Killer concepts: the logline test

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.

This is the book cover of SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder.

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.


Here’s the logline for THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illus. Katherine Roy, from Publisher’s Marketplace.

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…

This is THE FIRE OF STARS book cover

What Makes a Great Logline?

Snyder says a great logline needs four things:

  • irony
  • 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.

This is the book cover for ANIMAL ARCHITECTS by Amy Cherrix

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.

Your turn

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.


Sneak Peek Into a Glittery New Title

Illustrator Katherine Roy and I can’t yet share the cover for our February 2023 book together, THE FIRE OF STARS, but look at these jacket proofs with glittery gold foil. This parallel story of star formation told alongside the formation of astrophysicist Cecilia Payne is really going to SHINE. Chronicle Kids Books is going all out. 🤩💫
–Coming 2/28/23
#STEMforKids #nonfiction #picturebooks
Books, Holidays, Reading, Toys

Picture Books Make Magical Gifts!

Give a picture book this holiday season!

Share the joy of reading this holiday season. Whether it’s a package of picture books or a toy/book pairing, books make magical gifts. Find a slew of books and related gifts in this Soaring ’20s Holiday Gift Guide, which features the A TRUE WONDER gifts below.

Order your gifts now for best selection and availability.

Books, News

Sneak Peek: FIRE OF STARS Talk for Harvard’s Project Phaedra

This is an picture of the Fall Author Series line up.

Want a sneak peek at my Fall 2022 title, THE FIRE OF STARS with illustrator Katherine Roy (Chronicle Books)? We’ll be chatting about our inspiration, research, and more with Harvard/The Smithsonian as part of Project Phaedra’s Fall Author Series Sept. 14.

What’s Project Phaedra? According to their website: “Project PHaEDRA is an initiative by the Wolbach Library, in collaboration with many partners, to catalog, digitize, transcribe, and enrich the metadata of over 2500 logbooks and notebooks produced by the Harvard computers and early Harvard astronomers. Our goal is to ensure that this remarkable set of items, created by a remarkable group of people, is as accessible and useful as possible.”

These notebooks include those of astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the subject of THE FIRE OF STARS.

This event is free and open to the public. And it’s ONLINE. Sign up to join us here.


You’re Invited to the A TRUE WONDER Book Launch 10/5

It’s party time!

A TRUE WONDER will be out in the world in just six weeks, and I couldn’t be more excited. Illustrator Katy Wu and I will be doing a virtual event through Once Upon A Time Bookstore on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. Pacific/ 8 Eastern. This event is completely free, and I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Please preregister through Once Upon a Time, and they’ll send you the Zoom link. 

BONUS: If you preorder a copy of the book anywhere books are sold, let me know, and I’ll enter you to win the A TRUE WONDER tee shirt. (Drawing will take place 9/29/21. US entries only with apologies to my international friends.)

Once Upon A Time EXCLUSIVE: Order here, and get a free 6×9 art postcard designed by illustrator Katy Wu. And I’ll autograph your copy.


New Writing Barn class: Rethinking Your Nonfiction Picture Book: A Revision Workshop

Rethinking Your Nonfiction Picture Book: A Revision Workshop at the Writing Barn

I had such a blast teaching nonfiction picture book structures at The Writing Barn. Now I’ve created an entire six-week course focused on rethinking your nonfiction picture book from voice and hook to structure, illustration potential, and page turns. Learn more and register here. I hope you’ll join me.


#MentorTextMoment: Look I Wrote A Book!

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.


Book: Look! I Wrote a Book! (And You Can Too!)

Author: Sally Lloyd-Jones

Illustrator: Neal Layton

Publication Info.: Schwartz& Wade, July 23,2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8 (or aspiring authors of all ages)

Categories: second-person POV, expository nonfiction, how-to structure

First lines: “When you want to write a book, first you need a Good Idea.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Want to write a book? Well, the spunky, know-it-all narrator of this side-splitting story can tell you just how to do it. She walks readers through the whole process, from deciding what to write about (like dump trucks or The Olden Days) to writing a story that doesn’t put everyone to sleep and getting people to buy your book (tips: be nice, give them cookies, and if all else fails, tie them to a chair).”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

After reading this book, I’m left wondering why I have shelves and shelves of “how-to-write” books with hundreds of pages. All I need is Look! I Wrote a Book! Lloyd-Jones and Layton have crafted a concise, hilarious, yet so-helpful how-to book for beginning students and aspiring grown-up writers alike. Lloyd-Jones helps readers assess their ideas, figure out their audience, plot, draft, revise, and even create titles (my weakness for sure).

For aspiring nonfiction authors, this book is a wonderful example of the less-used “how-to” expository text structure. Paired with a second-person POV, the reader is left thinking “sure I can write a book.”

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • Write a book following Lloyd-Jones’s instructions. Is there any better activity? LLoyd-Jones even tells you what materials you need to get started (table, pencil, paper, stapler, etc.)
  • Artists Helping Children has instructions for making many types of books, including scrolls, heart-shaped books, and a fold-in square book.
  • Many creators like to have a special journal for their ideas and doodles. Buy a composition notebook or inexpensive sketchbook and decorate with torn paper and spray adhesive. Or make your own recycled journal like this one.

#MentorTextMoment: Two Brothers, Four Hands

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:

Two Brothers: Four Hands: The Artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti

Authors: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illustrator: Hadley Hooper

Publication Info.: Neal Porter Books (April 2019)

Ages/Grades: 7 to 10 years old

Categories: third-person POV, narrative nonfiction, present tense, dual biography

First lines:

“In the Swiss village of Stampa, surrounded by mountains so high that in winter their shadows fill the valley live two brothers.”

Overview (from the publisher): “The inspiring true story of the Giacometti brothers, one an artist, the other a daredevil, both devoted to their craft . . . but even more devoted to each other.

Everyone who knew them agreed. Alberto was the genius of the family. His younger brother Diego was his opposite–he didn’t care much for books or schoolwork, and he had no idea what he would be when he grew up. But despite their differences, the two brothers shared an intense bond.

Alberto Giacometti became one of the iconic artists of the twentieth century, whose tall, spindly sculptures grace the collections of museums around the world. Diego was always at his side, helping and encouraging, and in his spare time creating remarkable pieces of furniture, works of sculpture in their own right.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

The trick with writing a dual biography, in my mind, is finding the focus of the book. What theme connects the two lives together? In this book, the connection is apparent from the title: two brothers, four hands. Alberto Giacometti simply couldn’t have achieved his enormous success without his brother, Diego, who served as a model; built pedestals and molds and picked patinas; and in many ways sacrificed his own creative work to support Alberto. As Greenberg and Jordan write, Diego’s hands touched each and every one of Alberto’s sculptures. Children certainly will connect to the fierce bonds of family.

For teachers, this book serves as an excellent example of a “growth mindset.” Alberto Giacometti was far from an overnight success, instead, he honed his craft for more than two decades. He was a perfectionist who never felt his work was finished. And when he moved away from Surrealism, he was rejected by fellow artists, as well as art dealers, and friends. Through all of this, Alberto experimented, trying new things and striving to perfectly capture the human form.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • The backmatter for this book contains a basic explanation of art concepts and discussion questions for evaluating Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man II sculpture.
  • The Nurture Store has the perfect Giacometti craft activity: making foil sculptures.
  • Why not incorporate this book into a growth-mindset lesson? Khan Academy has a growth mindset lesson here.
  • This Tate video not only shows Giacometti’s sculptures but also explains why his work resonated after World War II.

#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: