEFORE MUSIC:  Where Instruments Come From – Annette Bay Pimental

 SO MUCH MORE TO HELEN! The Passions and Pursuits of Helen Keller – Meeg Pincus.

 HOW TO BUILD AN INSECT – Roberta Gibson

5. Wonderful Words

Strive for unusual or surprising words that grab a reader’s attention. 



THE GREAT STINK – How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem – Colleen Paeff. 

6.     One Outstanding Word

Sometimes less is more. Is there one distinctive and powerful word that describes your subject?

     UNSPEAKABLE:  The Tulsa Race Massacre – Carole Boston Weatherford. 

     EXQUISITE:  The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks – Suzanne Slade

     CLASSIFIED:  The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer – Traci Sorrell. 

7.     Kid-Friendly

 Let your inner child loose! Be weird, be silly, be unexpected! 

PLAY LIKE AN ANIMAL! Why Critters Splash, Race, Twirl and Chase – Maria Gianferrari. 

BLOOD! Not Just a Vampire Drink – Stacy McNulty.

THERE’S NO HAM IN HAMBURGERS:  Facts & Folklore About Our Favorite Foods – Kim Zachman.

8. Ignore the Rules!

 “And now for something entirely different…” Play around and do your own thing and you might just come up with a tantalizing title all your own!

BLUE:  A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Ocean – Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond.

I AM SMOKE – Henry Herz.

HER RIGHT FOOT – Dave Eggers.

Your turn! Make a list of all the words – especially adjectives and action verbs that connect to your subject. Look for alliteration, rhymes, kid-friendly, silly and unusual words. Say your titles out loud to see how they sound.

 Can you just hint at your subject rather than stating it directly?

 Can you ask a question that demands an answer?

 Does ONE word sum up your idea/subject?

 Don’t tie yourself up in knots when it comes to titles! Play around and have FUN!

Meet the Author: 

Linda Skeers is the author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction including WOMAN WHO DARED: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, & Rebels (Sourcebooks) and DINOSAUR LADY: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist, which is being translated into Japanese. She is a founding member of the Nonfiction Ninjas and has also co-taught the Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop for over 15 years. 

Monday, February 20, 2023

Begin with a Plan: Narrative Nonfiction Picture Books

By Donna Janell Bowman

I know the struggle well. You research like Ken Burns—widely and deeply— and then face the itty space of a picture book. You sit in front of your laptop, notebook, or notecards…and you freeze. Hours or months tick by. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve spent all your writing time scrolling social media and looking up how tall Channing Tatum is (FYI, he’s 6’1”). At some point, the chirp of insecurity drains your writing energy and clobbers you with the realization that you don’t know your story focus. This common problem has a common solution: create a plan.

First, remember this: Narrative nonfiction is a true story. The most satisfying stories are focused and have depth. In overly simplistic terms, a story is about a character who faces obstacles while in pursuit of a goal. Your character might be a wolf on a nighttime hunt; a dog’s adventure during a war; the Apollo 11 mission; the life cycle of a tornado; a community challenge; an unsung hero who did something notable. Whatever the subject, the specific angle or focus you choose should unfold in your story’s beginning, middle, and end. And for character-driven stories, their ordeal should reveal a universal human truth—a relatable theme.
What is a story focus?

Step one of crafting a plan should be nailing down your story focus. I learned this as a newbie writer while working on a little-known story about a founding father—a topic nobody had yet written about. But I was so enamored with this complex and fascinating character, I crammed his entire life into my spare picture book space. I overwrote that manuscript again and again, as a generalist writer instead of a specialist. I ultimately shoved it in a drawer for years. I’ve since learned that choosing a focused angle for a subject is akin to being a specialist, and that’s what picture book narratives require. An example is my book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, about an equally multi-dimensional character. That narrative is laser-focused on the events leading up to Lincoln’s close-call duel. You won’t find anything in it about his presidency or the other layers of his life that I learned about during my very deep research. Focus, focus, focus! 

