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A Matter of Fact

Help! I'm in charge of a class of restless six year olds and none of the usual storybooks seems to grab their attention.  Not even my battered copy of The Rainbow Fish.
A couple of boys down the back are engrossed in something of their own.
"I'll have that," I command in my best teacher voice.
Expecting to be handed an electronic game or nervous beetle, I gawp when a small green book lands in my lap.
"Can you read that one?" beg one or two voices as I glanced at the cover.
Sure I can. I'll read the Adelaide phone directory if it'll hold their attention.
I open the first page ...
"Crocodiles are dangerous and deadly reptiles."
Bottoms wriggle forward and mouths gape open as I embark on a tale about ruthless reptiles and mysterious monsters.  The lesson is a breeze!

It's a fact!

According to statistics compiled by School Library Journal (an American magazine) 50 percent of all books published for children is non-fiction. Are you paying attention? That's half of all books!
Schools buy non-fiction titles by the truckload. So do public libraries. Magazines and journals are in constant need for well-written non-fiction.

So why do many children's writers overlook this market? Enterprising non-fiction writers with a fresh idea and a readable style are much more likely to be published than the battalions of writers aiming to crack the fiction market.

Some editors claim that 90% of what they need is non-fiction, but 90% of what they receive is fiction.

Wacky and weird

Over the past two years I have written and published over forty non-fiction titles for primary-aged readers. I've had a lot of fun and learnt some wacky facts along the way. Did you know that crocodiles swallow stones to help them digest their food? And that the first passengers in a hot air balloon were a sheep, a duck and a rooster?

Writing non-fiction has helped me become a champ at tabletop soccer (don't even ask!) and an expert on making worm farms. My kitchen is regularly turned into a research lab where I experiment with everything from making jelly boats to growing wheat.

Hot Topics

Publishing success lies in writing engagingly on a fresh topic. Publishers can't sell material that is already in the marketplace (unless it's verrry old). Enterprising non-fiction writers study catalogues and search online bookstores to find the gaps in publishers' lists. If the latest P.E. craze is yo-yo spinning or line-dancing and only conventional sports have been covered, then hey presto! It could be a hot topic.

I keep up with new information by subscribing to online science mags such as Planet Science (http://www.planet-science.com/about_sy/listFS.html). Another great site is http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/ You can also receive weekly summaries of BBC and ABC science programs. Through the wonderful world of the ‘net you can listen to radio broadcasts around the globe.

Be alert to items on the news and in your local paper. When our city council offered free composting worms to primary schools, I saw a book begging to be written. Make a Worm Farm is now distributed in several countries and is one of my best sellers.

Get them hooked

Mysteries, puzzles and unusual facts make good hooks for young readers. Contemporary non-fiction texts tend to resemble website pages. Frames and boxes contain additional information and fact files, quizzes and the ubiquitous Did you know? are popular ‘extras'.

A well-written synopsis or query letter will contain details of these enticers as well as other semantic organisers such as labelled diagrams, cross-sections, flow charts, tables of stats, comparison charts, graphs, maps, cartoons, websites and tables of contents.

Writers are not usually expected to provide their own finished illustrations; however, detailed information about these extras will enthuse the art director.

Get vivid

Non-fiction text should be as vivid and exciting as a good fiction story. Creative non-fiction includes all the elements of a riveting drama - memorable characters, plenty of action, vivid descriptions and even dialogue.

A story on Joan of Arc (in Orbit magazine) contains the following:

‘She inspired the French soldiers who found new strength in her presence.

"Fight boldly. Be Brave. God is with us. Fight on. Don't turn back. They are beaten," she would cry.'

Did Joan of Arc say those exact words? Probably not. The writer is using a common creative technique to bring an historical tale to life.

Lighten up

Factual information doesn't have to be dry. A light, fun tone has instant reader appeal.

My new book on biomes (Why Don't Polar Bears Live in the Desert?) opens with a riddle:

Q: What would you get if you left a polar bear in a hot desert?

A: A very unhappy bear.

And my soon-to-be-released Smarty Plants" begins:

Warning: This book is not for the faint-hearted. All around you - in gardens, in ditches and along innocent roadways - lie tales of trickery, lethal battles and yes, even murder.

(*A snappy title is a winner too!)

A common technique to lighten the tone is to address the reader directly. This use of first person is particularly suitable for young readers as it bridges the gap between personal experience and new information. 

A recent article on earthquakes (in Comet magazine) hooked the reader with this snappy introduction:

‘Hold on! The ground is moving under your feet.'

You can also place the reader directly in the centre of the action such in as this excerpt from my book on pioneers:

Just imagine. You pack up all your things and say goodbye to your friends. You travel a long, long way from home and arrive, tired and hungry, on a vast plain.

Think outside the square

Contemporary students are expected to read a range of genres - everything from procedural texts (such as recipes) to explanations, discussions and reports. Most publishers seek to include a range of text types in their list so you'll increase your chance of publication by offering a manuscript in a less familiar genre. (Explanation is quite a tricky one to write.) Remember: information does not have to be contained in a straight-forward narrative; it can be presented in emails, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, interviews, craft instructions, science experiments, game rules, timelines, and so on.

Probably the best way to write vibrant non-fiction is to view the world through the eyes of a curious child. To wonder, to be amazed, to seek out the weird, the wild and the wacky. Apart from writing great non-fiction, you'll be a hit at dinner parties.
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