Children’s Nonfiction: The Path to Great Variety

I’ll be the first to admit it. I periodically search my name on Amazon and Barnes and Noble to see if any of my new book covers are up. Some series take longer than others to finalize so I’m never 100% certain when the cover will make an appearance. Yesterday I got a nice surprise – four at once. And they are a study in the great variety of books I get to write.

I finished American Life in the 1970s something like 18 months ago. This was one of the more difficult books that I’ve ever worked on and not because the topic itself is brutal. But how do you summarize fashion, science, or the inventions of the 1970s? There is so much that you could include that it is hard to find examples that were meaningful then and will still be meaningful to young readers today. In truth, I had forgotten how it is to write what I mentally refer to as a “survey book.” It was a lot of fun to research.

Way back when, we used to have fish. In recent years we’ve had one goldfish that was in a banquet center piece. Don’t even get me going on how much I disliked this. Many of the fish didn’t even survive the meal but ours lived for something like 2 years. Over the years we had fancy goldfish, neons, guppies, plecos, and even a piranha. Researching this particular book gave me the opportunity to dive into all things fish and research species I had never even considered keeping. The fish on the cover is a betta which have always fascinated me although I’ve never kept one. This was another book that was difficult simply because there was so much information that could go into it and fish names are so inconsistent. Just settling on what to properly call some fish was a job.

After writing Fish, I got to work on Activision Blizzard. I’m a casual gamer so I had some of the lingo down but learned a lot more working on the book. It helped that my lead editor is a more serious gamer. I also consulted with my son and his friends who fed me a steady stream of articles on the company. Note: People who says that young men are self-absorbed should have seen the articles that they sent me on harassment and various controversial decisions made my upper level management. It is because they love gaming that they care because they appreciate the work and imagination that goes into the games. I play Call of Duty but have to admit that I’m disinterested in Overwatch. The graphics are amazing and I find the characters interesting but it all moves too fast for me. “Your good at the slow, steady characters, Mom.” I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere. And he’s not wrong.

Last but not least is Racial Violence. This was another one that was brutally difficult to write both because of the topic and because, sadly, there is so much that could go into the book. I hope that people don’t simply look at that chapter titles and assume that certain material isn’t in there because my editors helped me find ways to work information into the history chapter and into the sidebars.

If you are someone who loves to dive into research and root out the facts about a topic, and you are interested in a wide variety of things, consider writing children’s nonfiction. You’ll get to explore so many subjects as you seek for ways to bring them to life for young readers.


Do You Hear That? It Might Be Opportunity Knocking

Should your answer be yes or no?
Photo by Dids on

As a working writer, I consider this my day job. That means that I approach it like a job. Five days a week, I make progress at writing, marketing, and other related tasks.

Recently I’ve taken more time off than usual to help with a massive move. I was responsible for a small library which I had to thin, pack, and am now unpacking. Unfortunately, during this same time, we had to have our roof replaced. Then the kitchen sink quit draining and the plumber discovered a collapsed pipe leading from the sink to the stack.

To put it simply, today I can get back to my writing but I also need to look for some tasks that are going to bring in a fairly quick income. Just today I spotted a call for regular writers for the writing site, The Hive. They want a commitment for 12 posts a year minimum. I know I can do it but I’m also trying to get my book and proposal done.

As is so often the case, I find myself deciding which path is the path for me. The right path this week is different than it would have been last week. Here are three things to ask yourself when you are presented with something and have to decide if it is an opportunity or a distraction.

Does this meet my long term goals?

What are your long term goals? Your response may include something that you want to get done this year — that draft of your novel or a new website. Or it might focus on where you want to be in five years — writing books for young readers.

Will it help get you there?

Does this meet my immediate goals?

My immediate goals are to finish that book and proposal. Yours may be to sign up for a class or make some connections in the writing community. Will the possibility you are considering help with what you want to do now?

Do I hate this type of work beyond all reason?

This may seem like a strange question but there are types of writing that each and every one of us does not want to do. What it is for me may be different than what it is for you. I’ve done test writing but cannot write solid test questions to save myself. They are really, really bad.

