Thursday, February 29, 2024


 By Stephanie Bearce

What a great month of nonfiction learning! Do you feel pumped up? Are you ready to write your award-winning book?

Or are you feeling a little lost? Wondering what you should do next?

That’s how I feel after every great learning experience, whether it’s NF Fest, a retreat, or a conference. Now that I’m back at my computer, without the inspiration and encouragement of fellow authors - exactly what am I supposed to do?

Because the “After-Event-Slump” is REAL – (and probably diagnosable by your local critique group…) I’ve come up with a few brain and writing boosters. Try these tricks to get moving on that fantastic new nonfiction project!

1.     Get an accountability partner.

Find a fellow writer who is willing to check in with you at least once a week and make sure you are on track. It’s amazing how productive you get when you must give an accounting to another person. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate meeting or reporting system. Just take ten minutes a week to exchange writing goals and accomplishments with a fellow writer. Accountability builds success.

2.     BIC – Butt in Chair.

Okay – here’s the cold hard truth. Sometimes you need to glue that hinny in the chair and WRITE. It’s a job. Block out your time. Cancel extraneous appointments and start writing that story. If you don’t spend time with your fingers tapping on those computer keys, you won’t have a manuscript to critique or sell. Write the horrible, awful, disgusting first draft and then set it aside. Once you have SOMETHING to work with you can move forward. Revisions are what makes the story shine. But first you must WRITE!!

3.     Dig out old projects.

Use what you’ve learned from NF Fest to revitalize old manuscripts. You’ll be amazed what new ideas pop into your head for how to write that story with a new format. Can you add humor? Turn it into a layered text? Examine the story from a different perspective? Take what you’ve learned and apply it to those old stories, and you may be astonished at the shiny new manuscript you create.

4.     Plug into a writing community.

Part of the joy of NF Fest is learning that there are other writers out there working and struggling just like me. Carry that spirit into your everyday writing life and participate in writing communities.  If you don’t have a critique group – form one! Put out a call on NF FEST FB page to see who would like to form a critique group. Check out your local SCBWI region, and organizations like Storyteller Academy, Manuscript Wishlist, Highlights Foundation, Institute of Writers, Storystorm, and 12x12 challenge.

5.     Plan your next learning event!

Writers need to be learners. While it is a whole very l-o-n-g year until the next NF Fest – there are many other learning opportunities out there. Find a retreat, class, or event that will move you forward in your career and enroll! 

Most important of all – keep telling those true stories. The world needs your voice and perspective.

And keep in touch – let us know how the journey is going! The Nonfiction Ninjas care and we’re here to help.

Happy Writing!

About the Author: 

Stephanie is the award-winning author of 35 books for children. Her newest book, Mary Anning and Paleontology for Kids, will be released by Chicago Review Press in May. You can learn more about Stephanie and the world of writing on the Way-Word Writers Podcast. or follow her X - @Stephanie Bearce,  Insta and FB - @stephaniemowrybearce.



Wednesday, February 28, 2024


By Steve Swinburne

Some books take years and years to evolve, mature, unfold. And some books are born out of spontaneity. For example, the idea for one of my new books, BIG TRUCK SUPER WASH, came to me by pure serendipity. A few years ago, we visited our daughter and her husband living in New York City. As you do, we went out for coffee and bagels one morning and we happened to pass Brooklyn’s Famous Car Wash. Watching the cars go in and out, a thought popped into my head, “Where do trucks get washed?”

I think all stories are born from curiosity. What if a shark played the ukulele? What do sperm whales eat? How large were T Rex eggs? Where do trucks get washed?

While the idea for BIG TRUCK SUPER WASH came out of the blue, my other new book, GIRAFFE MATH, was another matter.

I’ve been trying to write a book about giraffes for over a decade because I think they are ridiculously cool and one of the most unique creatures on the planet. My Vermont buddy, Peter Lourie, and I first proposed The Giraffe Scientist for the Scientist in the Field series with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009. Pete would take pictures and I would write. After HMH and others rejected our project, we tried a new hook, Tall Beauty-Desert Giraffes of Africa. This was to be an adult coffee-table-style book about giraffes living in the Namibian desert. After a year or so of submitting we realized it was not to be.

I couldn’t shake my obsession with giraffes so I tried writing a very simple and short nonfiction manuscript about giraffes. It flopped. About the time GIRAFFES CAN'T DANCE, I thought I’d try a funny book about giraffes. No go. Then I played around with a giraffe joke book. My manuscript was a joke! I even tried a young nonfiction book that I thought might work as a board book. My ingenious title for that one was Giraffes Are Tall. 

