School’s out for the summer! What’s one of my favorite summertime activities? Why reading, of course. I’ll read at the beach, by the pool, in a hammock, on a roadtrip. (I’m starting to feel like Dr. Seuss here.)
But here’s a sneaky secret. All the books I read aren’t just for entertainment. They pull double duty as writing craft instruction.
When I read, I notice elements of the writing craft, like an author’s use of sensory details, lyrical language, story structure, the balance of text and illustrations, and more. Then, when I am trying to accomplish something in my own writing, I refer back to these books to help show me the way.
But here’s the thing. A mentor text is only helpful if I can remember what you read. How do I record what I’m reading? Through mentor text record form.
I’ve developed a Google form authors and teachers can use to record their mentor text reading. When you click the link, you will be forced to save a copy to your own Google drive. Once saved, you can fill out a form for each book you read, and save your records electronically. Or you can print off the form if you prefer to work on paper.
Looking for more mentor text resources? Fellow author and educator Marcie Flinchum Atkins has a wealth of resources on her website. Find them here.
Looking for mentor text recommendations? Check out educator Jen Vincent’s Teach Mentor Texts.
Welcome to the second installment in the “Killer Concepts” series where we’re exploring:
What makes a killer concept when it comes to a nonfiction (or any) book?
What makes an idea jump out from a writer’s notebook and demand to be written?
What makes editors snap it up?
And what makes readers flock to the book and keep turning the pages?
(NOTE: If you want to explore these ideas in detail in a workshop environment, I invite you to join me for “Reimagining Your Nonfiction Picture Book” beginning June 8 at online The Writing Barn. Learn more and sign up here.)
Last month we looked at the first test: the logine test from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT. It’s a test focused on the external elements of the story — the character, basic plot, and the hooks that will pull readers (and editors) in. Today, we are going to shift focus to the internal and universal.
The Story Genius Approach
Many authors have read Lisa Cron’s books, STORY GENIUS and WIRED FOR STORY. This test comes from STORY GENIUS, and it’s simple indeed. Cron encourages us to ask “What’s Your Point?” It’s a question she asks even the youngest writers as they work to squeeze meaning from simple story prompts. She argues that writers must begin making their point on the very first page.
Cron’s question forces us to look at two things: the universal theme (or takeaway, as I like to call it) and the protagonist’s internal conflict and arc.
The Takeaway (your point)
The best nonfiction books aren’t simply collections of interesting facts. That’s for newspapers or magazines or even the internet. There has to be a larger meaning or takeaway for young readers. What message will resonate with them when they close the book? What will they take to heart in the process of reading the story? This is the takeaway.
The best way I know to get to the takeaway is to ask Cron’s question: “What’s your point?” Here’s “the point” for some of my books:
Failure is to be expected, and perseverance pays off — WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, illus. Tracy Subisak
Anyone can be a hero and change the world —A TRUE WONDER, illus. Katy Wu
Discovering something new takes curiosity, hard work, and perseverance. — THE FIRE OF STARS, illus. Katherine Roy
All of my books are narrative. Yet, “what’s the point?” works for expository books too. One of my favorite expository books is Melissa Stewart’s PIPSQUEAKS, SLOWPOKES, AND STINKERS, illus. Stephanie Laberis. Stewart’s point is that sometimes what we see as weaknesses are really strengths. What a powerful point for kids!
Your point, your plot
Once you have your “point” in place, it becomes the endpoint for the book. That’s where your character’s journey winds up. So who is your character at the beginning? Where do they start? It should be as far away as possible from where they wind up. That way, their journey can be long and difficult and filled with ups and downs (plot events) that will help them learn the point.
In nonfiction, we don’t make things up, but it’s all about choices. We choose where to start the journey and where it ends. We choose what plot events contribute to the point we are trying to make. If you don’t know your point, you can’t know your plot.
Expository books may not have a plot, but they do have readers who change and come to a new understanding through reading the book. Your “point” (takeaway) is still an endpoint and likely makes up the last spread of your picture book. So where is your reader at the beginning? What assumptions or misbeliefs are they toiling under? What examples will best make your point and change your reader’s thinking? What order should they be arranged for maximum effect?
Talking about takeaway is something we do in the very first week of my nonfiction revision class, because I truly believe the point we are trying to make as writers influences every choice we make in terms of structure, voice, and more. You may not know your point in your first draft. Drafting may even help you find your point, but it’s critical to lock it down in revision.
Cecilia Payne’s groundbreaking discovery of what makes the stars paved the way for more star discoveries, including how stars are born and eventually die. That’s right, just like humans, stars have life cycles.
