Picture Book University: Creative Nonfiction


Today I'm going to go over a genre that allowed me to receive that first picture book contract, and it's something my agent has said editors want--creative nonfiction. Because of the new Common Core Standards that most states have adopted, teachers are now clamoring for books in science and history that can be taught using literature. Science is a biggie since in the Common Core, any science in the elementary grades will be taught through the reading program. History/social studies will be taught that way as well, so this could be a huge boon for publishers who are smart enough to produce books that help teach those subjects. And that means, YOU, dear author, can also start writing books that will help educate our little ones.

But what if you're like me and the thought of writing a nonfiction book leaves your mouth dry like a piece of moldy toast? That's where CREATIVE nonfiction can actually fulfill your need to write something with  pizzazz AND also reward you with that coveted picture book contract. If you're smart, you'll do some digging on what exactly you'd like to "teach" creatively.

What is creative nonfiction exactly? It's a nonfiction subject that is told or shown in a creative way. In order to discuss this further, I'll show some categories and examples to get your juices flowing.


  • Teaching a nonfiction topic through a fictional story--The focus here is on a fiction tale that hones in on the nonfiction subject--and the nonfiction subject must be the star of the book. In Charlesbridge's math adventure line, highly sophisticated math subject matter is conveyed through exciting stories. When I set out to write a math adventure, I studied all of their books to get the idea. Math had to  not just be a bunch of set problems--it had to be almost a character in itself. For my first book, Multiplying Menace, the magic in the story WAS the math! One author to check out for creative nonfiction titles is Trisha Speed Shaskan. Her music families series titles are genius. She tells a story of a certain "type" of instrument family all the while teaching about the different musical instruments and sounds. This kind of story could be done on any subject. She also has other creative nonfiction books. Check them out! 
  • Teaching a nonfiction topic through a surprising format--Apart from the hum drum, this type of book uses an idea and runs with it creatively. One example is the book, What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae. It's told as a self help book for expecting bug parents. Within the pages conveys a lot of buggy facts that makes this
    topic funny, accessible, and entertaining. Another series of books that's told in a surprising way is the If You Were a _____ (fill in the blank). Some examples of these books are If You Were a Quadrilateral, If You were a Fraction, If You Were a Compound Word, etc. These books creatively use the child as the star and has them imagine themselves as the actual nonfiction topic. Very clever. Another knock out surprising format is using a parody--Lane Smith's, John, Paul, George & Ben, nails the creative nonfiction genre. He uses the Beatles as an underpinning analogy to our United States founding fathers. Parents are pleased with the references and kids are pleased by the silliness. That's a great one to check out.
  • Teaching a nonfiction subject through rhyme/meter--This is a favorite in the trade/school market. If you can use great meter or rhyme to teach a subject, then it will sell. Some glorious classic examples are Math Curse, Science Verse by Jon Sciescka, Grapes of Math series by Greg Tang, and Verla Kay's  metered verse history books. One of my critique partners just sold a book that was told in rhyme that highlighted a historical parade. You never know! If you can think up a great subject and you can write rhyme well, go for it!


Assignment 8:

  • Go to the library and see if some of these examples are there. Are they in the nonfiction section or fiction? I've found librarians don't know where to place them. My books are often in both, but usually in nonfiction so teachers and students will have access to them when finding a subject. Ask your librarian if they know of other examples. Some other authors to look up are Robin Pulver, Loreen Leedy, and Brian P. Cleary. 
  • Check out as many as you can of various subjects that inspire you. Can you find different formats? One of each (story, surprising format, rhyming text)?
  • Next, brainstorm at least three new ideas in your writing journal. If one calls to you, start your research and then write!


Did you find a book that didn't fit my definitions or know of a great book to check out? If so, please share!

If this post helped you, please share by clicking the twitter bird, fb like, or google plus!

Missed a few PBU posts? Click here: PBU




9 comments:

Donna L Sadd said...