After over a decade of giraffe book trial and error, I hit the pause button. Shortly thereafter I was invited to Kenya for an author visit. After the school visit, my wife and I went on a 3-day safari. Seeing giraffes in the wild reignited my fascination for this creature.

When I got back home, I sat down with a blank yellow pad and began making a list of things I knew about giraffes. How tall they were. How long was their tongue. Their weight. How long they sleep. I looked at the page and realized it was all numbers. It was math! It wasn’t long before I connected Giraffe with Math and I had my title, GIRAFFE MATH.

Do you have a manuscript that seems to be stuck? Is it possible your younger nonfiction story is really mid-grade nonfiction? Would lyrical poems best suit your tale about baby dinosaurs? What if you told your examination of recycling practices from the first-person point of view? There’s no ironclad way to write your nonfiction manuscript.

Moral of the story: some ways to tell your story take a very, very long time to congeal, to crystallize. Be flexible. Be patient. Never give up. 

About the Author:

Steve Swinburne has worked as a national park ranger and is the author of more than 40 children’s books. His extensive travels to faraway lands such as Africa, Borneo, Bangladesh and Dubai along with treks through Yellowstone and the highlands of Scotland, have influenced his book projects. Steve researched sea turtles in the Caribbean Islands for Sea Turtle Scientist and Run, Sea Turtle, Run, and he went on safari in Kenya for his nominated STEM title, Giraffe Math. Steve visits nearly 70 schools a year across the United States as well as many international schools. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Heather. For more information, see
Steve blogs at 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024


Throughout my 30-year career, I’ve written nonfiction for major houses like Harpercollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, National Geographic, Random House and Lerner. It’s been fun to imagine myself a part of the big dog team. But publishing more recently with Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot--a smaller house in Seattle—has given me a big new win.

My first book with Little Bigfoot was CRYPTID CREATURES: A FIELD GUIDE (2019). My book about mysterious creatures, TALES OF THE CRYPTIDS (Lerner, 2006) has been a favorite among elementary school readers for almost 20 years. But as those readers aged out, they asked for a meatier bone—a bone I hoped to deliver. Lerner wasn’t willing, but Little Bigfoot was.

Instead of mimicking the 72-page TALES OF THE CRYPTIDS picture book, they allowed me to write the expanded 224 page paperback my older readers wanted. They even let Rick Spears, the illustrator who made TOTC a masterpiece, create original art for the project—a lot of it.

We offered well documented eyewitness reports on 50 different unconfirmed animals with three illustrations for each one—an adult, a baby and a skeletal feature. I loved the book throughout the process, but I expected it to take years to be discovered. Silly me.  

Almost immediately, the book—distributed by Random House/Penguin—sold like gangbusters. After 18 years, TOTC has 145 Amazon reader reviews. Five years into CRYPTID CREATURES, there are more than 700, most of them five stars.

Little Bigfoot promoted the book with gusto, in part because they had fewer titles to present than the major houses might have. My editor was exceptionally gifted and the publicist lined up the best television coverage I’ve ever enjoyed.

I attribute the success to Little Bigfoot’s willingness to take a chance on a book I was convince would find an audience, when the big houses refused. The partnership was so successful, I have another Little Bigfoot book on Washington State’s only dinosaur fossil discovery coming this fall. SEA MONSTERS: A FIELD GUIDE and BABY CRYPTIDS (a board book) will be available from Little Bigfoot in the fall of 2025—all illustrated by Rick Spears.

Publishing with any house is a win, and I’d still work for the big dogs if the opportunity arose. But I’ll never overlook the little guys again. Little Bigfoot may be small by New York standards, but the results have been super-sized for me!  

About the Author:

For the past 30 years, Kelly Milner Halls has crafted high-interest nonfiction books and articles for young readers. Known for well-researched topics, Halls delights in drawing even reluctant readers into the realm of discovery through the exploration of dinosaurs, Sasquatch, mummies, UFOs and dozens of other themes. She makes her home in Spokane, Washington with two daughter and a cat named Sue. She speaks at schools and conferences all over the world. 




Monday, February 26, 2024


By Lisa Amstutz

You’ve done the research. You’ve written, revised, and polished your manuscript until it’s as shiny as you can make it. Now what?

If you want to publish in the trade market, you may want to find an agent. It is possible to sell your work on your own, especially to smaller publishers, and many authors build successful careers that way. However, an agent can open doors for you. They handle submissions and contracts and may help edit your work, give marketing and career advice, offer a shoulder to cry on, and more.

