Six Thoughts About Writing Nonfiction For Kids

By Gloria Reichert

Since I have been immersed in researching and writing a new picture book biography, ideas about writing nonfiction for children have been swirling in my mind. Here are a few for writers in this genre to consider.

1. Ask yourself, “WHY would a kid want to read this?” Try to find some interesting way of connecting to kids. It could be a quirky fact, a delightful detail, or something humorous you discover doing research. Don’t pass up items of this nature. They could be just the hook you need.

2. Make sure your research is flawless. We owe it to our readers to make sure the truth is told. Use primary resources, such as diaries, letters, and newspapers as much as possible. Search for something in the person’s childhood that laid the path to his/her adult accomplishments. Also search for a connection that you personally share with the subject. This will lend both authenticity and heart to your writing.

3. Share the information in creative ways. Few children will be enthralled with a list of facts that reads like an encyclopedia entry. Write in scenes to show what happens and pull your reader into the story. Use a variety of sentences and punctuation. Fill your sentences with figurative language and sensory details. Incorporate word play. Write the story in different ways until you find the best way to tell it.

4. Read and study mentor texts published within the last five years for inspiration. Many of them have taken approaches that model creative ways of sharing information. Examples include No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong, Stonewall: A Building, an Uprising, a Revolution by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, and Moth: An Evolution Story by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus.

5. Consider ways to use back matter with your project. This supplemental material can provide   the reader with a deeper look into the subject about which you are writing. It can provide background knowledge to enhance the reader’s understanding. It can provide curricular tie-in’s for teachers to use.

6. Use online resources to keep up with the latest about writing nonfiction for kids. Check out the six sites below for tons of helpful information.

https://www.nonfiction-ninjas.com
https://bethandersonwriter.com/blog/
http://celebratescience.blogspot.com                                             
https://www.melissa-stewart.com
https://www.katemessner.com
https://www.nnf.com

 

Happy researching! Happy writing!

Interview with Author Christy Mihaly

By Lisa Amstutz
 
This month, we welcome Christy Mihaly to the Six Pens blog to talk about her new book, Free for You and Me!

First of all, thank you for participating in the Song of Six Pens blog!

Thank you for inviting me to Six Pens! It's a pleasure to chat with you here.



1.   What inspired you to write Free for You and Me?

A few years ago I started hearing people making statements that reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution. Folks who should have known better called for flag-burners to lose their American citizenship. Sheesh. I wanted kids to appreciate the basic principles of our governmental system, which some adults seemed to have forgotten (or never learned).


I told my wonderful agent, Erzsi Deak, that this was on my mind. She joked that I should create a board book about the Constitution. We laughed, but then I thought, maybe if I started with one provision? How about the First Amendment! Not an obvious picture book topic, right? But the idea wouldn't leave me alone. I started experimenting with little verses, and they eventually evolved into this book.



2.   What did the publishing process for this book look like?

I started this book with poems, because poetry uses a few well-chosen words to explore the basic essence of a complex concept. The First Amendment names five freedoms—so I thought I'd create a poem about each. (They are: freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, and the rights to assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances.) I wrote, revised, got critiques, rethought … and developed five poems I liked. But they didn't constitute a book. To explain the history and background of the First Amendment and to create a story line about how kids could use these rights, I added historical vignettes and contemporary characters. I thought we could show dialog with speech bubbles.

In 2018 my manuscript found its way to just the right editor for this project, Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman. We signed in January 2019, and then things moved quickly. We were aiming for the spring of 2020 because of the election. Wendy suggested adding a couple of additional poems. Not every editor feels comfortable editing verse, but Wendy had some great questions and suggested revisions. We also tweaked and shortened the speech bubbles. We collaborated on the back matter. And we went through a few rounds of possible titles before landing on "Free for You and Me."

Our collaboration continued as illustrator Manu Montoya and the book designer developed the art. Wendy and I wanted the book to reflect America's diversity, so Manu illustrated the historical scenes with contemporary children dressed up as historical figures, a la "Hamilton," which I love.