This is a very timely post, Pam. I can see why the librarians get confused as to where to shelve books because I get confused with what to call my own stories! Could you please tell me what the difference is between creative nonfiction and historical fiction? I'm working on a story now that is true and based in science, but there is a creative addition to the events, added as a second visual. Would this be considered creative nonfiction?

Johnell said...

This is brilliant. I've recently discovered the joy of non-fiction myself--sad to say it took me so long.

Pam Calvert said...

Donna, I think the difference between them is focus. I mean, why are you writing it? Is it to teach about the historical event or is that event just a backdrop in the story? Creative nonfiction is written specifically to highlight the subject matter. Most historical fiction focuses on the story events, say the fictional character who happens to live in that time period.

Thank you, Jonelle--glad you found your niche it should be very profitable.

Lovingmama said...

I am SO excited that you wrote about this genre, because that is what my manuscripts are. I am wondering about number of words for this genre - does it follow the traditional PB under 600 words ideal? Or are 1000 words for the early readers acceptable? I'm having trouble finding any sources!!! Also, I would love to hear your opinions on how to market this type of book and which agents are currently looking for them. As it seems to be a new and growing genre that could easily walk the line between fiction and non-fiction. As an educator and a parent - I find these books invaluable tools for teaching and seek them out! But as a newbie to the world of PB publishing =)I am a wee bit lost! Thanks!

Tina Cho said...

I enjoyed reading about this topic, and I have read your math menace book. Very creative!! BTW, how did u land a contract for it? Did u submit a story idea to them? Or did your agent tell you about the opportunity? Maybe I should interview you about that!

Pam Calvert said...

Amanda-- with creative nonfiction, you have wiggle room on word count. If its packed full of facts, you can run it up to 2000 words or more. My suggestion to you is, research similar books in your genre and run them by this site to see the word count. That's how I figure out goal word counts for all new genres I want to write. http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp?c=1

Not sure about which agents are looking for these types of books. Most agents want trade only, but it's my opinion you can sell these kind of books yourself. Look at publishers in the CIP of any creative nonfiction book you see. Charlesbridge, Sylvan Dell, Capstone are a few that come to mind that love these kinds of books, but there are many more.

Tina--I actually got into children's writing with the dream of writing creative science books for kids, so I approached Charlesbridge with some. I didn't have an agent back then. They loved my creativity and really encouraged me to keep trying until one day they asked me to write a math book. I came up with Multipling Menace and the rest is history. I sold four books in the span of six months, but then lost my editor, and I've gotten distracted writing other things, which I'm grateful for or I wouldn't have my agent right now. When approaching agents earlier, none were interested in my new math adventures unless I had something else to sell. (Present agent excluded. She's interested in everything I write.)

Lovingmama said...

Thank you! Those 3 were already on my list. My problem is that there are not a lot of books in the same genre, but I have found some similar ones that I'm using as reference. Thanks for the thoughts on word numbers - I was using the AR site for word counts earlier, so it is nice to know I am at least heading in the right direction! Thank you!

On another note, your math adventures rock - I can't imagine anyone turning them away!!!

Anonymous said...

Pam - Do creative nonfiction books have to follow a certain format, like the rules of 3?

I'm working on a creative nonfiction about an unusual endangered animal. The book isn't about his being endangered though. It's a short story about how he is different and similar to other animals, if this makes any sense.

I know I am being paranoid. I just don't want to give out to much information about the story since this is an open forum.

Thank you.

Pam Calvert said...

That depends on what you're trying to achieve in your creative nonfiction story. My math adventures did use some rule of three simply because that lends itself well in storytelling. If you're telling a story and it should be within the guidelines of a picture book, then yes. Creative nonfiction does not give you license to create a wordy 2000 word pb. Just remember that. You can use the end matter to give more information about your subject. You should study other books of this kind. A great place to start would be visiting Arbordale Publishing's website and try to get your hands on some of their books. They have many creative nonfiction books.