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 not.

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.

The beautiful Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown, 2011).

It still exploits the rule of threes…

Story has to be at the very heart of it.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet; Knopf; 2013)

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.

Me on the far left, with Rebecca, next left at the Nonfiction Panel at the 2014 British SCBWI Annual Conference, Steve Rickard (Ransom), Sophie Thomson (Pearson) and Kersti Worsley (OUP).


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?

It could be the story behind the invention of the toilet... (Curse you, tiny toilet -I did actually have to look up 'how to draw a toilet' to get something even vaguely resembling one)

Or it could be a favourite organisation...

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,

Richard and George Cadbury (c) Cadbury Archive

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…

www.julietclarebell.com


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.

35 comments:

  1. Wow! Just... wow. I'm so inspired by your post. I thought of half a dozen ideas just while reading this. I'm doing a lot if research for a historical novel at the moment and my reading has uncovered a gazillion true and fascinating stories not widely known. You've lit a fire, Clare. THANK YOU!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so pleased to hear it, Candy. You must have the most amazing stories that people would so love to hear. Imagine them as picture books... I'd so love to read them. Thanks... Clare.

      Delete
    2. That's a lot of 'so's. But you've got such a luxurious voice. It would go beautifully in a true story picture book... Can't wait!

      Delete
  2. Brilliant! Great to read a post that's fizzing with excitement. When I was a library assistant (12 plus years ago now) there were very few non-fiction picture books, but they were so popular with the kids we had waiting lists for them- especially The Magic School Bus series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jane. I think that things really will change in this country, with more and more true story picture books. The American market is looking amazing at the moment. Here's hoping there'll be lots more exciting true stories for children in our (remaining) libraries soon...

      Delete
  3. Good to see you all fired up and raring to go, Clare. Let the truth be told!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Check out Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom, masters of non-fiction combined with illustration.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fabulous post, Clare! Now you make me want to find more nf ideas for piboidmo. Can't wait to see illustrations for the Cadbury book! And it's so neat you could brainstorm with your sister!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tina. Have you sent off yours yet? I'd love to hear how it's going. Really good luck with it and many many more... Yes, brainstorming with my sister was great. I'm really looking forward to doing it with another of my sisters next week and a brother, too. Families are great for bouncing ideas back and forth with... Good luck!

      Delete
  6. Good post Clare. Yes, it's important to talk to people. After an idea is gathered, thoughts are written, then it'a time to share to make sure things are just right. I'm glad I have you to share with,Clare. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mona. I can't wait to share some of these stories in the pipeline with PictureBookies over the coming months (and years!).

      Delete
  7. What an inspiring post! I don't dare brainstorm any more ideas though, as like you, I've already got too many and need to narrow them down. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and this great post, Clare!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Rebecca. It's tricky not to spend months just mining for ideas as it's so much fun. But you're right. I should stop now, too, and get on with working out which ones are the real gems from the ones I've got down. I'm sure that after all these years, the brilliant stories from childhood could wait to be written for a while longer... Here's to many happy hours spent discussing true stories over the coming years... Can't wait to read your next...

      Delete
  8. Great post, Clare!

    There's a lot of brilliantly written and illustrated children’s non-fiction published each year, but for some reason it doesn't get the same level of recognition that children's fiction does. I recently did an analysis of the children's books reviewed by five national newspapers in 2013 and found that only 2% (10 out of 472) of the reviews were for non-fiction books.

    So it's great to see posts like yours and campaigns like FCBG's raising the profile of children's non-fiction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's true. It's much harder to find as it's not been promoted in the same way. I think that the term non-fiction almost by definition makes it feel the less worthy sibling to fiction. They've obviously changed the perception massively in the States, which is great. I think things are going to change here, too. And hooray for FCBG's National Nonfiction November!