Unfortunately, finding an agent is easier said than done. While agents are more accessible than ever before thanks to the Internet, competition is stiff. Agents receive hundreds if not thousands of queries during open submission periods, all competing for one or two spots on their list. It sounds discouraging, I know. But you can improve your odds!

1. Start with a strong manuscript. Study the market to see what is selling; read new releases to learn what styles are popular and what feels overdone. What will make yours stand out on the shelves?

2. Know your book’s genre and target audience. An agent or editor will have a hard time acquiring a manuscript if they don’t clearly know how to position it in the market.

3. Research agents who represent your genre. QueryTracker is a good place to start. Writer’s Market guides are another good resource. Find out who represents other nonfiction writers too. Google can help, or ask around in the writing community. Check out agency websites for current submission guidelines. 

One caveat here: I sometimes have to reject projects I like—even ones with offers!—because they are too similar to something else on my list. I can’t ethically set up competition between clients. So the ideal agent may represent clients whose work is similar—but not too similar.

4. Write a standout query letter. Start with a pitch that grabs the reader’s attention. Include the genre, age category, and word count of your book as well as several comps. These should be trade books published in the last three years, if possible.

Write a bio that highlights any relevant writing or educational experience. It’s nice to share a personal detail or two, but don’t overshare. Do mention if you’re a member of SCBWI, 12 x 12, or other professional organization.

Keep it professional. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself. Your book likely isn’t the next Harry Potter. But be positive about it—and yourself! Be polite and friendly.

5. Remember that while writing is an art, publishing is a business. Agents have to earn a living too, and many work on commission alone. So they look for books they think they can sell. That means books with an appealing hook, a clear market, strong writing, and a fresh take on a topic.

I see a lot of submissions that, while nicely written, feel vaguely familiar. They’re too similar to other books already on the market to really stand out. The ones that give me goosebumps are those that feel so exciting, lovely, or unique that I am still thinking about them the next day. Those are an easy yes!

Finding an agent is not easy, and it may take time. But if you hang in there and keep learning and growing as a writer and putting your work into the world, I am confident you will succeed!

Meet the Author:

Lisa Amstutz joined Storm Literary Agency in 2021 after sixteen years as a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of more than 150 children’s books for the trade and educational markets and a member of the Nonfiction Ninjas. See for more info.

Friday, February 23, 2024


By Lindsay H. Metcalf

So you want to write a poetic and/or rhyming nonfiction book. How do you balance a factual, compelling story, with lyricism and/or poetry? It can be done!

Sometimes it feels like throwing all the poetic devices in a pot, stirring it up, letting it simmer, not knowing what kind of soup it will make. That’s the beauty of poetry—you can change the recipe AFTER your soup is made.

But there are a few techniques to make the process a bit easier: 

1. Let the story drive the writing. Research is paramount. Do your basic reading, watching, and listening first.

For my upcoming picture book, OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM, illustrated by Xin Li (Astra Young Readers, April 2024), I started with a few ingredients for my soup but didn’t know how to combine them for a delicious meal. I had my inspiration—huge, indoor vertical farms like this one. The idea of converting a sunless warehouse into a plant factory differed greatly from my experience growing up on a traditional wheat, corn, soybean, and milo farm in Kansas. I wanted to compare the two types of farms. I decided that I would challenge myself and do it in sparse, rhyming verse. 

Here’s the opening from my first draft:
Old farm,
field and sky.
New farm,
trays stack high.

Not terrible. But I realized that comparing “old” and “new” would pit them against each other. When really, both kinds of agriculture are based on foundations of innovation.

Changing  “old” to “outdoor” and “new” to “indoor” helped me set the frame and guide my research. This was about similarities and differences. Here’s the final version of that stanza, which is no longer the book’s opening:

Outdoor farm,
field meets sky.
Indoor farm,
trays stack high.

From there, I had to do a lot more research before I could come up with a solid draft.

I saw myself writing an expository compare-contrast book in verse. I wanted young picture book readers to understand how much science and innovation goes into food production, and why. I wanted all the facts to be correct, so I attended conferences with hydro- and aeroponic growers online, connected with experts, and asked questions to fill in the gaps of my understanding.

Beyond a frame for the verse, I needed a scaffold on which to hang the story. I needed a clear opening and satisfying closing. One of the main differences between outdoor farms and indoor is growing seasons: Outdoors, especially in colder climates, growing fields lay dormant for part of the year. Not so with hydroponic and aeroponic farms. If I organized the text around seasons, I could show the progression of growth outdoors while also contrasting it with what happens indoors. I could talk about planting, growing, harvesting, and enjoying the fruits of that harvest. I had my recipe!

