Killer Concepts: What’s Your Point?

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
This is the book cover for 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!

This is the cover for Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis

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.

#MentorTextMoment, Books, Writing

YouTube/IG TV Book Reviews

Me, wearing my fancy t-shirt and ready to record a book review!

I read as many new nonfiction/STEM books as I possibly can, thanks to the library. And I miss reviewing them. But I don’t have the time to craft lengthy blog posts or create lots of pretty Instagram graphics. So, I’m trying something new.

Whenever I get a new library stack, I will:

  1. Read the books.
  2. Change out of my gym clothes, fix my hair, and MAYBE put on a little lip gloss.
  3. Record some 2-minute video book reviews in a single take.
  4. I’ll post the videos to YouTube as well as my IGTV channel. I’ll also share the links on my Facebook page.

Want to make sure you don’t miss a post? Subscribe to my YouTube channel or follow me on Instagram. I can’t guarantee I’ll always update the blog with new videos.

So, here’s an initial batch of reviews:

Enjoy! And if you have 2020 NF/STEM book recommendations, let me know.


#MentorTextMoment: Moth

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:

Moth: An Evolution Story

Author: Isabel Thomas; illustrator: Daniel Egnéus

Publication Info.: Bloomsbury (June 2019)

Ages/Grades: 6 to 10 years old

Categories: third-person POV, lyrical language, narrative nonfiction, nature, #STEM

First lines:

“This is a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, or survival and hope.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Powerful and visually spectacular, Moth is the remarkable evolution story that captures the struggle of animal survival against the background of an evolving human world in a unique and atmospheric introduction to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

Against a lush backdrop of lichen-covered trees, the peppered moth lies hidden. Until the world begins to change…

Along come people with their magnificent machines which stain the land with soot. In a beautiful landscape changed by humans how will one little moth survive?

A clever picture book text about the extraordinary way in which animals have evolved, intertwined with the complication of human intervention. This remarkable retelling of the story of the peppered moth is the perfect introduction to natural selection and evolution for children.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

There have been a few evolution picture books in recent years like I USED TO BE A FISH (Sullivan) and GRANDMOTHER FISH (Tweet and Lewis). But as far as I know, no one’s attempted to explain natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, at the elementary school level…until now.

Through stunning illustrations and simple, lyrical language, Thomas and Egnéus show students how natural selection happens over time in response to changes in an animal’s habitat. As a mentor text, the great power in this book is the balance of words and pictures. It forces authors to consider how much they can rely upon illustrations to carry the story. And how much they need to explain.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

#MentorTextMoment, Books, Nature

#MentorTextMoment: You Are Home

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:

YOU ARE HOME: An Ode to the National Parks

Author/Illustrator: Evan Turk

Publication Info.: Atheneum, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: apostrophe, lyrical language, list structure, expository, nature, #STEM

First lines:

“To the chipmunk in her burrow, sleeping beneath the leaves to keep warm; to the resilient bison in the steaming oases of an endless winter: you are home.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Award-winning author and illustrator Evan Turk showcases the beauty and importance of the National Parks in this gorgeous picture book that takes readers on an amazing tour across the United States.

Beneath the soaring doorways of stone,
and peaks that pierce the ceiling of clouds,
from every river, star, and stone
comes the eternal refrain:
you are home.

In simple, soaring language and breathtaking art, acclaimed author-illustrator Evan Turk has created a stirring ode to nature and nation. From the rugged coast of Maine to the fiery volcanoes of Hawaii, You Are Home reminds us that every animal, plant, and person helps make this land a brilliant, beautiful sanctuary of life.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Why was lyrical voice the perfect choice for a list book exploring the National Parks? Here’s why. Reading YOU ARE HOME literally brings tears to my eyes through its meditation on the majesty of “America’s Best Idea” (the title of Ken Burns’s documentary about the National Parks.)  And that’s the same feeling I get when I visit the National Parks in person. Turk’s lyrical text perfectly captures his awe-inspiring subject. Imagine how the impact of this story would have changed if he’d used a humorous or serious voice.