To learn how stars are born, read THE FIRE OF STARS with your students, including the back matter, A STAR IS BORN. Then study how stars’ lives end using these resources:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a killer concept when it comes to a book. What makes an idea jump out from the lists of possibilities in my writer’s notebook and demand to be written? What makes editors snap it up? And what makes readers flock to the book and keep turning the pages? In other words, what’s that special sauce that makes nonfiction books sizzle?
Concept and (or) Story
Whether a project is “book worthy” comes down to the overall concept and story, often more than the subject matter itself. Over the next couple of months, we’ll examine a variety of tests to help us hone our nonfiction story ideas until they sing using techniques from story experts like Blake Snyder, Lisa Cron, and others. First up, is one of my go-to’s for every book project, Blake Snyder and SAVE THE CAT.
Save The Cat – The Logline (or one-line) test
In his seminal book, SAVE THE CAT: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Blake Snyder describes the initial test for a movie concept — the logline. A logline is a “one- or two-sentence description of your movie that tells us what it is.” And he encourages budding screenwriters to study loglines so they can learn to craft their own and make their projects as compelling as possible.
Kirsten Larson’s CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), a biography of the groundbreaking female astronomer who discovered the composition of stars, and whose story mirrors the process of star formation, illustrated by Katherine Roy, to Melissa Manlove at Chronicle Children’s…
What Makes a Great Logline?
Snyder says a great logline needs four things:
a compelling mental picture
a sense of audience and cost
a killer title
Let’s take a closer look.
First up, the irony test. It’s not contained within the logline, but the irony in THE FIRE OF STARS’s concept lies in a 25-year-old doctoral student (and a woman!) making a tremendous discovery at a time when women were practically barred from the field. A quick Google search about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin brings that irony to light, and this underdog element is common source of irony for picture book biographies.
But irony is not just for narrative projects. It can be even more important for expository nonfiction. Let’s look at a wonderful book a fellow writer recently brought to my attention.
Amy Cherrix’s ANIMAL ARCHITECTS, a nonfiction book that showcases the many amazing ways and things that animals build, illustrated by Chris Sasaki, to Andrea Welch at Beach Lane Books, in a good deal, at auction, in a two-book deal…
In this example, the irony is right in the title. People are architects; animals can’t be architects, or can they? Oh, the irony! That unexpected juxtaposition of ideas pulls us in.
A Compelling Mental Picture
The second test is whether the logline creates a compelling mental picture. It’s clear from THE FIRE OF STARS logline that the book is two stories in one, a tightly woven tale of star formation and Cecilia’s formation as a scientist. It answers the question, “What does it take to make a great scientist?” And you can start to visualize what this dual story might look like on the page as Cecilia’s story and the star story interact and mirror each other.
With ANIMAL ARCHITECTS’s logline, we also get a compelling mental picture. We know we’ll see animals in the act of building, drawing on the same process and terminology architects use. We expect to see animal structures too. Our brains are already buzzing with what this might look like. Are we talking about honey combs? Spiderwebs? Beaver lodges? The idea is rich with STEM tie ins. And we can visualize how a savvy illustrator like Sasaki might bring this idea to life, drawing on the trappings of architecture.
A Sense of Audience and Cost
In query letters (and deal announcements), we establish the audience and cost when we choose the category/format/genre. Just by calling a book a “nonfiction picture book,” we know it will be 32 pages (or more), illustrated, and for the audience of elementary-age readers but read to them by the adults in their life. Chapter books, early readers, graphic novels, and middle grade nonfiction all have built in audiences and costs based upon page counts and whether the format is illustrated.
A Killer Title
I’ll admit, I’m terrible with titles. Normally, my initial title is not what ends up on the front of the book. Still, it’s important to capture the unique elements of your book in a strong title that will invite editors to snap it up and readers to pick it up.
My initial title for THE FIRE OF STARS was CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST). It tells you flat out who the protagonist is — Cecilia Payne. It also tells you this book is about astronomy, the making of stars, and perhaps will focus more on Cecilia Payne’s childhood and development as an astronomer versus her achievements. Plus, the mirror structure is revealed in the title itself.
Similarly, with ANIMAL ARCHITECTS the books’ unique hooks are in the title. I know this is an animal book, but it isn’t going to be boring old, traditional nonfiction that simply describes animal builders in an encyclopedic way. Cherrix has given us a metaphor — animals as architects. I’m expecting her to continue this metaphor inside the book with nods to architecture terminology and a focus on structures animals create. Perhaps the art will even incorporate architecture and architectural plans (which it does, especially with the title on the cover).
A killer title isn’t a requirement, as they often change during the editing process. But a killer title can certainly help sell your concept.
