Author Ellen Jackson

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Have you thought about writing nonfiction picture books? While most publishers are glutted with stories featuring anthropomorphic animals and unhappy princesses, they are always eager to see well-written nonfiction for young children. In recent years, there has been an increased demand for this genre. Here are some tips to help you take advantage of this trend:

Do your research. Survey nonfiction picture books in your local bookstore or library. You'll find a potpourri of books on science, animals, history, common childhood problems (divorce, new sibling, moving to another neighborhood, etc.), ABC's, math concepts, and many others that defy easy categorization. Since the success of books such as Snowflake Bentley, many publishers are also interested in picture book biographies.

Ask children's librarians and booksellers to suggest topics that are in demand for which there are no books. Here are results from a recent inquiry: Dewey decimal system, history of photography, famous peacemakers, Greece, Mardi Gras, nutrition. Several of my books including The Winter Solstice (published in 1994 and still going strong) originated from a librarian's list.

Pick a few tentative topics and check out the competition. Ask your local children's librarian for A To Zoo, a reference book that lists picture books by subject, title, and author. Also check out your topic using the keyword search feature on Any topic you select should be one that can be easily illustrated. A book on quantum mechanics, for example, is probably not appropriate for kids.

Do you have a new angle on a topic that has already been covered? Are other books on this topic out of date? Will your topic appeal to teachers, librarians, parents, and kids? Show your prospective editor that you've done your homework by mentioning your research results in your cover letter.

Use your personal contacts and expertise. I recently sold a nonfiction book based on a tour of a local scientific facility and an interview with one of the working scientists. How did I get into this facility? I just called, said that I was writing an article, and asked if I could come for a short visit.

Are you aware of an impending anniversary or important date for which a nonfiction book might be appropriate? Give yourself and your publisher a five-year lead time. (I began my millennium book, TURN OF THE CENTURY, in 1994.)

Write your manuscript using dramatic narrative and engaging language. A nonfiction book should be as lively and interesting as a work of fiction. Use humor. Work and re-work the first paragraph. One editor confessed to me that, when dealing with an unknown author, she doesn't have time to read beyond the first paragraph. If a manuscript doesn't grab her attention from the beginning, she goes on to something more promising.

DON'T give nonfiction information in a story format. Most editors frown on fictionalized nonfiction unless it's very skillfully done. Here are a few (somewhat disguised) recent rejects from the slush pile: Lisa Letter Goes to the Post Office, In The Rainforest with Uncle Rick, Safety Tips from Billy Bear.

DO think of a catchy title for your manuscript: The Velvet Paw (cats), When You Lick A Slug, Your Tongue Goes Numb (quotes from kids), Truly Ghouly (ghosts), Grand Canyon: A Trail Through Time (science), Number Munch (math). Studies show that a book's title accounts for as much as forty percent of bookstore sales.

Send your manuscript to an appropriate publisher. Houses such as Putnam and HarperCollins focus on trade nonfiction. These are books that have high entertainment value and appeal to bookstore patrons. Recent examples are: Doggie Dreams (What do dogs dream about?) and All By Myself (growing up). Books with more information content should be sent to houses that focus on the school/​library market, such as Charlesbridge, Scholastic or National Geographic Books. Examples of these kinds of books are: The Flag We Love (Charlesbridge) and The Life and Words of Martin Luther King Jr. (Scholastic).

Still confused? Go to Amazon and click on Books, then Advanced Search. Type in the name of the publisher. Then specify the Reader's Age. I always choose 4-8 for picture books. Under publication date, I usually specify titles after the year 2007 or 2008 because I want to examine the more recent titles. Amazon will even rank the books according to which have sold the best (although it's not always completely accurate--at least it isn't for my books). It helps to know which titles have done well for the publisher. Examine one publisher at a time, and then order some of the books from this publisher at your local library. You'll be surprised how much you can learn this way.