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


  1. Hi Emma, I really needed to read your article today! I've been struggling with feeling inadequate to finish a Middle-Grade book that I started because I didn't personally know my subject (she had passed away over a decade ago). I do, however know my subject matter and have done my research. I will continue with confidence and work hard to best represent her in this book! Thanks! Lana

    1. Hi Lana--You can definitely do that! Sounds to me like you're completely qualified, since you've done your research. Best of luck! -Emma

  2. Hi Emma, Thanks for sharing your adventures in writing about what calls out to you. I look forward to reading your "To Live on an Island." And great tip--moms everywhere are such good resources for making it real.
    Carole Calladine

    1. Thanks, Carole! And yes--moms have the best info! :)

  3. Dear Emma: thank you for sharing this and a great reminder that interest, great research skills and plenty of heart can create an excellent book.

  4. Emma, What's your advice if you really want to write about a place but are unable to actually go there?

    1. I think you can still do it! Really, you can get so much from the internet, and from watching videos. I'd also really focus on talking to people in person (phone interviews) and doing email interviews.

  5. Great tips, Emma! Looking forward to all these books!