3.   How did you learn to write in rhyme? Do you have any tips for our readers?

Since elementary school, I've enjoyed writing rhyming verse. I used to write silly doggerel for friends' birthdays and the like. But when I got serious about picture books, I knew I had to up my game. I took Renee LaTulippe's online course, Lyrical Language Lab, and learned a ton there. Then I started studying mentor texts and books about poetry. I attended a conference dedicated to rhyming picture books and met other rhymers, and crucially, I found critique partners who could evaluate rhyme and meter.

Even though we've all heard that editors eschew rhyme, most will consider excellent, well-done rhyming texts that have good meter and tell a solid story. The problem is the abundance of submissions in which the story suffers because the rhymes are forced.

So, my tip is: If you've written a rhyming text, rewrite it in prose. Make the prose beautiful and lyrical and poetic, but focus on telling your story. Then compare versions. Which is better? Which brings out the characters, the conflict, the resolution in a more compelling way? If it's the prose, can you bring those elements back into your rhyming text? Perhaps your story really needs to be in rhyme. If that's the case, polish your poetry. But if it doesn't, don't.



4.   What book has influenced you the most as a writer?

Strunk and White's Elements of Style. When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher told me I was a writer and gave me a gift of a copy of that book. I've kept it ever since, and have read and re-read it. If you follow the mantra "Omit needless words," you're on your way to stronger writing.



5.   You’ve written numerous nonfiction books. What draws you to this genre?

I enjoy engaging kids' interest in complex and potentially boring or off-putting topics. I ask myself, what is weird or funny or heart-warming about this subject? How can I make kids care? What's my way in? It's like a puzzle. Plus, I love research: gathering information, deepening my understanding of issues I'm curious about, and turning it all into a compelling story.



6.   What is one piece of advice that you would give to writers/illustrators?

I'm not the first to say it, but I'm often surprised to meet writers who haven't done this: Join a critique group. Find a group of fellow creators that you trust to give honest, helpful, and kind feedback. Invest the time it takes to provide honest, helpful, kind feedback on their work.

If you determine that a particular group isn't a good fit, leave it (politely), and find another group or gather some folks with whom you work well. And this is important too: Once you've got your group going, stick with it, even through times when you feel uninspired. My experience is that the longer a group keeps working together, the better the feedback becomes. Through years of working together, people come to trust each other more deeply. As they get to know one another more deeply, they come to understand how best to offer helpful critiques.



7.   Do you have other upcoming books you would like to mention?

Thanks for asking! My first fiction picture book, Patience, Patches, featuring a dog and a baby, is due out in 2022. I'm also anticipating a science nonfiction picture book next year. Unfortunately a middle grade nonfiction, scheduled for the fall, has been coronavirus-delayed. But I guess that's happened to lots of book creators recently, so we'll just be … patient!  



SHORT AND SWEET

Pantser or Plotter? Plotter, definitely. Sometimes I try to bust loose a little bit … but I do love me a good outline.

Guilty Food Pleasure?  So, is this weird? I take a flour tortilla, heat it, spread it with butter and honey, roll it up, and eat it. Yum.

Favorite Hobby?  I learned to play the cello a few years back. I'm no expert, but I've played in community ensembles (with other mediocre, music-appreciating adults). I don't practice enough, but I get major joy from sitting with others and making music happen. And … it's possible that the cello has given me an idea or two for books.

Oh, and with the home-stay orders, I've taken up the ukulele, which is really fun!

Dog or Cat person? I am a life-long DOG person (see Patience, Patches, above). However, we added our first cat to the family three years ago. I'm still a dog person, but … the cat is growing on me.

Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)? Pablo Casals, the great humanitarian and cellist.

Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening? I write at any time of day and on a good day I'll write all day long, but at night after dinner is when my writing flows the best.