Also notable: Turk balances his spare, lyrical language with extensive backmatter, providing more facts about the animals that appear in his artwork and a map to the National Parks featured in the book.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • Visit a National Park! Every fourth-grader and their family can get in free through Every Kid in a Park.
  • While you are there, check out the National Park Service Junior Ranger Program for kids of all ages. Complete the activity book during your visit and earn your patch or pin. Can’t visit in person? No problem. There are several badges you can earn online.
  • You also can check up on the wildlife through 20 webcams.
  • Evan Turk suggests drawing as a wonderful way to get to know a park. He created the book’s 20 drawings with pastel and black paper while hiking and exploring in person.
  • Turk’s book hints at the natural processes that formed many of these natural wonders, a great jumping off point for lessons about weathering and more.




#MentorTextMoment: Hawk Rising

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author: Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Brian Floca

Publication Info.: Roaring Brook Press, 2018

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: second-person POV, episodic narrative, fictional elements, STEM, nature, animals

First lines:

“Father hawk stretches wide his wings.

You stretch your arms as Mars rises red in the sky.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Early morning and a ruffle of feathers,

A shadow gliding through the backyard.

High above your house Father Hawk circles, sharp eyes searching for prey. From the front porch, you watch.


He dives after chipmunks, crows, sparrows, squirrels.


The sun sets low in the sky.

What’s for dinner?

A father red-tailed hawk hunts prey for his family in a suburban neighborhood in this thrilling, fierce, and gorgeous nonfiction picture book, Hawk Rising, illustrated by Caldecott medalist Brian Floca.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Maria Gianferrari’s lyrical text is stunning. There’s so much for writers to study especially the rhythm and musicality of her language. But here’s what really interests me: what purpose do the fictional elements in the story serve?

But wait, you say, this is a true story! It is — mostly. The fictional elements arise, in my mind, through the combination of the second-person POV and the illustrations. Gianferrari uses second-person POV to draw the child reader into the text. She gives the reader imagined actions throughout the day as the hawk hunts its prey, for example, “you watching” and “you yawning.” Many nonfiction authors have done this to wonderful effect, including Michelle Cusolito in FLYING DEEP, which narrates an imagined day aboard the Alvin submersible.

Yet unlike FLYING DEEP, HAWK RISING includes children, a girl and her sister, in the illustrations. Through Floca’s illustrations and the second-person POV, the older sister becomes the “you” in the story.

So what do these fictional characters add to the story? In modern, fiction picture books, the typical advice is the main character must be a child or child-like character, which serves as a surrogate for the child reader. Introducing child characters into this true story seems to be an extrapolation of this idea.

Second, I think the introduction of these characters adds to the tension in the story. Time is passing. The hawk tries and fails again and again to catch his prey. As night nears, we can imagine it will be the girls’ bedtime soon. Will the hawk catch its prey before the girls must come inside? Would the story have worked without the children in the illustrations? Maybe, but I think some of the tension would have been lost.

Fictional elements in true stories are a big topic of discussion in writer circles right now, notably, talking bugs, animals, plants, etc. in illustrations, as well as fictional narrators in otherwise true stories. In many cases, these elements inject humor into the story and allow authors and illustrators to flex their creativity. Who doesn’t love Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus? As long as the reader can tell (or is told) which elements are made-up, it’s probably fine. Just to be sure, I always suggest writers play fair with the reader, telling them what they’ve made up. You’ll often find this information in an author’s note.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • Curious City DPW has two activities: Spot the Hawk and a make-your-own Red-Tailed Hawk glider.
  • Check out the Cornell Lab’s red-tailed hawk cam.
  • Can your students separate fact from fiction? Grab a few books with fictional elements to spark a discussion with your students. Check out titles by Jason Chin (CORAL REEFS, REDWOODS), Bridget Heos (WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING LARVAE), Bethany Barton (I’M TRYING TO LOVE SPIDERS), Miranda Paul (ARE WE PEARS YET?), Sara Levine (FLOWER TALK), Magic School Bus, etc. Ask students why they think authors and illustrators mixed facts with fiction?
#MentorTextMoment, Books, Science/Math

#MentorTextMoment: SWEET DREAMS, SARAH

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Vivian Kirkfield, illustrations by Chris Ewald

Publication Info.: Creston Books, 2019

Ages/Grades: grades 2 to 5

Category: biography, STEM, STEAM, third-person POV

First lines:

Before the Civil War, Sarah obeyed her owner.