The journey is the story

I’m a visual thinker, so when I embark on a new narrative nonfiction story idea, I envision my character climbing a metaphorical mountain. The character’s achievement is the metaphorical summit. Before they reach that achievement and stake their place in history and books, the character overcomes documented obstacles—those avalanches of self-doubt, skepticism from others, proverbial skinned knees, and hard-knock failures and restarts. When they get knocked down, the character pulls themself up and keeps going. Their external and internal journey IS the story! Of course, narrative nonfiction is not formulaic, and some narratives don’t follow the traditional three-act structure. But, as I tell my p.b. bio students, starting with a focused story plan is like having a trail map as a guide. When you know the tried-and-true path, you’re less likely to fall off a cliff and into Channing Tatum’s bio.

Tip: When you find yourself lost in too many details or blocked by overwhelm, begin your plan from the story’s ending. Put your character on the summit of their achievement, which is likely your story resolution. From that satisfying perspective, retrace the character’s steps. Don’t get distracted by your character’s other shiny paths! Follow only the footprints that led to THE achievement/resolution/ending. It’s okay if you must incorporate essential details from other aspects of their life, but only enough to give the character and the journey context. You could even try writing the ending scenes of your book first. Planning from the ending to the beginning can be like plugging your destination into a navigation system. 

Need more help boiling your story down to its core? Here are a few overview templates to experiment with. There are subtle differences between them, so try them all until you find the one that fits your needs. Remember that these are intended to be generative, not prescriptive. And, hey, you can use them for fiction, too.  


Despite _______________________________________(insert 1-3 relevant obstacles),

my character, __________________________________(name your character),

chooses to ____________________________________(name specific external plot actions),

and ultimately accomplishes ______________________(insert THE notable accomplishment or story climax), 

thanks to their________________________________(insert 1-3 specific character traits).

Ultimately, they learn _________________________ (story theme).


During a time when _______________________________________(societal expectation),

my character, _________________________________________________(name),

believed _______________________________________ (the belief or goal that contrasted 

others’ expectations). 

Despite ______________________________________ (state 1-3 internal &

external obstacles), (Character name) _____________________________________________

accomplished __________________, thanks to ______________(character traits that reveal the theme).


More than anything, [character name] wants or needs [problem or goal].

While [group or society context that shows what opposed them],

they try to solve the problem by [1st attempt], but they fail because [what went wrong?].

They try again by [2nd attempt but fail because [what went wrong?].

They try again by [3rd attempt] but fail when [insert what went wrong].

Finally, they succeed by [final attempt that’s different] and learn [insert theme]. 

If you were able to concisely fill in the blanks, congratulations, you have distilled your story to its focused core! Now you can flesh it out into a scene-by-scene outline or start writing. But first, buckle up for a bonus exercise. 

Bonus: Turn your Summary into a Pitch

Why wait until your manuscript is completed to write a sparkly pitch that would be perfect for submitting to agents or editors? Write it now as an exercise to boost your confidence and cement your narrative goal firmly in your mind. Simply flesh out your earlier exercise into a ~100-word summary. You can thank me later!

Here’s an example of how I used focus elements to craft a ~100-word summary for the autobiographical picture book that Billy Mills and I wrote, coming in 2024. The tight story focus for Wings of an Eagle: The Gold Medal Dreams of Billy Mills is clear. You know exactly what the book is about, from Billy’s challenges to the themes of chasing a dream and giving back. Is it perfect? Certainly not! There are many ways I could smooth its rough edges. But it’s almost the exact pitch that accompanied the manuscript that was acquired by Little, Brown Books in a pre-empt.

He faced poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was orphaned by age 12, developed a debilitating health condition, and struggled against extreme racism, but Billy Mills persevered against all odds by chasing a dream. In 1964, he became the first American to win Olympic Gold in the 10,000-meter event—the second Native American in history to win Gold in any Track & Field event, after Jim Thorpe. Billy knew then that it was time for his traditional Lakota Giveaway. He stepped off the winner’s podium and into a life of service, helping Indigenous people worldwide.

Now that you’ve added planning tools to your narrative nonfiction writing gear, you’re ready to scale your own picture book mountain without getting overwhelmed or lost. So, what are you waiting for?

