When You’re Not the Expert: How Picture Book Writers Can Tackle Topics and Places Outside their Realm

Today, we're excited to share a guest post by author Emma Smith, author of the forthcoming To Live on an Island and other titles. Welcome, Emma!  - Lisa Amstutz

By Emma Smith

Many of us have heard the advice that we should write about what we know. When querying, we’re urged to show that we are the best person to tackle this topic. What, then, made me qualified to write a picture book about a place I had barely heard of, never mind visited, till a few years ago? Going into this project, I felt my own sort of imposter syndrome.

I first read about Washington State’s beautiful San Juan Islands while researching a historical nonfiction picture book set in the same area. I’d always had  a thing for islands and had visited many, from Monhegan and Mackinac to Skye and Corsica. The San Juans sounded as magical as any place I’d ever seen. I was enchanted. And I wanted to write a book describing what it was like to grow up there.

Despite the fact that I had never been to these islands (something I would soon remedy), deep inside, I believed I could write this book. My expertise came from my fascination with and growing affection for the place. Furthermore, later, as I traveled the Islands, I realized that my outsider perspective actually helped me see things locals took for granted. For example, I was struck by the frequent hum of tiny airplanes overhead—something residents don’t even notice anymore. Many people get around by small plane there. I knew I had to put that in the book.

But I wanted to be sure I would get things right. One bookseller gently expressed trepidation, explaining that non-local writers who set books in the San Juans often completely over-romanticize them. I get it. I live in San Francisco, a city so burdened by clichés that it’s hard to know what’s real. I worked hard to capture the magic and charm of the Islands without relying on fantasy and stereotype. I hope I succeeded!

If you want to write about a place (or person) you have limited personal connection to, here are three things you can do to make sure your book rings true:

•    Visit the location. The internet is pretty darn good, but still, there is no substitute for experiencing the sounds, smells, and sights in person. Sit in a café and eavesdrop. Shop at the supermarkets. Catch a flick at the local movie theater. I spent an unforgettable week on the Islands, trying to live like a local, not a tourist.

•    Interview locals. I am shy and an introvert, but I forced myself to meet people. Most helpfully, I had coffee with two Island moms. I asked them questions and, even though I felt silly doing it, I literally read them my rough manuscript, asking them to fact-check and comment on each section. They shared anecdotes I would never have gotten anywhere else, and some of them made it into the book. I also introduced myself to all the booksellers, and each one was kind and supportive. (That’s not really surprising, because booksellers in general are awesome!) These personal interviews made me feel connected to the Islands in a meaningful way.

•    Be humble. Don’t pretend to be the expert. Ask questions. Be honest about the fact that you are an outsider but that you want to do the place justice. I introduced myself to the owner of the general store on one small island, explaining that I was a complete newbie to the area. She was so enthusiastic that she actually made me borrow her car to drive around the island to experience it better! (I had ferried over on foot.)

My next three books are closer to home. Coming up, I have picture books about a dog who survived the 2017 Northern California fires (which also affected my family and friends), the white alligator at the California Academy of Sciences (which I’ve been visiting since I was a child), and Alcatraz (another island—but this time right here in San Francisco!). With these subjects, my hometown advantage made me feel, from the get-go, somewhat more confident and qualified (not that I claim to be an expert on them). But now I’ve learned that writers can also take on topics that hail from far outside their realm, if they do so with integrity, respect, and care.

Emma’s next few books will be published by Sasquatch, Boyds Mills Press, Charlesbridge, and West Margin Press. Her first book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, won Bank Street’s Cook Prize and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. To Live on an Island comes in May 2019 from Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot. Visit Emma online at emmabsmith.com.

Twitter: @emmablandsmith
Facebook: Emma Bland Smith
Instagram: emmasmithsf

Pros and Cons of Work-For-Hire

By Gloria Adams and Lisa Amstutz

The children’s publishing industry can be tough to break into. Competition is high and budgets are low. But there’s another way to get published that many authors are unaware of: the educational market. These publishers put out educational books, often in series, that are marketed specifically to schools and libraries. While authors can pitch ideas to these publishers, they typically develop concepts in house and then hire authors to write them.

Here are a few of the pros and cons of writing for the educational market:


  • Publishing credits. This can be especially appealing as a new writer because it’s not easy to get published credits. Work-for-hire books give you a published book by an established publishing house that you can add to your resume and your cover letters to publishers and/or agents.
  • Money. Some pay more than others, but because you are working under a contract, you know you will get paid for producing the book. For some authors, this can provide a steady stream of income. School and library visits may also be an option for extra income and promotion.
  • Validation. Being published through established publishers, even if it is work for hire, means you are a good enough writer that they are willing to place their name on a product for which you wrote the text. 
  • Your name on Amazon. If it’s your first book, you will become a published author on Amazon, maybe Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and others. Your book will probably be sold to libraries, schools and bookstores. It’s promotion you don’t have to pay for.


  • Short deadlines. Turn-around time to submit outlines and finished manuscripts is usually very tight. You may only be given a week or a month to come up with an outline, depending on the length of the book. Finished manuscripts are usually due in just a few months. On the upside, books for hire are usually published within a year of the submission deadline.
  • Research. Many work-for-hire projects are non-fiction and require a lot of research. Make sure you have the time and willingness to do all the research your book requires.
  • Compliance with the publisher’s requirements. Each publisher will give you the parameters around which you must do the work for the book. These are seldom, if ever, negotiable.
  • No royalties. Work-for-hire is almost always done for a flat fee with no royalties paid after publication. This is negative in that you won’t make any more money from your book in the form of royalties, but positive in that you won’t have to do any marketing or selling.
  • Competition. There are a lot of people who would like to write books for hire. It may take a while to get a job. Also, editors move around a lot within the publishing world and the editor that hired you previously may have moved on.

If you’re willing to do the work, work-for-hire can be a great way to break into publishing, gain experience, and share your knowledge with kids. Consider giving this market a try! In our next post, we’ll tell you how to get started.

Gloria has written for Rosen, Enslow and Greenhaven Press. Lisa writes regularly for Capstone, Rourke, and others.