Honing your logline skills
The best way to learn to write loglines is to study them, either in Publisher’s Marketplace (subscription required) of the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf (free, twice weekly newsletter). Sometimes the loglines in the deal announcements originate with the editor, other times the agent. But in all cases, if an author has crafted a compelling logline, you’ll find its DNA in the deal announcement and even later in the publisher’s marketing literature.
If you are outlining or revising a nonfiction project, what’s your logline? Read through some current deal announcements in PW Children’s Bookshelf, then write your own. Make sure there’s a sense of irony, a compelling mental picture, an idea of audience and cost, and that killer title that will make your book stand out from the pack.
If your logline isn’t compelling enough, it means your book concept likely isn’t compelling enough. You might need to revise and refocus the idea to find a more compelling angle.
Want to make your nonfiction stand out from the pack?
Join me for my six-week course at The Writing Barn, where we’ll cover techniques for revising and polishing your nonfiction picture books until they shine.
We’ll use a blend of instruction, mentor-text analysis, in-class writing exercises, and discussion to take your writing to the next level. Every student will receive a critique of a nonfiction picture book from me. Learn more here.
A mnemonic is a clever and creative way to remember something, using a pattern, sentence, or phrase. You may use “ROY G BIV” to remember the spectrum of light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Some people use “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos” to recall the order of the planets starting closest to the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
Recalling Star Classifications
In Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s day, people used a mnemonic to remember the classifications of the stars, a system developed by Harvard’s Annie Jump Cannon. The color classes from hottest to coolest are O (blue), B (bluish), A (blue-white), F (white), yellow-white (G), orange (K), and red (M), as you can see in the image below. You can learn more about star classification at ScienceNotes.org.
In those days, they used the mnemonic, “Oh, Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me” to remember the star classes. Today, some have updated it to “Old Bob Always Favors Green Ketchup More.”
Can you think on another mnemonic to remember star classes?
Is there something else you want to remember? Could you develop a mnemonic to help you remember it? Now draw a picture to accompany your phrase.
The Fire of Stars
Learn more about astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who discovered star ingredients, in THE FIRE OF STARS. The helped lay the foundation for future scientists to discover why stars have such tremendous energy and why they burn so brightly.
The Common Core ELA standards for grades 3 and up invite students to explore words that are specific to a field of study. The standards call this “domain-specific language.” That’s a fancy way of saying vocabulary words that often appear in glossaries or bolded in textbooks. The concept is introduced in grade 3, where students learn how to figure out what these words mean in context. Older students incorporate domain-specific language in their own informational writing.
If you’ve read my books, you know I love domain-specific language, whether it’s aviation-related words in WOOD, WIRE, WINGS or astronomy-related words in THE FIRE OF STARS. I know that using rich vocabulary in picture books, especially domain-specific vocabulary, adds another hook to my books. It offers one more way my books can be used in classroom, specifically in ELA lessons.
Exploring domain-specific language
With domain-specific language, a little bit goes a long way. If you go overboard, your book can start to lose its musicality and read more like a textbook. We don’t want that.
To see how writers strike a balance, I encourage you to grab a stack of recent nonfiction or informational picture books off your library or bookstore’s shelves. If you see a glossary or list of “key terms” you’ve definitely found a winner, though not all books include them. Mine don’t.
If you need some recommendations, here are a few recent picture book titles I grabbed from my current library stack that do domain-specific language really well:
Once you have your mentor texts, go ahead and read them. Jot down any domain-specific language you find. Then consider:
Are the vocabulary words easily understood within the context of the page?
How do the images add to the reader’s understanding of the words?
Does the book include text features like definitions on the page? Or are the words defined in a glossary?
What is the balance of these new vocabulary words compared to the rest of the book text?
This spread from THE FIRE OF STARS reads: “shrinking and smashing — and Cecilia’s sphere feels smaller and smaller still when she realizes her new school is a black hole with none of her favorite classes.
No algebra. No German. No cinch. Not even any friends for a shy and studious girl like her…”
This book includes two vocabulary words related to astronomy/STEM — “sphere” and “black hole,” though I use them metaphorically. I don’t define either in a glossary or in a sidebar. Yet by studying the pictures and words together, readers can get the idea of what the words mean. Notice Katherine Roy’s gray circular marks, which help define Cecilia’s space and convey the idea that all the light and joy is being sucked away, much like a real black hole’s gravity prevents light from escaping. The dark colors in the illustrations reinforce that idea of a black hole, as does the repetition of the word “no.” Cecilia’s world has an absence of anything joyful and bright, an emptiness, like that real black hole.