Meet the Author:
Donna Janell Bowman is an award-winning central Texas author, speaker, and writing teacher. She’s especially drawn to nonfiction because true stories are often like lightning bugs—too irresistible not to follow. Her books for young readers include STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, illustrated by Daniel Minter; ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S DUELING WORDS, illustrated by S.D. Schindler; KING OF THE TIGHTROPE: WHEN THE GREAT BLONDIN RULED NIAGARA, illustrated by Adam Gustavson; and the forthcoming WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Bill Mills, and illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. 

Friday, February 17, 2023


By Christine Liu-Perkins

I love research--diving in, searching wide and deep, digging up as much treasure as I can find.

But then comes the puzzle of how to shape all that wonderful material into a proposal, book, or article. How do I arrange my notes to facilitate my writing?

While I’m learning about a subject and thinking about what to write, I formulate key questions to focus on. Besides an overall question for the book or article, I develop specific questions for each section or chapter.

These questions arise from what the research says about the topic — what the major issues are, what discoveries have been made, and what puzzles remain to be solved. I also consider what questions readers will be asking and what information they need to understand the topic.

I use these key questions to organize my notes into tables. On the left side, I list the questions. Across the top, I list each source. Then I fill in the cells with what each source says in relation to each question. The cells expand vertically to fit many lines, and my tables become multiple pages long. Usually, I orient the page horizontally. Here’s a sample, without the cells filled in:

Alternatively, if I have more sources than questions, I put sources on the left side and questions across the top.

Besides preparing me to write my first draft, I also find such tables helpful for other purposes. They enable me to:

• Assess if there is enough information to answer a question. Do I need to consult more sources? Ferret out more details?

• Compare and contrast what different sources say. Where do they agree or disagree? How do I make sense of a discrepancy?

• Discover new, unexpected ideas and insights. Combining my notes in this way helps me see connections across sources I didn’t see before.

• Keep track of where I found information for source notes and fact-checking (very important to include page numbers!). They’ve saved me countless times when I know I’ve seen some fact or statement somewhere, but I can’t remember where. They also help when an editor asks a question or requests elaboration.

Give It a Try: Which questions are driving your nonfiction work-in-progress? Create a table listing your questions and sources. Fill in the cells with your notes on what each source says in relation to each question. As you review your table, what do you notice?

Meet the Author: 

Happily, all of Christine’s publications involve lots of research. Her nonfiction book, AT HOME IN HER TOMB: LADY DAI AND THE ANCIENT CHINESE TREASURES OF MAWANGDUI, received starred reviews and appeared on multiple “best books of the year” lists. She has also written articles for Dig Into History and Highlights — about a king buried in a suit of jade armor, the life of an orchestra conductor, visiting her ancestors' graves, and various Chinese history topics. Her forthcoming book, THE QUEST FOR A TANGRAM DRAGON, is scheduled for Spring 2024.

Thursday, February 16, 2023


By Leah Henderson


From a very young age, I have loved getting lost in stories, especially those of people’s lives or of pivotal moments in history. Growing up, my family would travel to spaces and places around the world, learning about these stories I often never heard in school or read in books—about extraordinary people and moments rarely spotlighted. Curious me, would always ask my parents how come I’d never heard of these events or individuals and was often disappointed by their answers.

Then one day my mom said because people rarely look beyond the frame. At the time, I didn’t exactly understand what she meant, but now, no matter what I am writing, those words remain at the forefront of my mind.

Much like a picture frame creates a border, which contains or houses a specific scene, the scope of our stories are generally framed too. And because of this, we need to remember there are people, histories, and experiences beyond the frame of the story that is centered and shared. Perspectives that can add depth and richness to the moment or people discussed or highlighted. When I write, I always try to look beyond the frame of my story and ask myself various questions to help me get started when exploring broader perspectives. First, I’ll identify groups and experiences that surround the frame of my story. Those that would also be affected by what occurs within the frame.

Then I ask:

  1. How does/did the event play a role in their everyday?
  2. How and when can including their voice and perspective enrich the main focus of the piece?
  3. Does the inclusion shift or distract from the focus of the work? If so, are there ways to still note the perspective?
  4. Have I captured authentic (or varied) perspectives by what is included in the overall work? 
  5. Am I able to give an accurate voice to the often overlooked?

