Narrative Non-Fiction is Hot Hot Hot!

Narrative is the new “it word” in the game of non-fiction! Narrative non-fiction has become a new hot commodity in children’s literature, so much so that SCBWI dedicated a whole panel discussion to the (often under represented) subject. I must admit, I did not manage to attend the whole session. (Yes, I slept in). After hearing the last half of the panel, I sure wish I’d been there for the first half.

The following notes are from the last 30 min of the Narrative Non-Fiction panel at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference featuring authors Elizabeth Partridge, Tanya Lee Stone, Deborah Heiligman, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and agent Ken Wright.

About Talking to Your Sources:

  • Let go of the order in which you think you’ll do something. Real people tell you things you don’t expect.
  • Interviews and books can be unreliable – talk to real sources!
  • Learn what you can before interviewing your sources.
  • Get your sources to sign a release form. Use a tape recorder and read the release on tape and have the source agree on tape as well. Both parties should get a copy of the release form, as well as the publisher.
  • There is no such thing as subjective. Everything has a point of view.

What Makes a Non-Fiction Book Interesting?

  • Try and to do something new and original, don’t rehash the same old biography.
  • You want there to be multiple layers in your non-fiction book.
  • Be careful of the three paragraph data-dump. Try to strive for emotional resonance in each paragraph.
  • What emotion drives the scene you are writing? Always ask yourself this.
  • Breathe your story to life.
  • Find the heart of your non-fiction story. For Charles and Emma that was the love story.

How Do You Decide on the Form of a Non-Fiction Book?

  • Let the content dictate the form.
  • Trust yourself. Stay true to the story versus the kind of book you thought it should be. What you are doing can change.

Non-Fiction Submissions: What You Need:

  • When submitting to an editor you will need to include: Cover Letter, First Chapter, and an Outline for the whole book.

Respect Your Subject Matter:

  • It doesn’t matter if who you are writing about is alive or dead, there’s always someone out there to whom you are accountable. You must tread your subject matter with respect.
  • Nothing can be made up! You can’t make up dialog! This is narrative history, and you can’t write anything that didn’t happen.
  • There are mistakes that alter the truth of a book, and those that do not. We all will make mistakes, all books have them. They aren’t perfect. The key is does that mistake change the truth.

Getting Photographs For Your Book:

  • Always make sure you have a photography budget in your contract.
  • Getting a celebrity photograph will be very expensive.

Other Anecdotes:

  • Tanya let all 13 women read her book before she published it in order to fact check the work.
  • Non-fiction writers are “Archive Rats” – we love digging into research.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a Newbery-Honor award winner who has published poetry, short stories, picture books, novels, and non-fiction for young readers. Her work includes They Called Themselves the K.K.K., Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, and The Boy Who Dared.

Deborah Heiligman is author of Charles and Emma a national book award finalist, Printz Honor, La Times Book Prize Finalist, and winner of the first YALSA Excellent in Non-Fiction award. She has published 27 other books including Cool Dog School Dog, From Caterpillar to Butterfly, and High Hopes.

Elizabeth Partridge is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books, from picture books to young adult fiction. Her books and biographies include John Lennon: All I want is the Truth, This Land Was Made for Me and You, Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange.

Tanya Lee Stone’s books include Elizabeth Leads the Way, Sandy’s Circus, and Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Her work has received many honors including the Boston Globe Horn Book Honor, NCTW Orbis Pictus Honor, and was a YALSA non-fiction finalist.

Ken Wright was an editor and publisher for 20 years, most recently at scholastic, where he was an editorial director. Ken joined Writer’s House in 2007 as an agent, specializing in children’s literature. Ken’s clients have been the recipients of many awards including the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards.

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