ABOUT CHRISTY

Christy's spring 2020 picture book, Free for You and Me: What our First Amendment Means is illustrated by Manu Montoya and celebrates the First Amendment with poems and stories. Prior books include Hey, Hey, Hay!, rhyming picture book about bringing in the hay, and Diet for a Changing Climate, a YA co-authored with Sue Heavenrich, about how our food affects the environment. Christy's books have appeared on the Green Earth Book Award shortlist, Bank Street Children's Best Books, and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections. She is currently wondering whether to dye her hair purple or green.


Instagram: @christymihaly

Twitter: @CMwriter4kids

Website: www.christymihaly.com

Meet Author and Educator Michael Samulak



by Gloria G. Adams

Michael Samulak loves kids. He loves reading to kids. His goal is to inspire them to follow their dreams.

Michael obtained his bachelor's in Elementary Education from Michigan State University in 2006 and finished his master's in Reading Curriculum and Instruction at Cleveland State University in 2012. He has been working as a full-time youth minister and educator for almost 20 years. Michael uses his formal education, experiences, world travels and life's adventures to write award-winning children's picture books.

He currently resides in the city of Cleveland, Ohio with his wife and five children.

Visit Michael on his website: http://www.michaelsamulak.com/


Michael, when did you decide you wanted to write children’s books?
     Wow, I had to think about this one. I can recall having hopes and dreams of being a teacher and writing books for others to enjoy way back in elementary school. I had journals of stories, raw pieces and ideas of future projects piling up since that time. (However, I also was thinking of becoming an astronaut too in those days.)

     So, the love for reading and writing was always there, even at a young age. Related to the themes that many of my books currently focus on in terms of educationally based books that are not only enjoyable, but also purposeful in their approach to support a young learner in their reading fluency, that is something that took a little time to develop.

     The first real serious thoughts, and I would say actual and practical decisions related to becoming a published author of educationally based books, probably began to come about in the early years while I was finishing my BA in elementary education at Michigan State University. In those years, the real world of children’s literature was opened to me as I strove to better my own abilities as an educator. The influence and impact that I began to realize a quality book could have with my students was becoming more and more apparent the more time I had in the classroom and with students. The more I developed my own craft as an educator, the more I realized certain needs that were still out there in terms of subject matter and content that was also age appropriate.

     I began to see if I could be the one that might be able to address these needs and took a first attempt by having my first book published in 2008, A is for Africa (Trafford 2008). While happy with my achievement, I decided I needed to further my own development and expertise if I was going to have my work seen as creditable and so eventually went on to earn a Masters degree in Reading Curriculum and Instruction in 2012. With experience in the classroom as an educator, a father, a heart for helping and teaching youth and now having the formal educational background and training, I decided to pursue the goal of becoming a traditionally published author.


Are there any children’s book authors who have influenced you?
     Those who have had the most impact on my writing, or desire to be a published children’s book author, are Tommy DePaola, Patricia Polacco, and Mo Willems (who I think is basically our modern day Dr. Seuss in terms of being able to connect with children across all spectrums.) These authors give you so much of themselves in their writing.

     It is so much more than being able to put pen to paper, although that is also perfection by every standard as well. They also inspire the people who read their work to do better and to be better, focusing on the best in all of us – and those around us, both inside and out. I love that I love reading these author’s books with my kids and enjoy the story that has been crafted and served up for us in the written form, as much if not more than they do! I hope to be able to serve up a similar smorgasbord with the pieces I am able to present to the world one day.

Tell us how A is for Africa, the book and coloring book, came about. 
     As I mentioned a little bit earlier, this was motivated, in part, by some of the needs I began to see when I was in the traditional classroom. We had a very difficult time finding age-appropriate literature that was related to, or at least helped, with our multicultural content and lessons. There were a number of items that we could find for the older students and classrooms, but not enough for the younger grades. Too often I felt I was “reaching up” and trying to make things work that were not intended for the learners that I was with. As good educators often do, my fellow educators and I “made it work”, but I began then to work on writing literature which I hoped to be able to one day meet some of these needs that I personally saw and experienced.
      In 2006 and 2007 I had the opportunity to go to Uganda Africa for a church mission and humanitarian based endeavors. While on these trips I had the fortunate opportunity to meet and eventually collaborate with a local artist who specialized in the Batik-style of painting. This talented young man helped me to bring the project to a place I could only imagine! I was able to incorporate my manuscript and experiences of my overseas travels, with the educational elements of introduction of letter identification, phonics, and rhyme together with the beautiful pieces of art that he created.