Every question may not serve every piece you write, but for me something in them always help to expand my thinking on a topic and I hope the same may be true for you.


Meet the Author: 

Leah is a writer, mentor, and teacher. You can learn more about Leah and her writing at www.leahhendersonbooks.com

Wednesday, February 15, 2023


By Sarah Albee                                                                                       

Finding images for my nonfiction books has become one of my favorite parts of the publishing process. In recent years more and more fantastic resources for free or inexpensive images have become available to writers. And the better your pictures, the more compelling will be your book. Kids are drawn to books with great visuals, and with all the learning challenges they faced during the pandemic, many kids need a lot more visual support to reinforce their reading comprehension. (My teacher-husband calls this “dual coding.”)

So, if you are new to image research, I’m here to tell you: it can feel daunting at first, but it’s really fun! 

First things first: from the moment you start research on a new project, it’s a good idea to start scouting out images, and noting where you found them. Even if the book is a picture book, and will be illustrated, it’s always helpful to collect images for the artist’s reference. More on this later.

Now let’s assume you have an editor who is prepared to make an offer for your book—yay you! We’ll start with what’s known as the deal memo. This is usually a one-page document that stipulates the broad-stroke terms of the final contract. This is the time to negotiate (via your agent if you have one, or directly with your editor if you don’t). Some publishers expect the author to research, secure permissions, and pay for all their own images. Some publishers handle all of these things.

Of the books-with-images (by which I mean non-picture books) that I’ve sold in the past 10–12 years, about half fall into the first category (I pay for the images), and half into the second (the publisher pays). OK, there’s a gray middle area, where publishers may ask the author for image suggestions, but the publisher handles the licensing part.

If the deal memo states that you, the author, are responsible for licensing the images, your first step should be to ask for a photo budget. You may not get one, but it’s important to ask. Agents can be wonderful for this. I have had photo budgets ranging from $1500 to $3500 for my longer books with 50–100 images. Nowadays a budget like this should be adequate for your needs. Fifteen years ago I spent close to $9000 on my first book with images. For my most recent book I think the total was $350.00. That precipitous decline is a combination of me knowing where to look and the fact that so many fantastic images have been released into the public domain in recent years.

The next step, once you’ve (hopefully) secured a photo budget? Finding those images. I won’t attempt to list sources for images here, because every project is different, and every author’s image needs will be specific to their topic, but broadly speaking, your sources for images are:

  • Public domain images
  • Hiring a photographer
  • Asking photographers (or those who hold the copyright) for permission to use their images, sometimes for a fee
  • Paying for stock images

For a how-to on where to find public domain images in high-resolution and how to work with stock photo houses, you can check out my post at Melissa Stewart’s blog here

Also, Stephanie Bearce did a fantastic post on finding PD images on this very forum last year. You can check that out here

Whether you’re responsible for paying for images, making suggestions to the designer,  or simply finding reference for an illustrator, it’s important to be organized from the very beginning of your research. (Trust me on this one, sigh.) As you research, take a screen shot of great images you come across and make a note of the source (all books will have a list of image credits).

Then, start a table. I’ll show you a couple of examples of how I do it.

Here’s an early iteration of one of my tables, as I was just beginning to research images for my (latest) book, TROUBLEMAKERS IN TROUSERS.

The table notes are for both me and my editor, so some of them may not make a lot of sense to you. This is the first page of a 16-page table:


And here’s the first page of a final iteration of a table for my book, POISON.

This table was generated by my editor (but is based on mine—hence the column marked “SARAH #”), and spec’d for the designer. You can see that the images we chose are nearly all in the public domain, or super inexpensive from Shutterstock. The one exception is for the “Teenage Caveman,” which is a movie still that I paid for (I heroically negotiated them down to $150) because I thought it would really add humor and fun to the visuals:


In the final stages of the process you, the author, will be asked to supply both the captions (fun!) and the image credits list (not as fun!) for your book. The more careful you are along the way keeping track of where you found your images, the easier this tedious job will be for you.

Finding and securing permissions for your images can be a steep learning curve, but I promise that ultimately it will be enjoyable and deeply satisfying!


Meet the Author: