Tuesday, April 25, 2023


By Peggy Thomas

Today, we're talking to nonfiction author Deb Aronson

Deb lives in the Chicago area and writes lively articles for academic institutions and other nonprofits, but her true passion is sharing with children stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. She's the author of ALEXANDRA THE GREAT: THE STORY OF THE RECORD-BREAKING FILLY WHO RULED THE RACETRACK, which Deb describes as a "girl power" story even if the girl in question has four legs and hooves! Deb is a network representative for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and her newest nonfiction title comes out in May from Bedazzled Ink. 

Q: Hi Deb! Could you tell us about your newest book, and what sparked the idea?

A: My newest book is titled, HOW TO RAISE A RHINO and it is a biography of a woman named Anna Merz. Anna retired from Ghana to Kenya, discovered that black rhinos were almost extinct and created a sanctuary for them. Along the way she raised an infant rhino to adulthood, which involved both hilarity and heartbreak.

I first learned about Anna by reading her obituary (she died in 2013). It was accompanied by this photograph by Boyd Norton. Wouldn’t that catch your imagination?! I thought her story would appeal to MG readers.

Q: What was your research process like?

A: First, I googled. I read every obituary and news article I could find. Although she wasn’t “famous famous,” Anna was well known and respected and so many news outlets and web sites had stories about her. In the course of that work I found her god daughter, who she was very close to, as well as the founder of Rhino Resource Center (Kees Rookmaker), to whom she had donated all her journals. He scanned many pages and shared them with me. Anna also had written two books about her life and adventures, which I found and read. I traveled to England to meet her god daughter (Naomi Campbell but not the super model) and a couple other people who knew her. They pointed me to more people, including the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), which hosts special trips to the sanctuary for zoo keepers, and a few others. Next thing I knew, I was on a trip to Kenya, to the actual sanctuary, together with several people who had known Anna. I met more people there at the sanctuary, including both several trackers and Ian Craig, on whose land the sanctuary was established.

Q: Why did you choose to write this book for the mid-grade market?

A: The middle grade market is a catchall between picture books and YA. You have early independent readers who have conquered chapter books, as well as readers who are just about to launch into the YA world. That is a vast range of readers, and that makes it a very important phase. I was a strong reader growing up but never found biographies of ordinary people to read. It was only people like Marie Curie, whose life was hard and tragic and driven, which made her feel like an impossible role model.

To show readers at this level the kinds of lives people can make for themselves, if they have imagination and passion, is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Q: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you, and how do you get through it?

A: The hardest part for me is logistical — keeping track of all the pieces and parts of my research and of my drafts and worrying that I’ve lost track of some critical piece of information. I’ve tried apps like Evernote but I have yet to figure out a really good systematic way that prevents me from often throwing up my hands at the disarray, especially because I have learned I do best with old-fashioned pen and paper systems. I have come to accept that the only way around this struggle is through. In addition, my beloved critique group friends helped keep me going, as did putting the manuscript away for a while.

Q: What did this project teach you about yourself or your writing process?

A: Well, I never thought about this, but looking back I think I’ve discovered that I am more persistent than I’ve given myself credit for. This book idea was born in 2013, when Anna died. It took about four years to research and write it. Then I found an agent and she had it for about two years. Despite one close call she found no buyers. We parted ways, I went back to trying to sell it. I often wanted to give up, but instead I made a spreadsheet of potential agents and publishers, realized I hadn’t reached out to as many as I thought and kept going. I also want to mention here that I wouldn’t have gotten this far without my critique partners.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I have an almost complete biography of African-American lawyer, civil rights activist, poet and Episcopalian priest, Pauli Murray. This has been a real act of love for me because I have several personal, though somewhat loose, connections to Dr. Murray, who has been recognized, among other things, as an early transgender advocate.

Thanks Deb!

Check out Deb Aronson's website, and follow her on Twitter Facebook, and Instagram.




Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Kids Connect to Kids

By Linda Skeers 

Tackling a picture book biography can be daunting! You’ve done your research, read books

and articles, taken notes and have stacks of facts. Sometimes too many facts. Way too many! How can you sum up a person’s life for a child?

       One way is to narrow your focus on just one aspect of their life – their childhood. Children love to know what people were like when they were their age. It makes an instant connection between your subject and your reader.   

       As you research, look for anecdotes, stories and incidents from your subject’s childhood.
Keep these questions in mind --What inspired their future endeavors? Was their skill, talent or aptitude apparent in their early years? Did they have a defining moment that led them down a particular path? Was their future success or achievement hinted at years before they discovered their life’s purpose?