     The book has been very well received by many learning centers, schools and libraries and soon a companion coloring book was produced to help the students and teachers with an additional resource for follow-up and support for both the literacy and art that are introduced with the original.
https://tinyurl.com/yarq4guf



What is the best part for you about being a children’s author? 
     Honestly for me, especially as an educator and father to five kids, I love knowing that what I am able to do and put out there is engaging and helping so many children to support and foster their love for reading and learning. I LOVE being able to visit classrooms now and personally share my stories with the students I meet and see all of their bright shining faces, share in their joy that the books bring out in them and encourage them all to follow their own hearts to one day see their own dreams realized and come true.

You do Literacy Workshops. Can you tell us about those?
     The educator in me put together a few lesson plans and units for the various age levels I have come across over the years. Generally speaking, they have been for the older students, ranging from 10th grade all the way down to 3rd grade. I have had the opportunity to do long and short versions of the workshop, everything from a single day with a series of sessions, to the more standard two- or three-day approach that allows for more things to be developed over time.

     Without going into too many details, the sessions are very interactive as well as informative as I work with walking together with the group or class through the major steps of the writing process. I touch upon all the basic elements: Brainstorming, Outlining, Research, 1st Draft, Editing, Proofreading, 2nd Draft, etc. The degree to which we cover and extent we go with things all depend upon age, size of the class, and how many days and sessions we have put together.

What are your goals as a children’s book author?
     I would love to be able to have my books worn out because they were read over and over, again and again, because they are loved so much; while at the same time, maybe without the reader even knowing, they were also having little learning moments sown into them each and every time. I would like to be remembered not only as an author and educator whose books were inspiring and brought joy to those who read them, but also one whose books genuinely supported the young learner who engaged with them as they grew and matured into lifelong learners.

Your newest book is A Wonderful Day. Tell us about it.
     I actually started writing this book a few years back. I wanted to create a picture book that would be engaging for both parent and child. My kids have always loved the zoo and, truth be told, I think most times it was me and my love for animals that kept us going back more times than not, so with this in mind, I wanted the book to be about a shared experience between parent and child about one such “wonderful day” together.

     I knew I would be writing in a gender-neutral text, so that any parent could read with any child and feel included. This was a little challenging, in terms of the illustrations, but I collaborated with the illustrator regarding images, colors, and even diversity whenever possible to help strengthen this feature of the book. I was very happy with the final product and do believe it is also one of the strengths of the book.

     The project started slow, but then took a little positive turn as I was in the middle of one class I was taking while finishing my master’s degree. We were going over anticipatory text and text-to-self reflections as an important part of a young reader being able to have and be helped with early-readers, so I felt that my current manuscript would be a perfect candidate for such text. Once I incorporated this as the main character and body of text for the manuscript, the writing was much easier and there was a natural flow and rhythm that brought the whole thing together.

     The book was originally published with a hybrid-publishing company that since has gone out of business (TATE Publishers in 2016), but fortunately has now been recently acquired by Pen It! Publishers who have taken the time and care to bring back the title, with just the right amount of adjustments to the layout and an even larger printing of the book to make it bigger and better than ever. 


