Some of today’s most celebrated nonfiction writers for children share how their writing processes reflect their passions, personalities, beliefs, and experiences in the world. Editor Melissa Stewart offers a wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas to help students learn to craft rich, unique prose.
I’ve taught two online picture book biography classes this summer. My students were so pleased with the masters-level content, their recommendations led to quite a few inquiries about my next offering. So, I’ve scheduled a fall class, beginning October 18th—perfect timing for getting a manuscript ready for a 2021 submission. I hope you’ll join me. Click here to read recent testimonials.
A well-crafted picture book biography looks simple, doesn’t it? In reality, an author must research like a scholar and then distill and shape facts as a storyteller—all to capture the spirit of the subject on the page for young readers. It’s a worthwhile challenge. In this six-week online masters-level class, we will peek inside approximately 75 mentor texts to cover a wide range of craft topics. Between classes, you will be challenged with helpful resources and writing exercises designed to help you find your story’s sparkle. And because publication is the goal, the business side of writing will be covered, too. See below for a list of topics.
This course is appropriate for all experience levels but especially meaningful for intermediate writers who have a picture book biography subject in mind.
Some topics to be covered include:
Nonfiction vs. fiction
Narrative vs. expository
How to analyze mentor texts
Finding your connection to your character
Choosing a tight angle/focus
Point of view and psychic distance
Theme (the heart of your story)
Structure (there are so many great options!)
Beginnings & Endings
Research & organization
Revision & Submissions
The publishing and income process
Class recordings will be available to registered students for two weeks after each session
BONUS #1 — A guest author will join us for a Q&A session, offering you an additional industry perspective
(previous guests include Barb Rosenstock, Laurie Walmark, Deborah Hopkinson, Lesa Cline-Ransome)
BONUS #2— To facilitate ongoing conversations and to create a community of like-minded colleagues, class attendees will be invited to a private Facebook group.
BONUS #3 — At the end of the 6-week class, you will have the opportunity to purchase a deeply discounted developmental p.b. bio. critique from me for $125.
OR you can join one of my small-group online manuscript critique groups (often referred to as workshopping–max of 5 writers) for $150, which includes a developmental critique from me, feedback from four of your peers, and a group Zoom meeting to brainstorm each manuscript.
One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction is research—part scavenger hunt and part archaeological dig into the past. But what’s the best way to organize the resulting mountain of research? It’s a question that always pops up in forums and writers’ groups. The truth is, there is no single right system. Much depends on the topic, the volume and type of materials, and most importantly, each person’s individual style.
Early in my writing career, I flailed my way through index cards, spiral notebooks, file boxes, endless manilla folders. The problem was that, when I needed to find a detail, fact, or quote, it was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So I pursued a more streamlined process—one that allowed easy access for my immersive writing style and comprehensive research style in a low-tech way. When it comes to my work, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for immediately. For some writers, software programs like Scrivener or Evernote are perfect tools for that goal and their own styles. For others, the spiral notebooks and index cards that make me a little dizzy, are ideal. To each her own! I experimented widely until I settled on a system that works for me. No doubt, my process will evolve over time, but here’s my current 4-step system:
#1—Research like the dickens—beyond the obvious sources
#2—Create digital file folders for thoughtfully-labeled, easily-sharable, digitized or scanned documents, interview transcriptions, etc.
#3—D-ring binders—the perfect adjustable container.
* If the book is topical, I organize the binder by related sub-topics.
* If the book is historical or biography, I organize chronologically, with necessary sub-topic categories, too.
* I print the most reliable sources for the binder.
#4 Create a Book Bible—
* Open a Word document and turn on Navigation Pane or Document Map (usually under the Sidebar option)
* Create category headings using a heading style, which automatically triggers the navigable sidebar, like a table of contents. Clicking on one of the headings jumps the cursor to that section of the document. No more scrolling. Nifty, huh?
* Extract relevant quotes, details, information from the binder sources, books, and interviews, and type them under the appropriate headings, with citations. (Most often, a single source, like a book or newspaper article, has information that fits under multiple categories. For example, a single eyewitness account for King of the Tightrope can include rope information, Blondin’s background, Niagara details, and Blondin’s costume—all of which can be extracted for different category headings. This is especially important when there are conflicting details across sources. It’s much easier to scrutinize disparities when the accounts are in one place.
Creating a book bible is tedious and time-consuming, and the process makes me grouchy. But once completed, I feel empowered and confident. A single book bible (usually 50-100 pages for a picture book) contains the most relevant and important information for my book project in one Word document. When does it come in handy? When it’s time to craft a bibliography; when I need to share a source with my editor; when I’m knee-deep in revision or rewrites and need to quickly find information; if anyone questions the content in my nonfiction narratives. And just imagine how ready I’ll be if Hollywood comes knocking, or if an opportunity related to one of my books arises in the future, when the research is no longer fresh in my memory.