     Here are a few outstanding mentor texts that focus on a person’s childhood:

Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim
     An inspirational story highlighting Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s desire to encourage people to think, feel and act. But who can he practice his empowering speeches on when he’s just a young farm boy?
     The flock of chickens he’s tending!

Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglas by Lesa Cline-Ransom
     As a child, Frederick Douglas dreamed of a future where everyone was treated equal. He knew he had to do one important thing before that could happen – learn to read. No matter how difficult or how many obstacles he faced, he knew he MUST succeed.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
       Almost all children have a favorite stuffed animal. So did Jane Goodall. She adored her stuffed chimpanzee which led her to a life devoted to studying, living among and helping animals.

Before He Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford
       John Coltrane LOVED all the sounds of his childhood. And what he heard as a young boy helped shape his amazing musical career.

       Dig deep and search for those special childhood moments in a person’s life that have shaped their future. Having a child read about someone’s younger days and CONNECT to them is an amazing accomplishment. Imagine them closing a biography and thinking, “Hey, they are just like me!” or “I’ve done that, too” or “I know how that feels.”

     Not only will your reader gain a deeper understanding into someone else’s life, they will believe that they too, can do amazing things in their life.
     Because after all, we all started out as kids.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Who's There?

 by Christine Liu-Perkins

​Powerful nonfiction draws readers in by exploring some aspect of being human. As Susan

Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato wrote, ". . . you find your narrative by humanizing your story" (
Thinking Like Your Editor, p. 192).
Even in writing about science and nature, "Create a connection between your subject and your reader's life," advised Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas (Anatomy of Nonfiction, p. 155).
I learned the value of building on a human connection when I was assigned to write about the Temple of Heaven located in Beijing. My first draft described the temple's architecture and its (very cool) hidden symbolism. I used lively language and a sense of progression. I included wow-type details. Surely readers would find the temple as awesome as I did.
But in reading it over, I sensed that draft still lacked something. It was dry; it was boring. What was missing?  
I pulled back and started wondering, WHO used the temple? What did they use it for?
I dug deeper into the research. The answer was emperors. Considered to be mediators between heaven and earth, the emperors themselves performed ceremonies at the Temple of Heaven. These ceremonies involved three days of fasting and mental preparation, a parade of some 3,500 people, and elaborate sequences of offerings and prayers.
Eureka! Here was the focus I needed to help readers connect to the temple. Describing the emperor's actions and his desire for heaven's blessings brought the article to life and gave readers a way to feel the significance of the temple.
Question for you: in your current project, can you amplify a human connection to deepen the reader's experience?

Christin Liu-Perkins writes both nonfiction and fiction. You can learn more about her work at https://christineliuperkins.com/


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Try Nonfiction lite!

 By Peggy Thomas

For anyone who is leery of leaping into nonfiction writing, I’d like to suggest Nonfiction-lite. Adding a nonfiction element to your fictional project. One way is by adding nonfiction back matter. This works especially well if there is an historic or scientific element to your story.

For example, in 
How Fire Ants Got Their Fire, a fictional origin story, fellow ninja Susan
Kralovansky added a recipe for the main character’s “prizewinnin’ chili.” But what I like most is the creative way that she included facts about fire ants on the end pages. Each fact is displayed on a chili pepper.

My good friend Kathleen Blasi’s sweet story called Milo’s Moonlight Mission follows the

main character, Milo, as he helps his mother do all of her chores so she can accompany Captain Milo on his space launch. But when they hear about a meteor storm, they prepare for a new mission. Based on a real experience, Kathy added back matter that explains what a comet is and when to watch the Leonid Meteor shower each year. There is even a call to action as she asks readers if they will set their alarm to watch the next one.

One more example comes from fellow Ninja Lisa Amstutz. Her picture book

Finding a Dove for Gramps, follows a boy and his mother as they participate in the Christmas Bird Count. Tension rises when the one bird they most hope to find proves elusive. In the back matter Lisa added a short description of the Bird Count, how to join, and most fun of all, a checklist of birds so readers can join in the hunt.
Adding nonfiction back matter to a fictional story adds educational value that librarians and teachers love, and added sales value that editors appreciate.

So, what kind of back matter could you add to your writing project? A recipe, craft, game, fun facts, background info, call to action…?

Leap in! Nonfiction is fun!

Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of award-winning nonfiction titles including Lincoln Clears a Path.