Hurry up.

Eyes down.

Don’t speak.

Overview (from the publisher): “Sarah E. Goode was one of the first African-American women to get a US patent. Working in her furniture store, she recognized a need for a multi-use bed and through hard work, ingenuity, and determination, invented her unique cupboard bed. She built more than a piece of furniture. She built a life far away from slavery, a life where her sweet dreams could come true.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

One of the most transformational moments in my own writing was when I started to think about the craft of writing picture books as poetry, not prose. As a beginner, I often equated writing nonfiction picture books with writing an essay, which resulted in long, plodding paragraphs. Yikes! In SWEET DREAMS, SARAH, Vivian Kirkfield, shows us the magic of occasionally using short sentences, more like poetry, to keep the story moving. (Her opening is a perfect example.)

Also notable is how she shifts between a traditional third-person narrator and Sarah’s own experience. The opening lines above provide a perfect example. “Hurry up. Eyes down. Don’t speak.” are clearly words that Sarah hears as she works, though we aren’t told this directly. Overall, Kirkfield’s third-person narration stays very close to Sarah, the main character, giving us glimpses into her thoughts.

A final favorite is this book’s topic: invention! I find biographies about inventors to be so useful for students, in terms of teaching them persistence and the value of a growth mindset. What was it that Edison supposedly said? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That seems to be the path of all inventors (and creators like writers too), and Sarah is no exception.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Mac Barnett, illustrations by Sarah Jacoby

Publication Info.: Balzar & Bray, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: biography, first-person POV, metafiction

First lines:

Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years.

This book is 42 pages long.

You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages,

so I am just going to tell you some important things.

Overview (from the publisher):

An exceptional picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the legendary author of Goodnight MoonThe Runaway Bunny, and other beloved children’s classics, that’s as groundbreaking as the icon herself was—from award-winning, bestselling author Mac Barnett and acclaimed illustrator Sarah Jacoby.

What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?

In forty-two inspired pages, this biography artfully plays with form and language to vividly bring to life one of the greatest children’s book creators who ever lived: Margaret Wise Brown.

Illustrated with sumptuous art by rising star Sarah Jacoby, this is essential reading for book lovers of every age.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Most picture book biographies use a narrative structure. There’s some sort of problem or goal introduced at the beginning. The main character attempts multiple times to solve the problem or achieve their goal. Typically the main character changes internally as part of the process (or society changes to accommodate the main character). And they achieve the goal or solve the problem at THE END.

So here’s the important thing about this book: it’s the first biography I’ve seen that employs a non-narrative structure, much like Margaret Wise Brown’s THE IMPORTANT BOOK, which Barnett mimics. Instead of starting with Margaret’s childhood and exploring her attempts to break into children’s publishing, Barnett riffs on the idea of what’s important about a person’s life. He also explores the idea of strangeness. Barnett’s non-narrative format is strange, but so were elements of Margaret’s life (as a girl she skinned her dead pet rabbit and wore the pelt!). And Margaret’s stories were often viewed as strange by snooty librarians who rejected them. But Barnett concludes that sometimes life is strange, so strange stories can feel true and important. And that’s what Margaret Wise Brown was all about.

Also notable is Barnett’s first-person narration and use of metafiction. He is clearly the narrator of the story, asking questions and injecting his opinions. His storytelling reminds me A LOT of his earlier metafiction, HOW THIS BOOK WAS MADE, in which he narrates the book-making process. A metafiction biography? Sure, why not?

