Why I Write These Books

Last week, my critique buddies and I were chatting about our work. One of them asked me about a specific project and I realized that it has been a while since I discussed this here.

I work on a fairly wide range of nonfiction. The majority of my books, like the one picture above, are for tween and teens. The reading level is eighth to ninth grade and the book is 15,000 words long. There is a lot of information packed into one of these books. I love writing them because each book allows me to do a deep dive into a topic I don’t know much about but about which I want to learn more. And I always learn! That’s a plus because I was the curious kid who always wanted to know “why?” Now, I’m the curious adult.

I’ve also written four hi-lo books with two more under contract. A hi-lo title is for a reader who is somewhat behind in terms of reading level. So the book is high interest level, age appropriate, but lower reading level. This one is for older grade school and middle school readers who read at a third grade level. Without looking up the specifics, this one is 3000 to 3500 words long. That isn’t much when you consider it is about all the various learning disorders, how they impact young readers, and how these readers can learn to work around the disorders.

Writing hi-lo is so different from the first group of books above. They want the info but they don’t have the reading skills to take it all in. You need to give them something at their level so that they build confidence and skill. You can’t work in nearly as much information but it cannot feel slight. When I write these books, I look at each topic and subtopic I need to cover. What are the three most important things to tell readers about this topic? Then I carefully lead them into the new information step by step. I always reread a previous project to get to know this type of writing all over again.

Then there are the books that I write for 3rd graders. These are newly independent readers who want to know more. Again, these books are short. This one is only 2,200 words. But because they are often about broad topics I have to carefully consider what the reader absolutely has to know. One day, I may get more efficient at this type of writing but I tend to overwrite. Instead of fighting it, I just go with it and then look at what I have for that spread. What do readers absolutely need to know about this subtopic? What information do they need to fully understand this? What is surprising? These things stay and everything else (sob!) has to go.

Writing this short isn’t easy for me but I enjoy doing it. It gives me the opportunity to examine the essence of a topic and find a way to make it accessible to younger readers with smaller, developing vocabularies.

Really? I’m still a curious kid and writing several types of books allows me to cover a wider variety of topics and share them with my fellow curious kids. So why do you write what you are writing?


Writing Nonfiction: Deciding What Is Main Text vs Sidebars and Back Matter

Just when you think you’ve about finished your nonfiction manuscript, you realize that it is too long. Or you don’t have enough sidebars. Or you’ve gone off on too many tangents. All of this and more can be solved with a careful use of back matter and sidebars. Let me explain how.

Start with a Simple Outline

The first think that you need to do is determine your slant. What is your manuscript about? A book about sea lions isn’t going to be able to include every sea lion fact known to mankind. So you are going to have to slant your topic, determining exactly what you are going to write about. Even a brief outline can help you keep track of what material goes into the body of your manuscript. The next step is to figure out what can go into the sidebars.


Sidebars expand on something mentioned in the main text.  They give you a bit more space to explain a concept that might be new to your reader. They are a good place to define previously unknown concepts. This is also a good place to bring up related material.

In my book on the Maya, one sidebar explained what jade is and why it is sacred. In Hidden Human Computers, sidebars include quotes from the women computers as well as tangential pieces like the poem “Whitey on the Moon.” In The Who, sidebars again included quotes but also information on the band’s creative process and non-music projects such as the graphic novel of Lifehouse by Pete Townsend.

Back Matter

In the books I do for Redline, the back matter must conform to series requirements.  They want each book to have the same format and similar types of information. 

In your own book, you can go a variety of directions.  This is the place to put information for the teacher or parent.  Tell the adult how to use the information within the book in their class.  You might also discuss how scientists discovered x, y, and z.  In a biography, it can be used to give a bit more information about the subject, perhaps information that will provide a more complete picture for the adult, but might not be appropriate for the young reader. 

Trying to tell what information goes where can seem random until you’ve put a few manuscripts together. Knowing where things below all begins with knowing what your particular book is about.


How and Why to Slant Your Work

Curious about how to slant your work? Read on.
Photo by RalfGeorg Feltes on Pexels.com

When I’m working with a new nonfiction writing student, one of the topics that we discuss is how they should slant their work. The reality is that whether you are writing nonfiction book for teens or a picture book, your book is going to have a slant.

Don’t panic. This isn’t the same type of slant was when we are talking about bias. This is the type of slant that you use to narrow your topic. Let me show you what I mean.