Strictly speaking, the Hive opportunity will not help me get that book done or the proposal either. But it could help bring in some income over the long term. That’s one of my immediate needs. And? I like blogging. I’m good at it and am capable of coming up with a lot of ideas.

What opportunity have you been contemplating? What answers do you have when you consider it with these three questions in mind?


Idea Generation Wondering the Bookstore Aisles

Just over a week ago, I won a Half Price Books gift card. Heaven! I promised that I would post a photo of my haul. How can 1 book be a haul? When it is full of photos and stories.

I’m amazed at how much of this is new to me. Sure, there are things that are familiar like Phil the Gorilla. I never saw Phil in person but people still talked about him when I was little. They’ve also included my G-ma’s favorite Mavrako’s Candy. Mavrako’s is still around but now it is part of Crown Candy. I learned that when I toured the latter.

But there are many other things in the book, including restaurants and motels, that are completely new to me. Every writer knows that coffee table books like this one are simply bound writing prompts.

But the best thing about going to a bookstore like Half Price Books, that features used books, is that not every title there is a current best seller. Sure, you’re going to find the books that are hot right now, but you are going to find a lot of older books and reprints. You may find out about something that wasn’t even on your radar yet still yields an idea.

For me, that came from The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book. Now, I may get the date wrong, but it was originally published in something like 1910. The point of books like this one was to prove that these women weren’t abandoning their families to forage in urban parks. They still cared about their children even as they worked to get the vote.

The first question that came to my mind was – how many suffragettes actually cooked? Didn’t many of them have “a girl” to do this for them? I could be utterly and entirely wrong but now I want to know!

While the quick research I did didn’t reveal whether or not my hunch is correct, I did learn that suffrage cookbooks were a way for these women to raise money to support the cause. Many also contained more than a little propaganda.

What about a secret message? A hidden agenda?

And this is how ideas are born. It was definitely worth the time spent wondering the aisles at Half Price Books.


Reading Level

Writing and rewriting are required to find the right reading level.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on

Working with my current manuscript, the goal is a third grade reading level. Third grade is not my sweet spot. I can hit eighth grade with no effort. Third grade takes a bit of work.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get it right.

Locate a Mentor Text

I am big on mentor texts. You need to start with a good feel for your target reading level. To achieve this, I will start with a mentor text. That means that I need to find something written at the same reading level, but it also needs to be the same type of book. If I’m writing nonfiction, I want a nonfiction mentor text. For fiction? Obviously I look for fiction.

Type It Out

Once I find a mentor text, I don’t just read it. I really want to study it, so I type it out. That sounds like a bit much but it is a good way to get a feel for the sentence structure. When you type the mentor text out, you notice things that you don’t notice when you read. How many phrases are there in a sentence? Are there contractions? It also gives you a good feel for the variety of the sentences in the work.

Sentence Variety

Even if every sentence in a piece is subject + verb + object, you can find ways to work in variety. After all, if you are writing a book about bees, you don’t want every sentence to begin with “The bees” or “Bees.” You need to shake things up.

How do you do this? It depends on your topic. For bees, you might start a sentence with “The queen bee” or “worker bees.” The point is that you need to create as much variety as possible. It will keep your writing interesting and your reader interested.

Test It

Once you’ve completed a draft, it is time to test it. I use the ATOS reading level test that you can find here. Before your run your text through ATOS, save it as a test document. Remove footnotes and headings. It should also be single-spaced.

Fix It

Don’t be surprised when your test results don’t show the reading level that you want. Revision is part of the writing process after all. If you need to simplify things, split compound sentences in two. Use smaller words and fewer phrases. Get rid of parenthetical statements. If you need to raise the reading level, do the opposite.

When you think your done, read it aloud or have Word read it to you. No really. This is going to catch places that are goofy including things that are phrased strangely. And that can be one of the biggest drawbacks in having to massage the reading level.

But getting it right and making sure that it sounds good are well worth your effort


How to Avoid Dating a Timely Topic

Yesterday I finished reading Celeste Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) Our Missing Hearts. If you haven’t read this book yet, it is an excellent study in how to create a story around a politically charged topic without dating it.

