nonfiction picture book

How To Write A Nonfiction Picture Book

Writing a nonfiction book takes a lot of work, and writing a nonfiction picture book is no exception. Picture book writing craft is still of utmost importance, and you have the added task of doing research and working with an illustrator to create your book. That said, if you are passionate, researching and writing and getting your book published should be rewarding and fun!

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article to answer “how to write a nonfiction picture book”:

  • Where To Get Nonfiction Picture Book Ideas
  • Refining and Confirming Your Book Idea
  • Your Nonfiction Picture Book Text: Content and Research
  • Writing Your Nonfiction Picture Book
  • Getting Illustrations or Photos for Your Book
  • Publishing Your Nonfiction Picture Book

Let’s get you started towards your goal of being a published nonfiction picture book author!

Where To Get Nonfiction Picture Book Ideas

The first step of writing any book, including a nonfiction picture book, is to decide what you are going to write about. The options for coming up with children’s book ideas are endless! It’s also crucial to decide which type of nonfiction picture book you want to write. Here is an article on the 5 types of nonfiction picture books for children, so if you’re not familiar with them, go check them out first!

What Inspires You?

Diving into what you find inspiring is the easiest way to figure out what to write about. What are your passions? Does discussing sea creatures get you excited? Do you lose yourself for hours researching how beneficial bees are to the ecosystem? If you have any deep-seated passions, that’s a good place to start with your nonfiction writing. You’ll enjoy the process of writing more, and things you find engaging will lend itself to your narrative voice and the reader will connect more deeply with the subject. Passion always comes through in writing, so don’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve and talk about things that get you excited.

Look For Gaps in the Nonfiction Picture Book Market

Another workable way to choose a topic for your picture book is to look for gaps or opportunities in the current published picture book market. This can take time, since you’ll have to do marketing research, but this can prove fruitful if you’re struggling between a few different topics. In fact, I recommend always doing this for the nonfiction market. Look at as many published books as you can to get a picture of what’s out there. You don’t have to choose a brand-new topic that hasn’t been written about, but with nonfiction, avoid creating a replica of an existing book. If you’re covering a topic that’s been covered, it’s advisable to work out a fresh take on it. For example, STEAM subjects, biographies, and historical events can be told from different perspectives or voices, bringing a new angle to the subject matter.

Read

One of the most valuable tools for researching what to write about is reading many books in that same genre. Browse your local library and bookstores, or get books through online book retailers. Get as many nonfiction books as you can and read, read, read. Not only does this allow you to scope out your competition and what gets published by the big publishers, but you can get a sense of what works (style, illustrations, word count, etc.) in the bestsellers. You can also read the yearly winners, honour mentions and nominees for literature prizes like Caldecott, Newberry and Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize Winners, or subscribe to newsletters and organisations that focus on children’s literature.

Reading broadly will help you determine what distinguishes a successful book from those that are not.

Examples of picture books to read:

Ask Adults or Your Librarian

It can be challenging to choose a topic for kids, especially if you don’t have children yourself, but it’s helpful to ask friends or family members with children what they like to read, or which topics or activities they are into. This is an easy step you can take, and you will get the added benefit of discovering what adults like to read or do with their children.

Librarians also know what kids like! So visiting local libraries can give you valuable insights, including which collections are most popular. You can even find out if it’s better to publish paperback or hardcover from them too. (Generally, hardcover books are preferred, but ask and see!) Librarians also know which types of nonfiction picture books have been published in the last year or two, so you can ask them about any trends they’ve noticed as well.

Visit Classrooms

Young female school teacher reading a picture book to kindergarten children, sitting on chairs in a circle in the classroom listening

Many teachers are open to having writers in their classrooms. You can definitely use this to your advantage. If the teacher is open to it, you can lead an activity or game that gathers insight into certain topics or subjects, or lead a simple question-and-answer period to see if you’re on the right track with your material. Observe the kids’ responses, what questions they have, what they find interesting and uninteresting.

If you need ideas for a topic, you can survey a class to discover topics of interest that can inspire your book. It’s also a great tactic to read to the age group you want to target. Ideally, read a book similar to what you want to write, so you can get input on something in the ballpark of what you intend to work on. You can do this in a classroom, library or early learning centre. Understanding how kids think, what they find interesting, and what they understand and don’t understand is invaluable when it comes to writing a successful book.

Spend Time With Kids

When you are doing research for your book, it is helpful to spend time with kids to understand your target audience. Your writing will benefit from conversations with children, where you observe and listen to what they have to say. Go to a park, museum, go out for some food or a fun activity, and have a good chat and listen.

TV and Movies

There are many TV shows, movies and documentaries for kids. Focus on the most popular ones when you do your research, so you can see what’s currently resonating with kids. If you can watch with a child and note their reactions, even better. Take notes. What lines are (meant to be) funny? What scenes are used to get the kids excited? Venture into different media, like real-life footage and animation, to explore different perspectives. Study media intended for your targeted age group, but you can also explore shows that are resonating with other age groups for inspiration.

This article also explains how to come up with ideas and how to write a children’s book.