Could I write a nonfiction picture book without researching as deeply and as widely as I do? Probably. Could I wrangle the research without going the extra mile with my binders and my book bibles? Sure, but it would feel like wearing ill-fitting shoes. I know myself and my immersive writing and research style enough to know that condensing and containing information is what I need.
Writer friends, you do you. Whatever your style, however you roll, allow yourself time to flail around until you find what works best for your unique comfort level. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments.
Above: Book bibles for Step Right Up (92-page document), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (54-page document), and King of the Tightrope (49-page document) Below: A Sample page from my King of the Tightrope book bible, with partial sidebar visible
There’s a common belief among new nonfiction writers that primary sources are the only way to find absolute facts. Secondary sources are assumed to be inferior, less trustworthy, less valuable.
I beg to differ.
Don’t get me wrong, I get a rush when I find primary sources. As kids in my school visits can attest, I’m downright giddy when I talk about turning the pages of original 19th-century newspapers or scrolling through microfilm. I’ve had palpable reactions while donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling Beautiful Jim Key scrapbooks at the Tennessee State Archives (Step Right Up), or when I found Lincoln’s handwritten letter with his duel terms (Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words). For each book’s research, I was reminded that primary sources are not a guarantee of accuracy.
The primary sources I uncovered while researching for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara were especially suspect.
When I found the first biography of Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had hit pay dirt. In the preface, the biographer claims that Blondin himself was part of the book’s creation. It was as close to an “as-told-to” account as I could ask for. If Blondin was feeding the author information and approving the content, the book was as good as a primary source. What a gold mine! Or so I thought!
Seems like everything ever written about The Great Blondin originated from this book, either directly or secondarily. I believed every word until I expanded my primary source search and dove into secondary sources with a critical eye. AND, luckily, I successfully tracked down a well-informed descendent of Blondin.
Following are just a few of the many inaccuracies found in the primary sources I turned to:
The 1862 collaborative biography claims that young Jean Francois was accidentally introduced to acrobatics and tightrope-walking when a traveling troupe camped near his French home. He purportedly taught himself the skills of acrobatics and funambulism and was quickly considered a prodigy. His parents sent him to L’Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon—a special school for acrobats. By the age of nine, the biographer states, the future Blondin was orphaned. What a story! An orphan who grows up to be the best in his field. Unfortunately, much of the book was falsified.
My ultimate research revealed that, in truth, Blondin was part of the third acrobatic generation in his family. There was no circus camped near his home. He came to his vocation naturally and was part of his parents’ act even as a toddler. He literally grew up on the rope and on stage. As for the acrobatic school in Lyon—my research revealed no such school—a fact confirmed by Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.
Later, the biography claims, as an adult sailing to the United States for a two-year acrobatic tour, Blondin proved the only person brave enough and strong enough to dive into the Atlantic during a raging storm to rescue a rich nobleman that had been pitched overboard.
Nope! Not true. According to the ship’s passenger list (another primary source), there was no nobleman. And, since there’s no other record of a storm during this sailing, I must assume the entire episode is an invention.
As for the sad fact about Blondin becoming an orphan at age nine…you guessed it. It was false. Though his father died while Blondin was young, his mother lived into her 50’s, dying while adult Blondin was performing in the U.S.
I’ll never know if Blondin falsified his story for this biography or if the author falsified Blondin’s involvement and simply made stuff up. It was not the only primary source with unreliable information.
In 1859, Blondin carried Harry Colcord, his agent, across the Niagara River on his back, much to the amazement of all who witnessed it. Colcord’s later accounts of his experience, and of Blondin’s process of engineering his ropes, survive as primary sources. Unfortunately, Colcord was quite a storyteller, and he changed his details with each telling. In one interview, he was quoted as saying that sixteen horses powered a windlass on the American side of the Niagara River to stretch Blondin’s rope. I believed it, hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I subconsciously wanted it to be true because of the drama of the scene. Illustrator Adam Gustavson even created a gorgeous spread depicting the equine laborers. Then I discovered that it was false. There were no horses used in the stretching process. Grrr! Poor Adam had to change his illustration.
We cannot assume that primary sources are accurate. Sometimes, the creator has a biased perspective or a limited perspective or, naively, incorrect facts. Sometimes, the source is exaggerated or altogether falsified for dramatic effect.