I am working on a series proposal about wildlife. My series is for the third grade reader and each book will be 4000 to 4500 words long. Each book will feature a different type of animal such as bald eagles and blue whales. The problem is that there is no way that I can fit everything that is known about either bald eagles or blue whales into a 4500 word book. That’s where slant comes into play because it is a way to narrow the topic.

Possibly slants include migration, animal babies, or coming back from extinction. Each of these things would narrow the topic. Here are three things to consider when slanting your work.

Is It Age Appropriate?

Sometimes your slant is going to depend on the age of your reader. Baby animals would work for preschoolers and younger grade school students, but not high school students. A book about conservation would work for high schoolers and even middle schoolers but not preschoolers if it includes using hunting as a means to reduce population.

Is It New?

If you are thinking about doing a series about wild animal babies, you might find that this has already been done. But a series about how young animals learn? That might be a topic that hasn’t been covered. Reslanting your idea can take you from something done to a possible market opening.

Is It Too Narrow?

When you try to come up with a slant, you have to be sure that you don’t come up with something too narrow. After all, if you narrow your topic too much, you might not be able to fill an entire book. That’s when your idea may become a magazine piece.

Slants are a great way to find space in an increasingly crowded market. Just make sure that your idea is age appropriate, hasn’t been done, and is broad enough that you can fill a book. If the answer is yes, get ready to write!


Science in Fiction and Nonfiction

Photo by Alex Knight on Pexels.com

I have to admit that I was immediately hooked when I saw the Publisher’s Weekly headline, “Sci-Fi for Kids is a Missed Publishing Opportunity.” Not only am I writing a science fiction novel for middle graders but I like including science in my nonfiction books. Any young reader who picks up The Dakota Access Pipeline will know how fracking works and in The Ancient Maya I discuss C-14 and how scientists can tell based on carbon what crops were grown in a certain area.

But including science can be a battle. When Duchess Harris and I wrote Hidden Human Computers, I knew that we needed to include how the women made many of their calculations. That meant explaining how to use a slide rule. We were challenged on including this because young readers don’t like science.

That’s exactly the assumption that Emily Midkiff wrote about in the Publisher’s Weekly article. She was taking a class on fantasy literature in grad school and decided to visit a local school library to see how small or large their fantasy collection was. She found a solid number of fantasy titles but noticed that science fiction was missing. Over several years she examined many library collections and noted the same thing time and time again. Science fiction titles just weren’t there.

She wondered about circulation and found something surprising. Fantasy titles circulated more than realistic fiction. Each science fiction title circulated more than the fantasy. Midkiff surveyed teachers and librarian who told her that they avoid science fiction for story time or group reading. Why? Because science fiction isn’t always popular and can be difficult or polarizing. Although they sometimes recommend a science fiction title to a specific child, they don’t call it science fiction.

Personally, none of this surprised me. I had a hard time getting the okay to review science fiction when I wrote for the newspaper. Why? Because the editor didn’t believe that “normal” kids liked science fiction.

But Midkiff pointed out something else. Around 2000, researchers looked at what books were taught and what was available in the classroom. Fiction dominated nonfiction and science was especially underrepresented. Yet when they were asked what they wanted to read, children went for the nonfiction.

Young readers are curious. Science is one way to satisfy their curiosity if only the adults in their lives will give them access. Now back to work on my STEM proposal and my science fiction novel. There are curious kids out there in need of good books.


3 Things You Need to Know about Browsable Nonfiction

Yesterday, an online friend posted an article about “browsable nonfiction.” What is that? I immediately wanted to know. And as I read it made perfect sense.

Browsable Nonfiction Defined

First things first, you need to know what it is. Browsable nonfiction is the nonfiction that I’ve always thought of as bite-sized. These are the books that young readers can pick up, read a bit and then but the book down again. It doesn’t have to be read from page one through page 40. A reader can just as easily read page 4, page 30 and then page 11.

Examples of browsable nonfiction include Guiness titles, DK illustrated books, and anything with a title like 1000 Facts about Faces (or whatever). They are written in bite-sized chunks and are often heavily illustrated.


The next thing that you should realize is that kids love these books. I can’t even tell you how many of these titles my son had. We’d be at a Scholastic book fair, and I’d be browsing chapter books or novels. “Doesn’t this look great?” He, on the other hand, would be loading up on browsable nonfiction. There were books about snakes and sharks, poisons and the Civil War. If he was remotely interested in the topic, one of these books could pull him in .