2. Make a dummy. Now that I knew the structure and the facts, I could start to puzzle out how the individual page spreads would look. Where’s the poetry, you ask? Nowhere—yet! 

Writing nonfiction poetry—especially rhyming verse—can be painstaking. First creating a dummy, or outline, will save you a lot of headaches as you revise and keep the focus on your subject rather than the wordplay. 

When I say dummy, I’m not talking about making sketches, although you can. I’m talking about envisioning how the story will unfold. Try Tara Lazar’s method of pagination, and lay out the scenes to make sure your book will be well-paced.

Practically speaking, I created digital notecards for each page spread in Scrivener, a program that allows you to move chunks of text around easily and visualize the work as a whole. I jotted down as many compare/contrast ideas as possible, and dropped in some of my research and sources. I reordered the concepts by season. Then it was time to make them rhyme.

3. Write. (Finally!) This, my friends, is the agonizing part. My final manuscript for OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM clocks in at 162 words, but my “overflow” file with draft stanzas is 1,800 words long. Once I sold my book, it took me almost a year of revising with my editor before the manuscript moved on to copyediting. Sometimes I spent days puzzling out a single stanza—like this one:

Rhyme is tricky! But if you know what you want to say, you can look for similes and words that rhyme within a small family of words and concepts. If you haven’t planned what you want to say, the manuscript can careen off the tracks pretty quickly. 

Some tips for writing rhyme:

  •       Beware of forced rhyme. If the writing doesn’t read as you would naturally speak, it’s bad rhyme.
  •       Rhyme and stressed beats must be perfect to be publishable. (Here’s my plug for Renee LaTulippe’s excellent Lyrical Language Lab course, where you’ll learn all things rhyme and meter.)
  •       Rhymezone is your best friend. You can search for synonyms, filter by the number of syllables, stressed beats, parts of speech, and even the starting letter. An “advanced rhyme” filter allows you to see only perfect rhymes.

4. Be honest: Is it fiction or nonfiction? Rhyme and poetry can absolutely be nonfiction. But be honest with your readers if you stray from the facts. In poetry and verse, nonfiction still means not-fiction. Any shred of made-up information means your book pushes it into informational fiction territory. Attributing unverified emotions or actions to a character, writing about someone other than yourself in first person, making up quotes… that’s fiction, even in poetry.

Is this OK? Yes, if the story calls for it! I wrote OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM as nonfiction, but when illustrator Xin Li brought her vision to the book, she created two characters who live on separate farms and have a pen-pal relationship. And you know what? Now I can’t imagine our book any other way. The point is, feel free to write the story that needs to be written. Just be honest and upfront with your readers about what is fact and what is fiction.

Rhyme and poetry can feel intimidating, but once all the ingredients come together, they blend for the heartiest, most delicious stew—the kind your readers will want to taste again and again.

                                                   About the Author: 
Lindsay H. Metcalf is a former journalist who writes nonfiction nd poetry for children. Her books include BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST, a Mighty Girl Best Book of 2020 and Young People’s Literature Award winner from the Friends of American Writers Chicago; FARMERS UNITE! PLANTING A PROTEST FOR FAIR PRICES, a Kansas Notable Book, Friends of American Writers honoree, NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book, and Junior Library Guild selection; and NO VOICE TOO SMALL: FOURTEEN YOUNG AMERICANS MAKING HISTORY, a Kirkus and Chicago Public Library Best Book, Notable Social Studies Trade Book, and NCTE Notable Poetry Book. Her latest title, NO WORLD TOO BIG: YOUNG PEOPLE FIGHTING GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE, is a poetry anthology from the team behind No Voice Too Small (Charlesbridge, 2023). Forthcoming in April 2024 is OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM, a Junior Library Guild selection illustrated by Xin Li (Astra Young Readers). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas with her husband, two sons, and a menagerie of pets. Learn more at and @lindsayhmetcalf on Instagram, X, Threads, and Bluesky.

Thursday, February 22, 2024


By Bonni Goldberg

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve read (so long ago that I can’t remember who wrote it) that applies to non-fiction kidlit writers is don’t squander your research on just one project.

It resonates with me as part of a family that makes it a mission to use every part of a Thanksgiving turkey (turkey sandwiches; soup from the bones, cartilage, and marrow; giblets incorporated into the gravy; the skimmed fat to roast potatoes; and crackling).