"A Wonderful Day! is an engaging early reader that playfully depicts the shared experiences of child and parent who are enjoying a day together at the zoo. This unique story is beautifully told in a gender-neutral text that captures many of the special moments children and adults often treasure and share together."
https://www.amazon.com/dp/1950454614




Describe your creative process for us, from idea to finished product.
     Wow, I’m not sure I can do this justice within this time frame, but I’ll give it a shot -- First is “the beginning” or genesis if you will of the story. This would be related to the brainstorming aspect of the writing process. I’m constantly writing down ideas, words, sentences, and even “stories” whenever and wherever and onto whatever is available to me, but usually it is my laptop or phone (on the note app.) I have notebooks as well, but I have been also known to grab that scrap piece of paper or even a napkin, if the creative juices are flowing. I often am scribbling down sentences or even just “word pairs” that I feel go well together in terms of description or flow. I have lists of would-be-titles of possible stories that I have full intention of eventually bringing to life. I love writing down titles when they come to me; sometimes I have been able to put together whole manuscripts by coming up with a great title.

     Since many of my stories have a purposeful educational component to them, I am also jotting down these ideas and pieces “on the side” or making lists of what would be good elements to incorporate into things I’m working on or would like to eventually see put together with a good story. This helps me to marry ideas and story lines with those educational elements without it being “forced.” I prefer when the elements seem to choose one another as it makes for a better overall “fit” with the manuscript; arranged marriages never seem to work out as well. (haha, get it?) Sigh.

     Once I have an idea in mind, I often sit down and purposefully determine the thought of the overall story with its ARC. This is often an outline of your classic sequence, Beginning-Middle-End and sometimes points. But often I do begin writing outlines or paragraphs of what I have in mind as I go along this part of the process. Once I have a good roadmap put together for the piece, then I write. This is the meat of the process. Writing, writing, writing, and then writing some more: When I am inspired, I write. When I am tired, I write. When I am busy, I write. When I am happy, I write. I write as often as I can, whenever I can, in order to keep the creative juices flowing and also to keep myself in “the pocket” of the world of words and putting them together, as much as possible, regardless of whether or not what I am writing is even advancing my current project, but obviously that is the goal. I have more recently done my best to “finish” a first draft of the piece before I go through the piece again with a rewrite, but I confess, often times, I cannot help but rewrite, massage, and tweak things here and there as I go. This part of the process usually takes some time, at least a few months if I am focused; often times I have to put things down and come back to them, so there are some pieces I haven’t yet brought out for the next step of editing.


     Once I have what I consider a decent enough first draft, I bring it to a few trusted eyes for editing and review. This is much more than grammar or spelling, which Lord knows I always need help with, but more for strengthening and improving the writing itself, flow of the piece, ARC, special moments, elements of surprise. Cutting and adjusting are always a painful part of this process, but I have come to realize it is eventually for the best. I confess, I still have sentences or paragraphs that I have salvaged from the editing floor that I loved (still love) so much and hope, with all hope, that I can eventually use in a future story somewhere, somehow… maybe.

     Finally, after all the many rounds of editing and review, there is the rewriting and polishing of the piece that, generally goes through at least one or two more solid rounds of the review and editing, before I would bring it forth as “done.” And then, as a published author, I know it is not really ever, “done,” especially if my intentions are to submit it to an agent or publishing house for consideration. I know that my baby will go through the wringer again and again before it is finally in print. Whew. Well, that’s not everything, but probably enough to get the gist of what basically is included in my process.

What inspires you? 
     Besides my Wonder-Woman wife and beautiful children (which probably isn’t what this question is getting at, but honestly they are truly such a big source of my inspiration in my writing as well as why I write), I would say, as an educator, a big part of what motivates me, and my heart, is for the youth, the next generation of kids who are growing up today. Those who make up this “next generation”…I want to inspire them, to empower them to go for their dreams and help them, as much as I would have any positive influence, to do so! To “hold fast to dreams”, to never give up and that what I might be able to offer would indeed have a positive influence on those youth. I feel that through writing, some authors are given a rare opportunity to have an influence that has some enduring feature that is not only broad in terms of audience, but also there is a longevity involved, in terms of time. I hope to be one that is able to touch and inspire people for a long time, one that could potentially be even longer than whatever finite amount I personally am eventually allotted.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
     Read. Read. Read. And then read some more… read as much of the current titles and even classic pieces that you can find which you believe are of your interest or subject matter that you feel you want to write about. Keep a journal, sort of a running commentary, of the pieces you read and some of the things that stood out to you about the writing style, character development, ARC, and feeling that the author evoked or brought out of you. I think each author eventually finds his or her own style and voice, but one first has to be familiar with what is out there, what has been done, what people are reading, etc. in order to join the ranks of those who are published AND have (or are having) an impact on actual readers today.