I hate that I disliked them so much because teachers and librarians know something I didn’t. These books function like . . .

Graphic Novels

Physically, they aren’t like graphic novels other than the fact that they are books. But they aren’t as intimidating as pages and pages of text. Because of this, they pull in young readers who may be reluctant or simply unwilling to commit to something long and dense.

They are also, according to this School Library Journal article, a great way to introduce fiction loving students to nonfiction.

I can’t say that I’ve always been a fan of graphic novels. But that’s changed. I love the art and the stories. I love the cinematic experience. So it’s about high time I got over my issues with browsable nonfiction.

I’ve never tried to write this type of nonfiction but maybe, just maybe, it is about time I tried.


Nonfiction Story Arc

If you are an SCBWI member, I hope you took the time to watch Melissa Manlove’s Digital Workshop. Manlove is an editor at Chronicle Books and among the things she discussed was the emotional arc, not for the story characters but for the reader.

Turning readers around in their thinking about Burmese pythons would create a strong emotional arc.
Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on Pexels.com

Take a topic that readers find creepy or even frightening. Then immerse them in the topic and turn them around. By the end, if you’ve done your job right they will find the topic fascinating.

My son and I experienced this when he was home sick from school. PBS had a special about the Burmese pythons invading the Everglades and how they were virtually unbeatable predators. I have no qualms about admitting this – I have a problem with snakes. They fascinate me but they also freak me out. Under controlled circumstances I can hold them and have even had a massive python slither across my lap.

So it was easy for this documentary to start me off on the “snakes are terrifying and Burmese pythons are more terrifying than average.” I’m 3/4 of the way there all by myself. But then they brought in scientists who study the animals. These scientists spoke out heating sensing pits on the snakes’ faces, their rows of teeth, the speed of a strike, and more.

By the time the program was over, I knew all kinds of things about these massive snakes. They really are amazing.

So what kinds of subjects could you approach in this way?

Animal Predators

Animal predators are a rather obvious choice since we were discussing pythons. There is a lot to respect about the design of big cats, sharks, raptors and more.

Creepy Animals

What do I mean by creepy animals? Think of all the animals that aren’t really dangerous but people are still afraid of them. There are bats (which I adore), octopi, squid, spiders, and rats. None of these animals are especially dangerous but people are still afraid of them.

Natural Disasters

There is a reason that people are afraid of massive storms, earthquakes and volcanoes. But these are also powerful, and fascinating, natural wonders.

What other topics might allow you to use this kind of reader’s emotional arc?


Why Writing Is Like Beading

Those of you who have read my blog for any time know that not only do a write, but I also craft.  Knitting, crochet, and beading help me recharge my creative energy.  Lately, I’ve been beading lariat-style necklaces.  These necklaces are a single four foot strand of beads.  There is no clasp, so you knot or loop the strand.  Or whatever.

The point is that they are really flexible just like the books we write. A picture book can be fact or fiction.  It can be written in rhyme or prose.  It can also come together relatively easily (relatively) or take multiple tries.  Just like beading a necklace.

Sometimes following the pattern works.  When I tell you how to storyboard a picture book, that’s like giving you a pattern.  Follow these steps to create a picture book.  Sometimes you follow the steps and it works.  Your writing style and my writing style are enough alike that you can use my method.  Ta-da!  When I made my first lariat necklace, I used different beads than the pattern called for but it came together easily.

Sometimes following the pattern doesn’t work.  You write nonfiction.  I write nonfiction.  But when you try to follow my story boarding steps, it doesn’t work.  The balance is just off and, although you notice this early on, you keep working hoping it will sort itself out.  But it doesn’t.  So you study my steps.  Then you study what you have.  You see where you can tweak things to make it work.  That’s what happened when I tried making a necklace for a friend, but with a few adjustments it came together.

Sometimes you think that something isn’t going to work but then it does.  Last week, I got a rewrite request from my editor.  I read one of the things that she wanted and . . . uh, no.  There is no way that will work.  So I made all of the smaller changes and saved this until dead last.  Fine, just fine!  I made the changes she suggested and . . . it worked.  When a friend asked me to make her a necklace in golden and deep red beads, I cringed.  These weren’t my kinds of colors and I just couldn’t see it.  But I started stringing and . . . wow.  It looked great.