We all know that writing a nonfiction picture book takes a great deal of research. Imagine a word count or page count comparison between the research notes and a finished picture book. Most readers would be shocked. Whereas we non-fiction writers would simply nod.

For some of us, research is the best part of the writing process. Others of us set timers for our research sessions to avoid rabbit holes.

Either way, research takes a lot of time. Your time is valuable. So is your research. And not just for your current book project. Besides, why would you keep the cool, unused information you found to yourself?

Before bundling your notes away in a drawer or the cloud, consider publishing some of it in a different format. Here are ten options.

Writing Formats

1. Activity Sheets
Create activity sheets related to your book that further enrich, entertain, or educate a young reader’s experience and make them available on your website. As an example, DONA GRACIA SAVED WORLDS includes the fact that Gracia and her family spoke Ladino. I made an activity sheet introducing young readers to a few Ladino phrases. The activity is also valuable for Jewish educators.

2. Articles
Use your research to write an article for a children’s magazine. Write about an aspect of the topic of your book that you had to leave out or an additional aspect of something in your book that children would also find fascinating.

3. Poetry
Write a poem to submit to a children’s magazine. Let the poem speak to a theme, lesson, or take away from your book. Or write a poem about something you followed down a research rabbit hole.

4. Another Book
Write a book for a different audience that incorporates an aspect of your topic or includes the same topic and focuses on a different theme. I’m working on a middle grade historical fiction that includes Gracia. In the novel, she isn’t the main character. Also, the novel’s themes differ from the picture book.

5. Blog Posts
Did you have an unusual experience while pursuing your research? Write a post about it on your own blog or as a guest blogger on a site related to the topic. I know a writer whose research included discovering some lesser-known historical sites in Ireland. He wrote about them for a travel blog.

6. Activity Book
Compile a group of similar activities, or a mix of different ones, centered on an aspect of your topic: recipes, jokes, experiments, action steps for social change, etc. A funny camel appears in an information fiction project of mine. I’ve collected a lot of camel themed jokes and puns that may find their way into a camel themed activity book.

Alternative Formats

Don’t forget formats other than writing.

7. Podcast
Did you interview some interesting people? If you have their permission, create a short podcast interview series.

8. Thematic Calendar
Each month of your calendar could highlight a seasonal habit of the animal you wrote about. Depending on the topic of your book, you could feature monthly recipes, environmental actions, etc.

9. A Poster
This is the best medium to emphasize a statement or to help young readers remember steps, an affirmation, or important facts. A theme from Doña GRACIA SAVED WORLDS that could make an engaging poster is, every person is like a whole world.

10. A Card Deck
There is no set number of cards in a deck. A card deck would be fun for a book like Tara Lazar’s ABSURD WORDS. In round one each player could pick one word from the deck to use in a sentence and in subsequent rounds two words, three words, and so on until only one player is successful.

Your turn: Pick one format above. Give yourself an hour to develop it using research from your last or latest research.

These are just some ways you can further utilize your research. Please share creative ways you’ve done it or other options you’ve considered.

About The Author

Bonni Goldberg is author of the children’s picture book, Doña Gracia Saved Worlds, illustrated by Alida Massari. Bonni is an award-winning poet and writer and the author of The Write Balance: How to Embrace Percolation, Revision & Going Public, the companion book to the best-seller Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life. You can find more about her at and check out all the Gracia related activities.   

Wednesday, February 21, 2024


By Marcie Colleen

I’ve never considered myself a nonfiction writer. In fact, major imposter syndrome has plagued me while sitting down to write this post. But while I don’t consider myself worthy of blogging for Nonfiction Fest, the truth is, I am a writer who has always followed her curiosity. And in 2016 my curiosity led me away from writing funny, pun-filled stories to write a narrative nonfiction picture book about the 9/11 Survivor Tree.

Never in a million years did I think I would write a story centered on the events of September 11th. For one, it was too emotionally charged for me. And two…nonfiction was totally out of my comfort zone. But when I first heard the story of the tree, I knew right away it needed to be a picture book. Someone needed to write it. And truthfully, I hoped that someone wasn’t me.

I had never written a narrative nonfiction before, and I had many doubts—mainly about my skills and ability. Did I have the poetic chops I felt it needed to be told? Was it my story to tell? What right did I have?

For the better part of a year, I held onto this story. Every so often it would pop into my mind, and I would quickly squash it. There was no way I could write it. I simply didn’t know how.