Pantser or Plotter?
     I am definitely the Pantser. My wife has helped me tremendously in some respects to actually acknowledge things like “a plan”, or think about what we might do while we are on vacation, or “budget.” But try as much as she has -- my instinct is still defiantly more of, “Let’s Go!”, ask questions later, “Ready, Go!...then maybe worry about the “Set” of things as need arises… Ha Ha Ha, -- Maybe.

Guilty Food Pleasure?
     Ice Cream. Hands Down. It is my Kryptonite.

Favorite Hobby? 
     Before the kids I would have answered this: Exercise. Since kids, my little bit of extra time for my own peace of mind and interest is to read and learn about space and its exploration. I am fascinated by the universe and its wonders and how all of this works. Man making plans to go to Mars, the recent probes that have left our known universe which are not traveling out into deep space, and things like this. Love it!

Dog or Cat person?
     Definitely Dog, but I’ve grown to appreciate cats: Mostly again because of the kids.

Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)?
     Jesus of Nazareth. Yes. Please. I mean, come ‘on, you would never run out of things to eat or drink…and can you imagine the conversation?!

Do you do your best work in the Morning, Afternoon, or Evening? 
     Oh man, I would say I’ve experienced flashes of all three being productive, but I’m much more of a night owl so I would have to say, “Evening”; when the kids are down and the house resembles some actual amount of semi-peace: Calm before the next day’s storm, if you will. This is my time.





SIX Tips for Choosing Names for Your Characters



 by Gloria G. Adams

Take time to find great names for your characters! Check out these tips and name-searching ideas.



1.     Does the name match your character? Velvet or Fawn bring to mind a soft, gentle character, while Butch or Tank sound rough and strong. 
      Or try the opposite: Name your antagonist, a female gang leader who
      is a nasty bully, something like Angel Sweet. You can also look for meanings assigned to names; Vera means “true,” Amy means “beloved,” etc. But for a broader, more interesting take, try looking up names in the Urban Dictionary. For example, Amy is a beautiful girl willing to do anything for her friends and family. She is brave, loyal and super smart. She's the type of girl who will grow up to be some  sort of heroine.”

2.      Make sure character names match the time frame. One way is to use baby name charts for your era. So, if your MC is 16 and your book takes place in 2020, look for baby names from 2004. For historical names, try looking on Ancestry.com or searching history books. One good source is Teresa Norman’s book, Names Through the Ages.

3.      If your characters come from a different country, research names from that country. Make sure they are accurate and authentic.

4.      Read the credits at the end of movies or TV shows. I used to get frustrated with my husband when he wanted to stay in the movie theater til the very end of all the credits. He had no reason to give me; maybe he just wanted to savor the last few minutes of being at the movies. But when I started writing, I found a reason to want to stay, too. A lot of great name ideas can spring from those long lists of people who work as film editors, best boys, make-up artists, etc.

5.      Don’t use names that are too similar to each other or have the same number of syllables. You want your characters to be distinct; give their names the same attention.

6.      Pick a geographic spot with an unusual name and have your character tell everyone he/she was born there. Set your story in that country or town. Remember Picabo Street? She was named after a town called “Picabo.” Jump onto Google Maps and find a treasure trove of cities, states, and countries that would make not only great character names, but also great settings for your stories.


Or let someone else work for you! Check out Reedsy’s Name Generator: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-name-generator/