Refining and Confirming Your Book Idea

What if you’ve chosen your topic, but there are dozens of books on the topic already? If there are many books on the topic, consider writing about something else. Yet, if you choose a different approach to the topic, you can still write your book, even if there are many others out there already. It’s important to make your book different though, since a carbon-copy of existing books will most likely mean you won’t sell many copies. If you are passionate about a topic, a good idea to stand out from the already available content is to narrow down your topic. For example, if you are excited to write a book about volcanoes, perhaps instead of writing a book broadly on the topic, consider writing about volcanoes found on one continent or country, or volcanoes only of a certain geological age.

You could also change your approach to the writing, for instance, you could write the “biography” of a specific volcano, writing a first-person account of how it came into existence and what it’s “seen” and “experienced” over the years.

Your Nonfiction Picture Book Text: Content and Research

The best advice, no matter what stage you’re at in your writing career, is to read, read, read and practice, practice, practice. If you understand what makes for successful nonfiction, you can make your book just as, or even more, impactful than fiction.

Content

When you have chosen the topic, it is crucial to consider if it will interest your target audience. Build your book content around topics that have appeal to children. One way of doing this is using a topic children can see in real life. For example, when they see firetrucks or brightly coloured machines on a farm, they get a sense of awe and become curious about what those machines do. Animals, insects, and activities they do at home, like cooking or crafting, are all examples of topics that children can relate to in their own lives. Though, the content doesn’t have to be on a topic they can observe in real life. UFOs, dinosaurs, microbes, or deep-sea creatures can be just as interesting.

The key is to ensure it is a stimulating topic for children, and you can determine this by observing kids and researching books and television (or online) shows they watch. Common sense also helps! For instance, “How to do your taxes for seven-year-olds” is unlikely to be a bestseller. The goal is to create an emotional connection with your reader, and by choosing a topic that is relatable to your target audience, it will be much easier to write an engaging and popular book.

Consider the Curriculum

Front view of male Caucasian teacher explaining anatomy using anatomical model at desk with students who listen carefully in classroom of elementary school

If your goal is to get your book into schools, then it’s worthwhile to reach out to teachers or school librarians to see if there’s room for your book within a particular curriculum. This has added appeal for publishers, as they will be able to sell your book to educators.

Brainstorming

Once you’ve chosen a topic, write down all questions or observations you can think of about your topic, even if you already are an expert in that area. Try to imagine yourself as a child and think about what questions you’d ask about the topic. You could also ask children what they want to know about the subject. Once you’ve come up with a list, pick out the most interesting points.

Do some quick research on these points. Based on the research, decide if you have chosen the right points to cover, or found a niche within your topic that works. To make a cohesive book, the information you cover should connect well, so be sure to check that. Replace any points that aren’t interesting or cohesive enough.

Once you have completed your key questions to cover in the book, you can dive further into the researching process. Note: If you share your sources in your book’s back matter, be sure to note them down as you go.

Researching Your Nonfiction Picture Book

When you begin your deeper research, study extensive materials from many resources. Good places to start are adult and children’s books on the subject, online articles (make sure they are accurate!), magazines, documentaries, videos on YouTube, or even podcasts. As a number one priority, ensure your sources are reliable so you don’t present any inaccurate data. A reliable source is well-researched, unbiased, based on evidence, not opinion, and up-to-date. Depending on the subject, most sources published over ten years ago are considered outdated. Books by reputable authors, documentaries by reputable creators, and articles by established educational websites are excellent sources. Don’t use commercial sources for your research, as they are biassed. Blog posts, YouTube and podcasts can be good sources of information, but use strict judgement. Remember, anyone can say anything in a blog post, YouTube video or podcast. The information should come from a person with credentials or experience, and look for citations or reference to evidence.

Look for red flags like poor writing, grammatical or spelling errors, or unstructured or confusing text. Also, if you find misinformation in a source, it’s safer to disregard the entire source. The goal is to get plenty of background information. You want to gain your own deep knowledge of the subject, so you can write about it from your own understanding, as opposed to compiling facts without insight. An added benefit to studying picture books on your topic is that you’ll discover more of what has already been covered, so you can take a unique angle and make your book stand out.

Pay attention to how the subject is presented and which presentations are most interesting, and keep in mind what kids would find interesting. Fact check all your information. It’s ideal that at least 2-3 sources agree. If you can only find one source that gives the information you’re sharing, that may be a red light.

Organise Your Information

As you research, take extensive notes. Once you have completed your research, summarise what you have found, focusing on the key questions you have chosen and what facts you think will be most interesting to your young readers. Then you have the task of organising the information into a cohesive outline for your book. Simplify the information to be understandable for your age group, but don’t dumb-down the information to the point where it doesn’t encourage the child to stretch their mind or becomes uninteresting for your readers. You want them to learn new, interesting concepts and to expand their knowledge and their reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Once you’ve organised everything, do any additional research to fill gaps in your text. Once your text is complete, read over it and ensure you have made nothing too complex, or chosen any concepts that are above your target audience’s ability to understand. If you are unsure, study more children’s books on the topic to see what different authors have included in their own work.

