Writing Nonfiction Picture Books

I often work with clients who are writing nonfiction picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.

nonfiction picture books, writing nonfiction for kids
If you’re writing nonfiction for kids, do you need to add an element of whimsy in order to hook readers?

In theory, nonfiction picture books are a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the nonfiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.

When There’s Too Much Information

That means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to be writing nonfiction for kids, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly nonfiction.

My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite your nonfiction picture book as straight nonfiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is nonfiction children’s books. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.

When There’s Too Little Information

This is the other potential issue with nonfiction picture books. The lack of information raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?

I recently encountered this issue with a client who was writing nonfiction for kids. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.

Pick a Specific Angle When Writing Nonfiction Picture Books

If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A nonfiction picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and nonfiction.

I would say that a good example of nonfiction picture books is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.

If you’re writing nonfiction for kids and find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and nonfiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.

It would be an honor to be your picture book editor, and I can help you address the picture book or nonfiction question before you submit.

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