The protagonist of this story is twelve-year-old Bird Gardner, the son of a librarian who was once a linguist and a Chinese-American poet. After one of this mother’s poems appeared on a sign held be a protestor killed by police, she flees although he doesn’t understand why. I’m not going to tell you why in case you choose to read the book. Anti-Asian and anti-BIPOC violence feature in a story that will quickly bring to mind the COVID pandemic.

But Ng avoids dating her story in several ways. First of all, she doesn’t include a pandemic. There are drug shortages and health care crises but no pandemic.

Second, she strips away all political names and proper nouns. Political parties and politicians are not named. Instead, society is governed by how every day actions show in the light of PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions), an act that can have the police knocking at someone’s door and removing their children.

Ng has created a story world that clearly resembles our own. There are protests, laptop computers, and cell phones. Those with wealth are protected even when they aid someone the government condemns. All it takes is a suitably large donation and white skin. Those who live in poverty are often invisible but when they are not it usually means trouble especially if they’ve attracted police attention.

Books are banned. People are cancelled. But for those who are not immediately impacted, life goes on.

If Ng had included the pandemic or named specific politicians, her story would have been dated in just a few years. By avoiding this, she has created a story that is in many ways timeless, like the stories the boys mother told to him, but also alarmingly contemporary.


Manuscript Format: More than Margins and Double Spacing

Back in March I posted about how to format your manuscript correctly. I also shared a handout on manuscript format (scroll down my Freebies page to find it). After all, some things are just easier to understand when you can see them.

When you format your manuscript in Word, it is often more than just making your page look like the sample page. After all, you can use a superscript to make something that looks like a footnote but isn’t an actual footnote.

Use the actual Word functions and it will make layout and editing that much easier. Here are a few of the ones I most frequently see done incorrectly.


Below this explanation is a sample from my manuscript format handout. The top line of text containing the author name, abbreviated title, and page number is known as the header. To insert a header into your manuscript, click the “Insert” tab at the top left of your manuscript. Then glance across the ribbon that appears. Toward the right is a button labeled “Header.” Click on that and then choose the header you want to use. I tend to use the 3 column header that you see below. You’ll want to select the check box for “different first page” under “Options.”

Page Numbers

Correct manuscript format including page numbers. Look above and you’ll see the page number 2 in the sample header. That would be on the top right of the page. But don’t just key the number 2. Instead position the cursor where you want to insert page numbers. Then click the “Insert” tab and, on the ribbon, “Quick Parts” which is to the right. Scroll down the menu and select page numbers and then select the format that you want. It sounds like a lot but you should be able to follow these instructions.


Last but not least, be sure to use the footnote function vs inserting a number wherever you want to include a footnote and then type the footnote at the end of the document. See the sample above? When you use the footnote function, the footnotes appear below a graphic line and the lines moves as needed while maintaining correct page format. If you try to do it yourself, it won’t do that. So how do you do a footnote? Click the “Reference” tab and then choose “Footnotes” on the ribbon. It’s that easy!

Formatting a manuscript correctly seems tricky at first but you’ll develop the habits and learn where to find the various Word functions. And this will make your manuscript look professional.


Sometimes, All I Need Is Me: When a “Quiet” Picture Book Works

Every once in a while, you read a picture book that just clicks. That’s how I felt when I paged through Sometimes, All I Need Is Me by Juliana Perdomo.

My first thought was that in many ways, it is a quiet book. What do I mean by quiet? It isn’t rowdy. There are no belly laughs. Physical comedy? That’s not something you are going to find in this book.

But it is sweet and strikes just the right note. In that way it is much like other classic picture books that many people describe as quiet. Think Owl Moon, Goodnight, Moon, and Dream Snow.  

What is it that makes these books work? What do all three have?  Depth and emotion.

In Sometimes, All I Need Is Me, the young narrator starts off discussing what she loves about her home. “It smells like cinnamon tea and feels like warm pajamas.” That is so amazingly specific and it all comes together to say, without saying it, that this is where she feels loved. Then in the next spread she shares how, when she is someplace different, she can bring the feeling of home with her. When she does this, she feels calm.

She then goes on to how she loves playing with her friend Matteo but she can be her own company. Paired spreads show the young narrator coping with a variety of situations and experiences.