Now you try
Are you working on a manuscript where you could inject some domain-specific language to add another hook? Can you do this (sparingly, please)? Do you need a glossary or sidebars to explain the words, or can you rely on the context of your words and potential illustrations?
Please let me know in the comments if you have any breakthroughs!
Each month, I’ll spotlight a book-based educational activity teachers and homeschooling parents can use with their students. This activity was created by FIRE OF STARS illustrator Katherine Roy. It appears in our educators’ guide, which you’ll find here.
Make Your Own Stellar Scene
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched in 2021 and is the largest optical telescope in space. It is capable of producing high-resolution photographs of ancient, remote galaxies like no telescope before it. Show images that the James Webb Space Telescope has taken to the class.
What are the different colors and shapes in these photographs?
How do the photographs make them feel?
How big or small do you think these scenes are?
What marks or textures could be used to represent these scenes in a drawing?
Explain that illustrator Katherine Roy used an old toothbrush dipped in ink and watercolor to represent the star storyline in THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of. To make their own stellar scenes, students will need:
old toothbrushes or paint brushes
watercolor, paint, or ink
Make a swirling circle in the middle of your paper.
Get a little more paint or ink on your brush and make bigger swirls. These are the gases orbiting your newly formed star.
Try making some thick marks. Now try making some thin marks. What feels right to you?
Try adding spatter marks and salt to represent dust and particles.
When the paintings are completed, display the paintings in a classroom gallery for their own view of the cosmos.
One of the biggest challenges of writing is making sure what’s in your head actually ends up on the page. It can be tricky, especially when you get so attached to all those lovely lines and individual word choices. How can you zoom out to take a big-picture view? I like to use a technique called “unwriting.”
I first learned about unwriting from Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab. Renee defines unwriting as the process of stripping away all the craft and technique from the writing. For me, that means briefly summarizing what I’ve written on every page or two-page spread. It’s essentially outlining, but instead of summarizing what I plan to write on each page, I’m summarizing what’s already there. In fact, some people call this technique “reverse outlining.”
Once I’ve unwritten/outlined what’s on the page, I can analyze it to see what work my words are doing. Are they summarizing my big idea? Providing an example? Are they describing character? Building the world? Is this moment the inciting incident or all is lost moment? What am I missing?
Get some practice
To practice this technique, pull out a favorite picture book. It could be poetry or prose. Fiction or nonfiction. It doesn’t matter. Going spread-by-spread, summarize what is happening on each two-page spread. You can label each spread “Spread 1,” “Spread 2,” etc.
Here’s an example from THE FIRE OF STARS, which I unwrote a few days before I pieced together the parallel storylines.
Cecilia throws a fit until her mother puts her down in the snow so she can feel it for herself. It isn’t soft and warm like she expected. She realizes things aren’t what they seem. And she knows it’s the same with her too. [Character into and characterization]
She looks like other schoolgirls, but Cecilia likes to play outside in the garden, getting dirty, playing in the trees watching nature. [Characterization]
One day she figures out all by herself why a flower looks like a bee. She wants to feel that feeling again so she decides to be a scientist and study nature. [Inciting incident/quest kicks off]
You get the idea…
By unwriting my spreads, I was able to see what each one was contributing to the story. This was essential for constructing a parallel story. I went through the same process for the star’s story, summarizing step-by-step how they form. Only then could I line up the two stories to see how they worked together. The final step, after I had the structure in place, was to turn my attention to the lyrical language (which I wrote about here).
Now you try
After you’ve practiced this technique on a couple of favorite picture books, it’s time to test it out on a draft that’s giving you trouble. Unwrite/reverse outline your draft by summarizing each section or spread. Then analyze: are your scenes or examples unfolding in a logical way? What work is each scene/spread doing? If you are working with a narrative, does this spread introduce characters, provide glimpses into characters, build the world or convey major plot points?
This process is especially helpful for understanding the structure of expository picture books, which use non-narrative structures like “list” or “compare and contrast” or “question and answer.” If you text is expository, is this spread conveying your big idea, an example that makes your point, or is this a conclusion?
And no matter what you are writing, is your point clear, or did your lovely language get in the way? Did you get what was in your head onto the page?
Make any adjustments you need to your outline/unwritten draft BEFORE translating it back into lovely language.
Here’s an activity linked to THE FIRE OF STARS (Chronicle Books) perfect for the budding astronomer in your life. This constellation projector is simple to make with common household items. And the results are stellar, which you’ll see at the end!
What you’ll need
You will need:
a flashlight (or your phone flashlight)
a toilet paper tube
tape (washi tape looks really nice if you have it)
glue and a popsicle stick for spreading it if you want