Writing is a lot like beading.  Sometimes you follow the steps and it all comes together.  Sometimes you have to make a few adjustments.  Other times, you are certain you’ve been asked to do the impossible and it all falls into place.

Word by word.  Bead by bead.  The creative process is a funny thing.


New Nonfiction for Spring: A School Library Journal Webcast Event

It’s one thing to read a market listing – this is what we want.  It is something else altogether to hear the publishers talk about upcoming titles they are enthusiastic about.  But that’s the offer that School Library Journal is offering us in a free webcast.

Title: New Nonfiction for Spring

Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Time: 02:00 PM Eastern Standard Time

Duration: 1 hour

Description:  Who doesn’t love new and engaging nonfiction? From a delightful tale of a budding ballerina to STEM projects for Minecraft lovers — and everything in between — these fun and informational series and titles are sure to inspire your curious students and young patrons. Join publishing insiders for an array of nonfiction to deck out your shelves this spring!

Panelists include:

Anna Erickson, VP, Sales & Marketing, Amicus Publishing

Kate Riggs, Managing Editor, The Creative Company

Lizzy Mason, Director of Marketing & Publicity, Page Street Kids

Jim Marshall, Director of Marketing, Rosen Publishing Group

Jarad Waxman, Director of Sales & Marketing, Scholastic Library Publishing

The fact of the matter is that seeing what various publishers are promoting can give you an idea what to submit where.  What do I mean? If The Creative Company is excited about their book about wild horse rescue, you aren’t going to want to send them your own manuscript on this topic.

One of the things that I like best about School Library Journal and Library Journal web events is that if you can’t make it when the event is scheduled you will have access to a recording of the event.

Click here to register or find out more about this event.




President’s Day

cuban missile crisisHappy President’s Day!

Have you ever written anything about one of our Presidents?  One of my books, 12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis, touches on Kennedy’s Presidency.  I say touches on because there was so much that he did in such a short period of time.  This is just a small part of it.

I would also love to write a series on America’s First Ladies.  I think it would make a great group of early readers.

There are some great children’s books out there about our Presidents. Why not pick one of them up?  In addition to my book, here are a few suggestions.


  • The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty shows us why we need current source materials to show the latest and greatest information that is available about these and other people.
  • What To Do About Alice by Barbara Kerley isn’t exactly about Teddy Roosevelt but it does give you a good idea what it was like to grow up in the Roosevelt household.
  • The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade gives us an inside look at building the White House and laying down the ground work for future presidents and it is done in a House That Jack Built rhyme.
  • You’re On Your Way Teddy Roosevelt by Judith St. George has always been a favorite because it introduces us to a side of this rough and tumble President that few people today remember.

If you have a favorite I didn’t include, be sure to tell the rest of us in the comments below.


Writing Nonfiction: What to Include, What to Leave Out

There comes a point in every nonfiction project when you are left looking at all of the amazing facts that did NOT make it into  what you are writing.  “Oh, but that one is so . . . fun . . . cute  . . . sweet . . . shocking.”  Soon you find yourself wedging in this fact, and that one, and that one way over there.  You did so much research and you are not going to leave them out.

And, yes, you did do a lot of research.  That’s the nature of nonfiction.  You find out way more than you are going to use.

What?  Did I just say that you aren’t going to use all those glorious facts?

Yes.  Sadly, I did say that.

It is tempting.  I understand.  You don’t want all that hard work to be meaningless.

And it isn’t.  You needed background so that you could create your piece.  You have to know more than you are going to teach your reader.

Perhaps the hardest part of re-writing nonfiction is to remind yourself of the whole focus of the manuscript.  Whether you are teaching someone how to weave a table runner or discussing how to reduce single use plastics, you have a defined goal.  The facts that don’t support that goal, whatever it is, have got to go.

“Wait!  Wait!  I’ll create sidebars.”

And that does work to a point.  For those of you who don’t know what they are, a side bar is that block of text that is in a graphic box.  Most often, it is at the outer side of the page – thus sidebar.  Sometimes it is at the bottom.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is mentioned in the main text.

Can’t mention it in the main text?  Then you can’t include it in a sidebar.

And that’s really okay.  You want your piece to be slick and focused.  That’s going to attract an editor.

All those other facts?  You can use them in a different piece of writing.  See?  Your time wasn’t wasted after all.