Finalise the Type of Nonfiction Picture Book You’ll Write

At this point, you should have already decided on the type of nonfiction picture book you intend to write, for instance, narrative, expository or traditional, but it’s a good idea to reevaluate this now. Based on all the research you’ve done, you may realise a different type of nonfiction than you chose will be better for the book. When you’re finalising how you’re going to write your book, also consider how you want your readers to feel when they’re reading it. What effect do you want your book to have? Are you looking to change their minds on a subject? Perhaps you want to encourage them to take a specific action? It will help if you have a goal in mind.

It can be a powerful exercise to write your first draft in two or more styles. For instance, writing it as an expository text and as a browsable text. This way, you can explore which type of book will work best.

Writing Your Nonfiction Picture Book

Now you have your foundation in place, and you are ready to write! Even though you are not writing a fiction book, you still need to have structure tying your book together. For creative nonfiction, you will use the same story arc as in fiction. For the other four types of nonfiction, instead of using a story arc with tension, climax, and resolution, you will need to structure your book in a way that guides your reader through an experience. Presenting the information in a way that feels like you’re taking them on a journey with learning along the way makes for a memorable reading experience.

For example, if you’re writing a picture book about leaves, your “story” can be about how leaves change as the seasons change. Or if your subject is our solar system, you can include an astronaut character exploring the planets. You won’t be writing it as a narrative nonfiction book with a story arc, but you can still include a character to add fun and interest. Often a character included like this will act as the narrator. Or the sun or planets themselves can be the characters, narrating the book. As with fiction, you can rewrite your draft, trying different techniques.

The core of a nonfiction picture book lies in its ability to inform while keeping the reader engaged. To achieve this, consider employing the following strategies:

  • Simplify complex ideas without diluting the facts.
  • Use playful language or rhymes to make information memorable.
  • Integrate fun anecdotes or surprising facts to maintain curiosity.
  • Design interactive elements, like questions to ponder or activities to do.

Creating this delicate balance between education and entertainment is crucial in capturing the hearts and minds of your young readers.

Once you’ve written the first draft, revise, revise and revise some more! Focus on the flow and structure, ensuring that your book takes the reader on a logical progression (unless you are writing a browsable nonfiction picture book). Think about the book layout, how your text will work with the illustrations or photos, and check your final word count.

Once you are satisfied, get feedback from other authors, kids, friends, family, teachers, and anyone you can! Revise again, then hire a professional nonfiction picture book editor. Don’t skimp on these steps. They are really important if you want to publish a high-quality, professional book.

Getting Illustrations or Photos for Your Book

Once your text is finalized, it’s time to hire an illustrator or photographer, or to source photos. Nonfiction picture books need accurate illustrations or photos, since they are educational and factual. Illustrations are wonderful for narrative nonfiction, but also for nonfiction where you prefer more creativity or where photos are hard or impossible to come by, for instance, books about dinosaurs or events from the 15th century. Decide if you want to use illustrations or photos. Keep in mind that if you use photos, you will need to find enough of them to fill the entire book and to show each concept you are writing about.

Here are some tips for getting illustrations for your nonfiction picture book:

  • Collaborate with an illustrator who resonates with your vision for the book and is willing to do a bit of research.
  • Ensure that the illustrations are age appropriate and visually appealing to children.
  • Use visuals to explain complex information in simple, digestible ways.
  • Keep diversity and inclusivity in mind to create a book that all children can relate to.

The synergy between text and art is what will make your nonfiction picture book a memorable read for children.

Also hire an interior and cover designer. This will sometimes be the same person, or sometimes two separate designers. The layout of your picture book is extremely important to make it easy to understand and engaging, so you should ensure you hire a professional designer. And people do judge a book by its cover, so also ensure your cover looks amazing! Have a hardcover cover designed, and optionally, also a paperback and ebook cover. This way, you can get your book published in different formats.

Three examples of illustration styles appropriate for nonfiction. Illustrations by GetYourBookIllustrations.

Publishing Your Nonfiction Picture Book

With your book ready, it’s time to publish! Whether you’re aiming for a traditional publisher or self-publishing, ensure you:

  • Polish your manuscript with the help of professional editors.
  • Research publishers or platforms that align with your book’s theme.
  • Prepare a compelling query letter or proposal if you’re seeking a traditional publisher.
  • If self-publishing, look into the various platforms available and understand their processes.
  • Find a printer or publisher who can print hardcover picture books, since this is the most popular format for nonfiction picture books.

Hardcover nonfiction picture books are popular. Example: Swirl by Swirl. Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman

The path to publishing can be intricate, but with persistent effort, your book can find its way onto children’s bookshelves.

Conclusion

Writing a nonfiction picture book is a wonderful way to enlighten young minds through an accessible and fun format. It’s about combining facts with creativity, turning learning into an adventure. Remember that your nonfiction picture book could shape children’s understanding of the world around them. So, make it a great one!

We’d love to hear from you in the comments:

  1. Are you more excited about writing fiction picture books or nonfiction picture books? Why?
  2. What else would you like us to write about on the topic of nonfiction picture books for kids?

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