      Delete
  9. Great post! I love historical fiction and creative non fiction. I've thought about writing non fiction picture books before, but I need to stop thinking and start writing! Thanks for the inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
  10. So many great ideas for digging up cool stories, thank you! I like how you've emphasized STORY - this is and has to be the heart of any picture book to make it endure. Those American picture books that have this quality are not worthy tomes, but exciting narratives and that is what children (and the 'gatekeepers') respond to. Recently, I went to the Ming exhibition at the British Museum with my mum, and what appealed to me most were not so much the facts, but rather the stories I was imagining, the "lives" behind the objects on display.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Natascha. It has to be at the heart of what we do and that is why those US picture books are so exciting -and that they're beautifully illustrated. As long as we remember that we have to be as exacting with our editing in terms of word choice, rhythm, repetition, voice, and that the story needs to shine, then I think we're onto something really good. Obviously there are some great UK books out there already but it would be fantastic to see many many more join them.

      Delete
  11. Thanks for this great post, Clare. I haven't tacked a non-fiction picture book yet, but I do have some ideas written down. I like getting all these tips :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I look forward to seeing a non-fiction manuscript of yours, Penny! And will it be in rhyme? At least one of the ones I want to write I will try in rhyme...

      Delete
  12. Wow! A great and inspiring post. Now I've got lots of ideas popping, been scouring the internet for research and feel ready to start writing some of them down. Thanks! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Gary! I'm looking forward to hearing all about them very soon...

      Delete
  13. I am a huge nonfiction picture book lover. So huge that Betsy (Elizabeth Bird) credited me with coining the phrase "Nonfiction Connoisseur" since that is how I see myself. I wrote two nonfiction manuscript and entered them in the Lee and Low New Voices Award. I have an idea box that I toss ideas in as I get them. I am working on a story now that came to me while I was watching a rerun of an 80s comedy. The story was so powerful, I immediately started writing a manuscript. You are so right...there are so many stories to be told. And with the Release of Information Act and the Internet, we are learning so much more. I write a lot of historical fiction. I love to take an event and say to myself, "What if a little girl or boy was smack dead in the middle of what was going on, what would he say? See? Do?" Then I create this little girl or boy. I create her a loving supportive family. And I tell how he or she reacts to her surroundings. And voila, you have a historical fiction - real event, made cup characters, and reaction from that time period as noted by newspaper articles. This was a very inspiring article. Great suggestions as to how to find stories. It seem like I have some reaching out to do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Jackie! It's amazing how well we can access things now, whether it's to feed into historical fiction or for something completely true...

      Have lots of fun reaching out...
      See you over on Wow Nonficpic! Clare.

      Delete
  14. I've noticed that agents and editors in the US have been asking for non-fiction picture books, so this post is interesting to me. Another thought, I find that my friends don't seem to realize there is such a thing as a non-fiction picture book. They may have even read one, but still...perhaps the illustrations and the story make it seem so childlike that they don't pick up on the fact that it's non-fiction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are so right. Even the librarians try to school me when I asked for nonfiction picture books. They tell me that picture books are fictions and that they have nonfiction somewhere else....ME...JANE is catalogued with the fiction picture book.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, CA. Over in the UK, I don't think I really realised they were there until a year or so ago, but there's been such an explosion of them over in the States in recent years. When I visited a huge library over here in the UK last year and asked about nonfiction picture books, I was recommended ONE book.
      I think if you can make a great picture book that works well enough as a story that people assume it's fictional, and it has beautiful illustrations, then you've probably done a good job... I think in five years' time, it will be much clearer what a non-fiction picture book is -certainly in the States if not yet in the UK.

      Delete
    3. And over here in the UK, the recently created partnership of Nosy Crow with National Trust feels like a very significant and exciting development.

      Delete
  15. As a children's librarian, I can't tell you how exciting non-fiction is these days ... especially when blended with fiction ... Me .. Jane is a fabulous example. I'm also really liking Ben Frankllin's Big Splash right now. Excellent example of an historical fact/famous person characteristic developed within a fictional picture book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'll try and order Ben Franklin's Big Splash from the library. Are you in a UK library (or a school library)? Looking forward to checking it out... Clare.

      Delete
  16. Great and inspiring post. I'm going to start brainstorming with friends and family and see what kind of list I can come up with. You're so right. There are jillions of ideas all around us. I just know I'm going to come up with some exciting book-worthy ones! Thak you, again.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks for sharing this information. I found it very informative as I have been researching a lot lately on practical matters such as you talk about..
    hire voice over   

    ReplyDelete