One day, shortly after I had moved from New York City to San Diego, I was having lunch in Balboa Park with a writing friend who was in from out of town. While catching up, the conversation inevitably turned to “What are you working on?” I shared some of what I had been mulling about in various stages. And then I found myself sharing the story of the 9/11 Survivor Tree. I could feel myself getting more and more passionate as I went along telling her about how this Callery pear tree was the last living thing to be pulled from the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center. How it was taken to the Bronx for rehabilitation. About how workers laid cinder blocks at the base of the tree in memoriam of the home the tree once knew. How the Tree didn’t grow or bloom until a dove nested in it and then it thrived. And how it was replanted at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan in time for the 10th anniversary. 

When I finished my friend paused, tears in her eyes, and said, “You need to write that story.” I think there was a part of me that agreed but the doubts flooded back in. However, my friend wouldn’t listen to excuses.

After we finished our lunch, we exited the café. We paused to talk for another moment and that’s when I looked to the left of me and standing proudly was a Callery pear tree. The same kind as the Survivor Tree. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t noticed one here. Only in New York City where they often lined the sidewalks. My friend insisted it was a sign. And a part of me wondered, was it? But I shrugged it off and we walked on.

Later that night I was once again in Balboa Park on a nighttime stroll with my husband. We were recapping our day for each other, and I told him about the conversation with my friend and how she was insistent that I tell the story of the 9/11 Survivor Tree. Just as I ended my recap, we turned to head back home and that’s when I saw them. Lining the pathway for as far as the eye could see—Callery pear trees in full bloom, their white blossoms shimmering in the moonlight! Why hadn’t I seen them before? Had they waited until now to reveal themselves? Was the tree choosing me?

This time I took it as a definite sign.

From that moment on, I dedicated myself to researching and drafting a lyrical narrative nonfiction telling of the story of the 9/11 Survivor Tree.  I looked for support and resources where I could, taking classes on poetry and webinars on nonfiction writing. And through the process I cried a lot.

In 2021, in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, SURVIVOR TREE, illustrated by Caldecott Honor winning Aaron Becker was published by Little, Brown. It’s a book I am super proud of. And while I still don’t consider myself a nonfiction writer, I am sure glad I followed my curiosity along that tree-lined path. I hope this post encourages you to do the same.


About the Author: 

Marcie Colleen is a multi-published author of picture books, chapter books, and comics. Her picture book, SURVIVOR TREE, illustrated by Aaron Becker, was her first foray into non-fiction and garnered many accolades, including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, the Horn Book, Booklist, and Kirkus. Additionally, SURVIVOR TREE was named a 2022 Notable Social Studies Trade Book from the National Council for Social Studies, a 2022 Children’s Choice book from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a Bank Street College Best Book of 2022, a 2021 Best Nonfiction Picture Book by the Nerdy Book Club, and a prestigious ALA 2022 Notable Book. Visit to learn more.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

BEYOND THE STOCK PHOTO: Tracking Down and Getting Permission for a Photo of a Rare Animal

By Abi Cushman

My book, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD: A  [Not So] Serious Guide, is a funny, illustrated guide to the wonderfully weird marsupial known as the wombat. But although most of the book is illustrated, I wanted to show photos of actual wombats in the back matter so kids could see the real thing.

“No problem!” I thought confidently. I’d worked as a web designer for over fifteen years, so I was used to searching for images in the public domain or purchasing stock photos for use on my websites.

I just needed one photo of each of the three wombat species. Easy peasy, right?

Stock Photo Websites

Right off the bat, I found many fantastic stock photos of the bare-nosed wombat and the southern hairy-nosed wombat on And they were affordable as well.


Bare-nosed wombat                               Southern hairy-nosed wombat

Then I did a search for photos of the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and this is where it got tricky. Northern hairy-nosed wombats are critically endangered with only 300 alive today. This species of wombat does not do well in captivity, so there are no northern hairy-nosed wombats at any zoos. They only live in two protected areas in Queensland, Australia. Only government officials and a handful of volunteers are allowed into those areas.

Here is a video of the elusive northern hairy-nosed wombat:

Northern hairy-nosed wombats look similar to southern hairy-nosed wombats, but there are slight differences, such as the shape and breadth of their snouts, their coloring, their size, and the length of their ears. After studying lots of images and videos of both hairy-nosed species, I started becoming adept at picking out the differences. So when I searched iStockPhoto for northern hairy-nosed wombats, I could see the results actually showed southern hairy-nosed wombats.

My next step was to try more expensive stock photo sites like Getty Images or Alamy. And lo and behold, success! Sort of. Both of these sites did have photos of the northern hairy-nosed wombat, but two of the images showed the wombat in a cage, and there was no way to crop it creatively so you couldn’t see the metal bars around it. Out of context, these images really didn’t fit in with the photos I had of the other wombat species, which showed them in a more natural setting, definitely not caged.