If you’ve ever had a rejection letter that said your manuscript was too quiet, you might be wondering how a book like this found a home. “Quiet” when used negatively by an editor or agent often does mean quiet in the same way that we use it. It can mean that it is a book without an immediate hook, audience, or market.

Think of it that way and Perdomo’s book is not quiet. If you’ve been reading market listings lately, you may have seen comments from editors, agents, or publishers, that they want to see more SEL submissions. If you don’t know the term, SEL stands for Social-Emotional Learning. This is how the Committee for Children defines SEL:

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

People with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially. From effective problem-solving to self-discipline, from impulse control to emotion management and more, SEL provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on kids, adults, and communities.

As schools and parents work to help their children develop this type of self-awareness, there is a home for books like Sometimes, All I Need Is Me. Pick it up and see how to make a quiet-seeming picture book work.


Why Your Story Matters and Your Book Idea Really Is a Good Idea: Guest Post by Naomi Nakashima

Happy Friday, everyone! I have a special treat for all of you today – a guest post by Naomi Nakashima, author of Write Out Loud. You can read my review of her book here. Without further ado . . .

Naomi, take it away!

Why Your Story Matters and Your Book Idea Really Is a Good Idea

I have lost count of how many times I’ve told someone that I am a writer and they have responded with something along the lines of “Oh! I’ve got the perfect idea for a book!” or “You should write a book about my life!” or something to that effect.

And you know what?

You do have the perfect idea for a book and you should write a book about your life!

Sometimes we feel like our experiences are not important enough to share with others. It feels mundane or even boring because it’s not a story: it’s just your life. However, every life experience is unique, and our stories can have a profound impact on others. Whether you decide to disguise your experiences in a fictional setting or disclose them for the world to see in a memoir, your story is important, it matters, and you should definitely write a book about it.

Your Story is Unique

No one else in this world has lived the same life as you—not even your siblings. Your experiences, perspectives, and lessons learned are unique to you. By sharing your story through a book, you have the opportunity to inspire, educate, or connect with others who may be going through similar experiences. Your story can provide hope, comfort, and guidance in a way no one else can.

And before you say “but it’s already been done”—stop. How many times has the story of the R.M.S. Titanic been told? And yet each time, there’s a new perspective brought out, new information shining through, and a new audience to enthrall. You may think your story is not interesting enough, but the truth is there are people out there who can benefit from hearing it. If even it’s a story they think they’ve heard before, maybe this time it will finally click with them.

Your story may be the one that finally inspires someone else to overcome their struggles or make a positive change in their lives.

Writing a Book is Empowering

Writing a book is both a challenging and rewarding experience. It requires discipline, creativity, and vulnerability. All of these can make you feel overwhelmed, but the process of writing can also be incredibly empowering. You have the power to shape your story, to decide what to include and what to leave out. To rewrite the narrative entirely if you want, to share your side of an untold story, set the record straight, or just say what you wish would happen.

By writing a book, you can take control of your narrative and show the world who you truly are. You can also use your book as a platform to share your message, inspire change, or raise awareness about important issues you’re passionate about. The person who finishes writing a book is often very different from the person who started writing that same book. Writing a book can be a transformative experience that allows you to grow, heal, and unleash your full potential.

Your Story Can Make a Difference

Of course, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our readers. And writing a book can have a significant impact on your readers. Your story can provide a sense of community, validation, or understanding for those who may be struggling with similar experiences or sharing the same views. It can also challenge perspectives, spark conversations, and inspire action.

Your story has the power to make a difference in the world, even if it’s just one reader at a time. Or maybe because it will be one reader at a time. Your book can be a source of inspiration, comfort, or motivation for the person who needs it the most. By sharing your story, you can contribute to a more compassionate, connected, and empathetic world.

I often say, today’s authors are writing the books I am going to be raising my children with.

Think about that for a minute: what kind of perspectives and lessons would you put out into the world if you knew there would be a generation of young minds who would read that and have it shape their world view?

But how do you know you should write this book, and how can you tell if it’s a good book idea?

This is kind of a trick question.

First, there are a few questions you’ll need to answer about your book:

  • What are your goals or what do you hope to accomplish as an author for this book?
  • What are your objectives or what kind of experience do you hope your readers have with this book?
  • How will you measure whether or not your book is meeting these goals and objectives?

