Friday, 21 November 2014
True Story Picture Books (or Creative Non-Fiction: It’s All About the Story) by Juliet Clare Bell
Are you sitting comfortably?
I’m itching to get up and discover. I feel like a puppy who hasn’t quite worked out which way she wants to go first and is darting from one place to another, happily, but slightly barking…
I’ve got the bug back. After feeling uninspired for quite some time, I’m very very excited about writing picture books again. I feel like I’ve re-understood something I knew a while back when I was writing my chocolate book, but had kind of forgotten.
I’m writing this in National Non-fiction November, in praise of non-fiction -although I reckon the term ‘non-fiction’ has a dry, almost negative, feel about it. Almost as if it’s not something worthy of a term in its own right, just that it is not something else. It’s not fiction, which I as an author –and reader- love. But what I love about fiction is STORY. And the best non-fiction is exactly that. So I’m re-thinking how I think of it in my head: I write picture books and at the moment, the picture books that I’m really drawn to writing are true story picture books, which sounds more fun than non-something else (to me, at least).
So what’s the real difference?
Apart from the fact that the story is true, there isn’t a great difference –if you do it really well. A great true story picture book still makes the best use of language and rhythm, repetition and sometimes even rhyme. It still makes use of the form of the picture book –exciting readers by interesting use of page turns.
It still exploits the rule of threes…
Story has to be at the very heart of it.
And your heart has to be at the very heart of it too, when you’re writing it. Don’t write a true story picture book if the story doesn’t fire you up, first because your reader won’t love it, and also, because you’ve got to research and research takes time. Lots of time.
A close writer friend, Rebecca Colby, and I, were part of the Breaking into Nonfiction panel at the recent British SCBWI annual conference. Anita Loughrey blogged about the panel here.
It was loads of fun and we talked with lots of other writers and editors who were similarly fired up by the idea of beautifully crafted picture books that tell true stories. It feels like something really special is in the air… UK editors are certainly seemingly more interested now than before, but what’s changing?
I wrote about the market for creative non-fiction picture books in an earlier PBD blog post about the Cadbury book I was researching at the time. With the Common Core (adopted by almost all states in the US), 50% of texts for upper primary aged children in schools need to be informational, which means that publishers are taking on many more new true story picture books than ever before. And they’re winning prizes that have traditionally been won by fictional picture books.
And now in the UK, Nosy Crow has teamed up with the National Trust to produce children’s books that relate to National Trust properties. Although the UK market isn’t going to be as big as the US market (given their schools and library market in the light of the Common Core), I think that UK publishers are looking closely at what’s happening in the US market. It’s a really exciting time to be writing in this area.
So, what should you write about?
There are so many thousands of amazing stories out there, waiting to be told. It’s true of fiction ones, and it’s true of real life ones. What you need to do is be receptive to looking/listening out for them.
Here are some things you can do:
Talk to people
Talk to your family. What true stories did you love as a child? Growing up in our family of eight, we used to sit around for hours at the dinner table eating lots but talking even more. My parents were natural storytellers and loved telling, as well as reading, us stories. So I talked with my sister yesterday on the phone for over an hour and together we came up with over sixty ideas for true story picture books. Sixty (that’s this year’s PiBoIdMo sorted)… No wonder I’m on a crazy writing high today… My dad and his lovely new wife came up with a great idea for one, too, when we were chatting about it a few weeks ago. And today, I arranged to go on a really exciting research trip for one of these ideas in just two weeks’ time with another sister who feels similarly excited about the potential project. What a brilliant way to hang out with your favourite people and come up with great ideas/do research at the same time!
What true stories have captured your children's imaginations? What are they doing at school that’s really interesting? My ten-year-old came home from school earlier this week having seen half of a documentary about something (sorry –can’t say what, as I’ve nicked the idea for myself). They were going to watch the other half the next day. When she said to her teacher “I don’t think I can wait till tomorrow cos it’s too exciting!” her teacher said “Please don’t watch it at home [it was on Youtube]. I can’t wait to see all your faces when you see what happens!” So a topic that the children and teacher were all really excited about… Talk to your children (or other primary-aged children).
Talk to librarians and library staff.
They’re brilliant for knowing what people come in looking for and for saying what’s been covered before but not been done well. They’re also pretty fun people to hang out with (thanks to my lovely Kings Heath Library friend who I was out with last night, who told me about certain famous people who’d been written about lots but never in an exciting enough way.) Go on, you know you want to... Have fun and support your local libraries at the same time.
Given that the National Trust and Nosy Crow are now in partnership, have a look at different National Trust properties and land and think of what related stories are there to be told that really fire your imagination…
Watch telly, listen to radio programmes, read newspapers...
Check out the US Common Core -whether you're writing in the UK or the US or anywhere else.
I love stories and people. I want to understand better why people do the things they do (which is why I was a psychologist for so many years in my life-before-children). So for me, I’m fascinated by the person behind the invention/organisation/discovery...
Which inventions/organisations/discoveries fascinate you?
You can research them superficially and quickly to find which of them has a great real life story behind it. We came up with sixty ideas, seventeen of which I’m feeling really excited about. Those seventeen might result in my following up, perhaps, eight really seriously over the coming year. And mostly from brainstorming with a sister who I’d happily spend hours every day talking to about anything. This really is something you can have heaps of fun with.
Think about organisations behind the stories that you love. Is it possible that they could commission you to write a story for them? For my next book, More Than a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of the Cadbury Brothers,
it was Bournville Village Trust that approached me (and Jess Mikhail, the illustrator) and commissioned us rather than the other way round, but I would absolutely approach an organisation now if I felt that I loved a story that related to them and could do it justice. And I’ve loved the whole social reform and philanthropy side of the Cadbury story so much that I’m really interested in writing more stories with that at its heart.
Finally, think about stories where someone has done something against the odds. Could you turn that into a story that children will love and be inspired by?
The biggest problem may be curbing your enthusiasm. Right now I feel a bit like the guy from The Fast Show, who thinks everything is "brilliant!"
And one brilliant thought leads to another… and another…
I’ve had loads of fun brainstorming ideas and now it’s time to do the superficial research on the ones I’m too excited about not to check out now. I’ve set myself a deadline for emailing a list and a summary of a number of ideas for true story picture books that I promised I’d send to an editor. So next week I’m going to be researching all week to whittle it down to a manageable number of ideas to work with for now.
To anyone thinking of writing true stories for children, and to those who are already doing it, good luck. There are SO many stories out there, I think there’s room for lots of us to tell the amazing stories that amaze us.
(There’s a brilliant facebook group that is dedicated to non-fiction picture books: Wownonficpic, and a great four-week online course run by Kristen Fulton).
Do you have any tips for coming up with great ideas for true story picture books? If you’re happy to share, we’d love to read them in the comments below.
Juliet Clare Bell is author of The Kite Princess (Barefoot Books, recently endorsed by Amnesty International) and Don’t Panic, Annika! (Piccadilly Press, recently featured on CBeebies). Her next picture book, More Than a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, was commissioned by Bournville Village Trust, and is currently being illustrated by Jess Mikhail. She has seriously got the bug for telling true stories in her favourite form, picture books.
Clare lives happily in Birmingham, UK, with her three children (always a source of inspiration for true life and fictional stories, and life in general), almost within sniffing distance of the chocolate factory which she’s written about. Which is brilliant…
National Non-Fiction November is the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual celebration of all things factual. Born out of National Non-Fiction Day, the brain child of Adam Lancaster during his years as Chair, the whole month now celebrates all those readers that have a passion for information and facts and attempts to bring non fiction celebration in line with those of fiction.