Friday 6 August 2021

Nonfiction for children – where to start

It’s been a while since I started writing a new nonfiction book for children. I’m about to start on a new one and, to be honest, I’m feeling a little rusty. So I thought I’d talk myself through the planning process in a general way and perhaps that would be useful to other people as well as to myself.


So, where do you start? Let’s assume you have a topic already. Either it’s something you feel there’s a need for a book on or something you’re passionate about and want to share or maybe a publisher has commissioned you to write a book on a particular topic. That last one is the way most of the nonfiction books I’ve written have come about, though this new book I’m embarking on is all my own idea.


So you’ve got your idea and now you need to ask yourself a series of questions. A lot of these reflect the way primary school teachers begin project work, gathering children together to find out what they know and what they want to find out.


What are children likely to know already?

Obviously, you’re guessing here, but looking around at TV and films and books and computer games should give you some idea what sort of basic knowledge children are likely to have. If you were going to write a book about Vikings, for example, you might assume that children may have come across the Vikings in Cressida Cowell’s books or the films of them, and so know that the Vikings lived somewhere cold and had cool ships. Of course you also have to be aware that children may ‘know’ things that aren’t true (like that Vikings had dragons).


In a way, this question is a bit misleading. It’s not exactly about what children know, it’s simply about the fact that they know something. You need to come to the subject as though children know nothing because of course there will be gaps in their knowledge and you can’t possibly know what they are. Perhaps it is better to ask a different question:


Why have they picked up this book?

What is it about the topic of the book that has made them reach for it? Will it tell them more about something they know a little bit about? Will it give them exciting things to do or make? Will it clarify a topic that can be worrying? Does it promise to reveal great secrets or thrilling facts?


The point is that at the outset you need to put yourself in the child’s position. Why would they pick up this book? What are they going to get out of the experience of reading it?


So once you’ve got that sorted out, there are some further questions to answer:


What are the key facts about the topic you must include in the book?


What is the most exciting information you must include?


What information would make great illustrations?


And of course, all the time you’re gathering and sorting information, reading serious grown-up books on the topic, looking at how other children’s writers have approached it, searching the internet and second-hand bookshops and museums for quirky nuggets of information. And once you’ve gathered all you need, then it’s time to sort it.


Not an easy process. With a narrative nonfiction book it’s a little easier; then you’re telling the story of something, propelled forward by the passage of time. But with an information book it’s rather harder. You need to think of it as a story anyway in that one thing should lead to next. Starting with the basics – what, when, where – generally works. Or referring to the child’s experience of whatever it is and then building out. The book will naturally go off in different directions from whatever the starting point is, but I think it’s important to bring it all back together again at the end. With a history book you can do this by talking about what is left behind, the archaeology or influence on life today. Sometimes it’s possible to look to the future of your topic – though that can date the book quickly. Or finish by bringing it back to the child reader with things they can do now they’re in possession of all this knowledge. It’s tricky, this finishing off business, but important to make a satisfying reading experience.


So that’s it. Best get on with it, eh?

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