The truth is, even if you know all of these things, there’s no way to know for sure whether or not your book will be successful until after it’s finished. And that’s because there are so many things that go into a book’s success that can’t be measured until after the book is finished:

  • Quality of editing
  • Market demand
  • Marketing strategy
  • Economic impacts
  • Time of year (sometimes)
  • Format distribution

But how do you know how much or what kind of editing you’ll need? How do you determine the market demand?

Ultimately, there’s no way to tell whether or not your book is going to be a success until you get the book written. That’s the only way you’ll be able to see the big picture, in its entirety, so you can start researching and putting together some of the rest of this information.

So you might as well write the book.

And finally, I want to tell you a story of how I know your book idea is a really good idea.

Have you seen any of the Sharknado movies? Or read any of the “Kissing the Coronavirus” books?

These are just two examples of ideas that, a few years ago, I would have felt were automatically bad ideas. If either of their authors had come to me and asked me for my advice about these ideas, I would have said no way.

Not a chance.

Try something else.

Yet these two ideas also have a loyal following. Even if they haven’t experienced mainstream success, they have achieved what many authors—especially new and indie authors—are striving for. They found an audience that loves them. Above all, they serve as proof that your audience is out there, somewhere, waiting for you to finish your book.

It doesn’t matter how boring you think it might be, or how out there and unconventional it might be. If you can find your market, you can make your book a success.

*****Sue here***

I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that my book will be helping to shape young readers tomorrow. It’s enough to encourage me to put words down and send them out into the world. I hope you find it just as inspirational!

Below are other stops on this blog tour so take a few minutes and find out more about this book and Naomi.


What to Post on Social Media?

Today I attended a webinar about social media. There were definitely two camps. There were people who post regularly and those who do not. The thing that surprised me most was that even some people who post regularly are often stymied about what to post. Instead of creating any kind of original content, they repost things that they like from other social media creators.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re on Twitter, there is nothing wrong with retweeting content on a daily basis. After all, the more active you are, the higher your posts rise in the algorithm. But you should also be creating content of your own.

Not sure what to post? Check out this list of possibilities.

  • Push your own books. I’m listing this one first not because it should be your focus but because I want to emphasize that this should be only a small part of your content. If you post about your own books more than once a week, that is too often. Don’t be that person who only talks about herself. Especially when there is so much more you could cover.
  • Give an inside look at the creative life. This is different from pushing your books. Post about the writing process and what it’s like to research a new project. Talk about revising and submitting. Post about your home office or what its like to write on the road. Discuss where you get your ideas.
  • Write about other people’s books. Just because you shouldn’t post about your own books daily, doesn’t mean that you can’t post about other people’s books. When I read a book and absolutely love it, I post about it. I recommend it. I explain who I see as the audience. I discuss what it helped me see about the writing process.
  • Blog tours. In addition to posting about the books you find on your own, you can also take part in blog tours. Blog tours give you additional books to review. You also have opportunities for guest posts and interviews. Some blog tours will let you host a giveaway. Blog tours are also a great way to attract new readers.
  • Book related humor. I’m always on the lookout for comics, humor and memes that have to do with books and reading, libraries and grammar. Anything that is book or literature adjacent is fair game.
  • Quotes. When I find a book or reading-related quote that I love, I use photoshop to create a book badge. That’s an image with the text of the quote as well as the URL of my blog/site. That way if someone shares the badge, they also share my URL.
  • Freebies. Create freebies for your fellow writers or your readers. Share these through social media and, again, be sure to include your URL or other identify info. These two are a great way to drive traffic back to you.
  • Invite participation. You can also create posts that invite participation. Ask a question that people will be eager to answer. If you write for young readers, you might ask something about reading. “How old were you when you started reading independently?” “What was the first book you remember reading on your own?” You can also poll readers – which cover do they like best? Which photo should you use as your head shot? Which graphic do they like better for your site?

As you can see, there are a wide range of things that you can post about. Some will work better on your blog. Others will be best suited to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Repurposing material on multiple platforms is totally acceptable and a great way to get more mileage from your social media content, especially if you are going through the trouble to post about something other than your own books.