There was one photo where the wombat was not in a cage, but the image was kind of dark. I decided to save it as a last resort and keep searching for a better photo.

Public Domain Photos

My next step was to look for images in the public domain. Sometimes photos that government officials take are released into the public domain.

I looked on the northern hairy-nosed wombat page on Wikipedia, which often displays public domain images, and I found this:

By Eva Hejda, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

That looked like a southern hairy-nosed wombat to me, despite it being labeled otherwise. And there was no further information, like where the photo was taken, so I did not want to use it.

Next, I looked at the Queensland Government’s website, and to my delight, they had lots of very adorable photos of northern hairy-nosed wombats.Yay! Now to get permission!

I used their contact form and attempted to select the correct department. I mentioned that I’d written a book about wombats being published by HarperCollins (yes, I name dropped) and asked if I could use one photo for the back matter of the book. And then I sat back and waited for their response.

And waited. And waited.

After a few weeks of waiting, I decided to try a different tack.

Contact Photographers

I emailed a few photographers of northern hairy-nosed wombat images that I found on Google image search. In my emails, I name dropped my publisher again, and mentioned I’d be willing to pay them a fee for use of one of their photos.

And then I waited. And waited.

Get on the Phone

Well, I got tired of waiting, so I decided to call the Queensland Government. After being passed from department to department, and becoming increasingly aware of my American accent as I repeated my query each time to a new person, I was told that someone would get in touch with me via email.

And then, I got an email! But it wasn’t from the Queensland Government, it was from one of the photographers I had emailed, and he was willing to work with me! He had been a volunteer at Epping Forest National Park and had captured many beautiful photos of northern hairy-nosed wombats. After negotiating a fee, I was able to choose one from his collection. Success!

And then, wouldn’t you know, an official from the Queensland Government got back to me a few days later with an image. They asked that I credit the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science, as well as the photographer. And guess who the photographer was? Yes, the same one I’d been in contact with.

So did I get double permission to use the photo? Yes. Could I have perhaps not had to pay the photographer a fee if I had been more patient? Yes. But did I mind? No, because I think the photographer deserved to be compensated for his work, and in our correspondence, he shared some great stories about the wombats living at the park.

And as a result of my extra effort in tracking down and getting permission to use the photo, I’m thrilled with the back matter of WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD. All the photos look great, and I have peace of mind knowing that they accurately depict each species.


About the Author: 

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED!, ANIMALS GO VROOM! and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD. Her upcoming books include THE QUIET FOREST, written by Charlotte Offsay, and FLAMINGOS ARE PRETTY FUNKY, the second book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. When she’s not making books, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her family.

To learn more about Abi and her books, visit her website at If you like secrets, exclusive sneak peeks, wombats, and special giveaways, subscribe to her newsletter

Monday, February 19, 2024


By Maria Marianayagam

STEM and SEL are often designated as two separate categories when authors consider what type of book they want to write. (For those who aren’t familiar, STEM refers to “science, technology, engineering, and math,” and SEL is short for “social-emotional learning.”) When we think of SEL books, we may think of titles like Lisa Katzenberger’s EVERYTHING WILL BE OK and Cori Doerrfeld’s THE RABBIT LISTENED. When brainstorming STEM titles, books like Melissa Stewart’s WHALE FALL or Rebecca E. Hirch’s RISE TO THE SKY: HOW THE WORLD'S TALLEST TREES GROW UP may come to mind. Today I want to talk about a different category: one that marries SEL and STEM into powerful stories for young readers.

Before we do that, I want to touch on how important SEL is in STEM careers. As someone who worked as an engineer for a decade, the ability to collaborate with others, deal with frustration, persevere through challenges, and listen to other people’s opinions, were all critical parts to success. These are skills any scientist or science-enthusiast needs to hone and I believe introducing these skills from the start can set kids up for success. So, by combining social emotional learning with STEM themes in children's books, we can not only create engaging narratives that spark curiosity about science, technology, engineering, and math but also delve into the complexities of human emotions and relationships. 

I find that this is already done quite well in picture book biographies. Often, those stories share the accomplishments of an individual, but the main story grapples with the journey and the tools these characters used to overcome obstacles. I believe the same can be true for other science-themed books. For example, in my debut picture book, THE AMAZING POWER OF GIRLS (releasing in June with Sourcebooks eXplore), I wanted to explain the forces of physics—gravity, buoyancy, magnetism, etc. to young readers. But I also wanted girls to feel empowered to pursue a STEM career since it’s still a very male-dominated field. So, I personified each girl as a force and I used the text to doubly explain what the forces do while showcasing the powerful characteristics of a girl. An example below.