Newspapers, too, are notoriously inconsistent. You can’t imagine the frustration of finding wildly different reports about the size of Blondin’s walking rope—from 1 1/2″ to 7″ diameter, wide, circumference, thick, around—even the units of measure were inconsistent. And, don’t get me started about the lack of reportage about Blondin’s process of engineering his rope across the gorge. What details do exist are also inconsistent and missing chunks of information. For those missing details, there were no primary sources to refer to.
The best secondary sources result from the distillation and evaluation of information from many sources and different perspectives. While a primary source is like seeing facts through one rigid lens, a good secondary source is like a carefully curated panoramic view.
Had I relied solely on primary sources for King of the Tightrope, I would have invariably perpetuated falsehoods. Thanks to modern experts, engineers, scholarly analysis, and a family connection, I was able to uncover the true story about The Great Blondin and his notable feats at Niagara, and the STEAM connection that threads my narrative together. I can feel confident that my book—a secondary source—will provide accurate information going forward. Had my topic been purely science or technology-based, it would have been equally important. Consider how breakthroughs of the past would be viewed today.
Dig for those primary sources, friends. But don’t stop there. Look for quality secondary sources that will help you form a more complete and accurate picture of your topic. You’ll feel triumphant when your true story comes into focus.
They are short and for kids, but nonfiction picture books can require the sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars, the puzzling wizardry of Sherlock Holmes, and the science chops of Bill Nye.
When I set out to write about how The Great Blondin engineered his tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in 1859, I hoped to find the honey pot of details in the countless newspaper articles I uncovered. But instead of a step-by-step reveal, I faced scattered and inconsistent details and humongous gaps in information. Though my picture book narrative couldn’t possibly include every single step, I needed to understand them, to ensure accuracy and a you-are-there sense of tension. Piecing those steps together required that I step out of my comfort zone and into the world of STEMs. Beginning with rope.
The Mysterious STEM of Ropes
You’d think that the simplest detail to nail down would be the rope Blondin performed on, right? Afterall, witnesses could touch the “hawser.” Alas, though most sources correctly estimated the length of the walking rope to be ~1300’ feet long, the rope’s circumference was another matter. Reporters claimed it was 1.5-inches, two, three, 3.25, 3.5, four, six, ten-inches “wide,” “thick,” “diameter,” “around,” “large,” “circumference.” Oy vey! What a snarl to untangle. Was it really that important? Absolutely! There was only one way to solve this hempen-braided mystery, 160-years after the event. I turned to an engineer. Specifically, one with a vested interest in my project—Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.
The blessed planets aligned for this fortuitous connection. Jean-Louis (thankfully, an English-speaker) and I exchanged clues from historical accounts, then he tapped into his expertise to determine the tension/breaking rate of fiber ropes of different sizes until the mystery was solved. Historical clues + Modern science. Voila! Now I could accurately state that The Great Blondin’s walking rope was 3.25” diameter, or ten+ inches circumference (circumference= diameter X pi [3.1459]). That concrete detail affected every step of Blondin’s process, including the 40,000’ of other ropes. It seems like a lot of effort for something as simple as rope, but accuracy matters. For classrooms, I hope my STEM research mystery inspires a hands-on approach to learning math and engineering concepts.
It’s All About the Questions
Now that the rope mystery was solved, I extracted more research clues to determine necessary questions. How did Blondin and his helpers get the walking rope from the American shore to the Canadian shore in a rowboat? How far upstream did they have to begin to compensate for the wicked current, in those days before human intervention, when 1.5 million gallons of water per second flowed over the Niagara Falls? How did the men transport, attach, lift, transfer, tie, splice, stretch each rope for its intended purpose? Step by step?
Looking back, I see an evolution of my own thought-process in my early diagrams and moodling, often with my engineer-son’s help. The engineering calculations were over my head, to be sure, but my inner Veronica Mars embraced the challenge of connecting the proverbial dots.
Once Blondin’s process was nailed down, I could put Blondin on his rope. Almost.
The Science of Balance
I couldn’t write about a rope-walker without feeling rope beneath my own feet, so I found a four-foot-long, 2 ½”-inch diameter manila rope (the largest available). I walked back and forth on the rope, as it rotated under my feet, and I struggled to keep my balance. More questions emerged: What is balance? How does a balance pole help a tightrope walker? Suddenly, I was a kid again, wobbling on a balance beam, a cavaletti, that crazy swinging playground bridge—oblivious to concepts of gravity, inertia, mass—the secret recipe to keeping me upright. I like to think that, had I read a story like King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara at that time, I would have been inspired to solve the mystery of my own STEM connection.
Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019) released in October 2019. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys mentoring and inspiring writers of all ages, especially during school visits. Donna lives in Central Texas where she does NOT walk on a tightrope.