Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Power of a Mentor

By Lisa J. Amstutz 

When I look back over my 15-year writing journey, one thing that stands out is the importance of writing mentors. These writers took the time to teach and listen, and consistently pointed me in the right direction. I would not be where I am today without their guidance. 

My first mentor, Joanne, was a local writer whose work I admired. I screwed up the courage to invite her to lunch, and her encouragement was the push I needed to start submitting my work. Her invitation to a local writer’s group also opened a door to the writing world for me.
I met my next mentor at my first SCBWI meeting. As I listened to the critiques, I quickly realized how much I had to learn about writing for children. When the moderator mentioned a class she was teaching, I signed up on the spot. I continue to benefit from Laurie’s wisdom and insights to this day.
My agent has been another mentor to me. Before becoming an agent, Vicki modeled professionalism and a sincere desire to help other writers as our region’s SCBWI advisor. She continues that work today as an agent, and I continue to benefit from her example and direction.
There are too many others to list them all here. But I am so grateful to each one! The children’s writing community is amazingly generous and helpful.
So what should you look for in a mentor? To me, a good mentor is someone who is kind but honest about your work. They offer wise counsel and career advice. They help make you a better writer and human being.
A good mentor models success. They don’t need to be a New York Times bestseller, but they consistently achieve results in their own life in areas you want to emulate.
And finally, after listening and giving feedback, a good mentor will step back and let you make your own choices. Ultimately, it is your work and your career. You need to do what feels right to you.
The other side of this equation, of course, is becoming a mentor yourself. Wherever you are on your journey, don’t forget to extend a hand back to someone a step behind. There is nothing more rewarding than helping others succeed!
Who have been the mentors in your life? How have they helped you? Take a moment to thank them, and maybe give them a shout-out in the comments!

Lisa is the author of more than 100 books and mentors others through agenting and teaching. You can learn more about her work at https://www.lisaamstutz.com/.


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.