I know this biography has generated a lot of discussion with some disputing whether it’s a biography at all. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • Go behind the scenes to learn about the making of THE IMPORTANT THING at this blog.
  • Discuss with your students: should some books be banned from the library, as Margaret Wise Brown’s were? Many favorites from Harry Potter to Captain Underpants often show up on banned books lists.
  • Writing activity: What is the important thing about YOUR life? How would you write your life in the style of this book (and THE IMPORTANT BOOK)?
#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: SONNY’S BRIDGE

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Barry Wittenstein, illustrations by Keith Mallett

Publication Info.: Charlesbridge, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 6 to 9

Category: lively voice, biography, narrative nonfiction, rhythm

First lines:

Misty night.

Summer night.

East River New York City night.

You hear that?

Hear what?

That. THAT!

Overview (from the publisher):

This groovy, bebopping picture book biography chronicles the legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s search for inspiration on the Williamsburg Bridge after quitting the jazz scene in 1959.

Rollins is one of the most prolific sax players in the history of jazz, but, in 1959, at the height of his career, he vanished from the jazz scene. His return to music was an interesting journey–with a long detour on the Williamsburg Bridge. Too loud to practice in his apartment, Rollins played on the New York City landmark for two years among the cacophony of traffic and the stares of bystanders, leading to the release of his album, The Bridge.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Wittenstein explores the tremendous pressure on a musical genius like Sonny Rollins; the pressure of living up to his own name and reputation. It’s a theme I haven’t seen explored in other picture book biographies, but surely something to which children can relate. (Since we live in a time when there is often tremendous pressure on kids to achieve and keep achieving.)

So what does Sonny do when the pressure’s too much? He focuses on the work — the music — and he does so by playing just for fun on the Williamsburg Bridge. In music, a bridge is a section of the song that contrasts with the verse and chorus of a song, since the verse and chorus are repeated over and over again. Think of the bridge as a little respite from the repetition. So the Williamsburg Bridge is Sonny’s bridge in his musical career. And it leads to a breakthrough album called, The Bridge. Barry Wittenstein, you are a GENIUS.

This book is loaded with rhythm and rhyme, a perfect study in alliteration and assonance for writers of all ages.

Additional Resources:

  • Listen to The Bridge (or another jazz album) and consider how Wittenstein’s diction (word choice) and rhythm mimic the musical form. Note how Wittenstein’s short (sometimes one-word) sentences keep the beat of the book lively.
  • Write your own song, including verse, chorus and your bridge. Use a jazz song as a model if you can.
  • The publisher website has both an activity and educator guide for more ideas.
#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: HEY, WATER!


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Antoinette Portis

Publication Info.: Neal Porter Books, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: lively voice, apostrophe, expository

Overview (from the publisher):

Hey, water! I know you! You’re all around.

Join a young girl as she explores her surroundings and sees that water is everywhere. But water doesn’t always look the same, it doesn’t always feel the same, and it shows up in lots of different shapes. Water can be a lake, it can be steam, it can be a tear, or it can even be a snowman.

As the girl discovers water in nature, in weather, in her home, and even inside her own body, water comes to life, and kids will find excitement and joy in water and its many forms. ”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart talks about “voice choice” in nonfiction. Want to see what a difference lively vs. lyrical voice can make? Read Antoinette Portis’s lively-voiced expository book, HEY, WATER! alongside Miranda Paul’s lyrical, circular narrative WATER IS WATER. Two very different books about the water cycle.

Additional Resources:

#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: Predator and Prey


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Susannah Buhrman-Deever, illustrations by Bert Kitchen

Publication Info.: Candlewick, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 6 to 9

Category: lyrical, compare/contrast, expository

Overview (from the publisher):

“Who wins, the assassin bug or the spider? The bat or the frog? The ant or the honey bee? The male firefly . . . or the female? The battle for survival between predator and prey is sometimes a fight, sometimes a dance, and often involves spying, lying, or even telling the truth to get ahead. Biologist and debut author Susannah Buhrman-Deever explores these clashes in poems and prose explanations that offer both sides of the story. With beautiful, realistic illustrations that are charged with drama, Bert Kitchen captures the breathtaking moments when predator meets prey. Readers who hunger for more about the art of survival will find an extensive list of references in the back. ”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

I had to take my time to savor the brilliance of PREDATOR AND PREY. Dueling poems representing the POVs of both predator and prey on each spread…it’s just magical when structure and content are so perfectly aligned.