In my next STEM/SEL picture book, WAIT TILL YOU'RE OLDER, releasing with Sourcebooks eXplore in 2025, I introduced STEM into what felt like more of an SEL story about a younger sibling wanting to play with her older brother’s big toy and being to told to wait till she’s older. Her reaction? Try to build a time machine. And throughout the story, she tries a variety of time-travel theories to accomplish this, including: trying to travel faster than light, looking for wormholes, etc.

Other great examples that incorporate SEL concepts into STEM themes:

  • EXCEPT ANTARCTICA  by Todd Surgell
  • FUSSY FLAMINGO  by Shelley Vaughan James and illustrated by Matthew Rivera
  • PLUTO GETS THE CALL by Adam Rex and illustrated by Laurie Keller
  • THE QUESTIONEERS  series by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts
  • THE FIRE OF STARS  by Kirsten Larson and illustrated by Katherine Roy
  • CODING TO KINDNESS  by Valerie Sousa and illustrated by Jennifer Leban
  • FAIRY SCIENCE  by Ashely Spires
  • COUNT ON ME  by Miguel Tanco
  • DO TREES HAVE MOTHERS? by Charles Bongers

As an author, I love creating stories that intertwine the wonders of science and the nuances of human emotions. I hope this post helps you consider incorporating SEL elements into your NF stories.


About the Author:

Maria Marianayagam is a Tamil Sri Lankan-Canadian children's book author. She was born in India and grew up in Nigeria and four provinces across Canada.  Maria is a former chemical engineer who fell in love with children’s books (again!) after becoming an Amma (mom). Maria enjoys writing lyrical picture books centered on STEM, faith, and South Asian culture, as well as high concept middle-grade grounded in culture. The first two installments of her debut board book series, BABY HOPE and BABY COURAGE (WorthyKids/Hachette), and her debut picture book THE AMAZING POWER OF GIRLS (Sourcebooks eXplore) release in 2024.


Friday, February 16, 2024


by Christine Liu-Perkins                                          

One indispensable writing strategy for me is journaling. Until I write them down, my thoughts are usually a jumbled, incoherent mess. Processing them through journaling lets me see what I’m thinking and helps me develop my ideas. My “Thinking Journals” are plain spiral notebooks that I write in with a black Parker Jotter pen. Their simplicity frees me to be open and imperfect.

What do I write about in my Thinking Journals?

  • I record key pieces of information from research that I want to remember. I ponder and analyze them. I consider why they are important and how they frame other pieces of information.
  • I ask questions and try to answer them. What do I not yet understand? Where am I confused? What else do I need to learn about?
  • I create lists, concept maps, comparison charts, timelines, and other graphics to organize information and help me see patterns.
  • I identify themes that I see emerging from the research. At some point I decide which theme will be the center of the book.
  • I express problems, frustrations, and disappointments and talk myself through ways to solve them. I also take note of progress, insights, and encouraging experiences.
  • I brainstorm different ways of approaching and structuring parts of the book. What are the pros and cons of each? What best fits what I want the book to be?
  • I’ll freewrite several different opening sentences for a chapter or section. Which sentence best leads into the material? Which one is most interest-grabbing? Which one invites me to keep writing?
  • I consider the audience. What will readers want to know? What background information do they need to understand the book? What do I want them to gain from reading the book?
  • I’ll try whatever helps! I’m no artist, but once I made a sketch with stick figures that turned into the conclusion for my first book. For my upcoming book, I wrote out a song for one of the characters.

Like an incubator, a Thinking Journal is where I develop a book. It gives me space to explore and process ideas without feeling pressure to make them presentable to anyone but me. By the time it comes to write, I’m well prepared to turn my thoughts into words for readers.

What are your experiences with journaling? How have you found it useful in your writing?

Meet the Author:

Christine Liu-Perkins is a founding member of the Nonfiction Ninjas. She is the author of AT HOME IN HER TOMB: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui, which received starred reviews and appeared on multiple “best books of the year” lists. She has also written articles for Dig Into History and Highlights. For her upcoming book, THE QUEST FOR A TANGRAM DRAGON (Bloomsbury, August 2024), she created numerous tangram configurations that she traced into a Thinking Journal while travelling overseas.  Learn more at .   

Coming this fall from Bloomsbury 
Words by Christine Liu-Perkins and illustrations by Lynn Scurfield