Most children's writers, it seems, are writing fiction. There's something about cute bunny stories, rhyming text and talking animals that many children's writers find irresistible. Alas, few children's editors agree. Finding a home for that cute bunny story may be almost as difficult as, well, finding a real talking animal.
On the other hand, publishers of children's nonfiction are often desperate for good manuscripts from talented writers.
I'd never suggest that a children's fiction writer turn to nonfiction simply because there's more market potential. But I would suggest that if you can adjust your creative flow to include researching and writing interesting nonfiction pieces that children will enjoy, you might just see your name in print more often -- and your bank account filled with a few more bucks. Here are some practical reasons why you might want to consider nonfiction:
1) It's Fun! Perhaps the best thing about writing nonfiction is all the neat stuff you get to learn about. I've learned why we sleep and dream, why storms produce thunder and lightning, how we got the first circus and the first carrousel horses, how birds build nests, and much, much more. I've also learned how to make better choices, how to support a friend who's sick, and how to set and accomplish my goals -- all while writing articles and books for which I was paid. Not a bad way to extend one's education.
2) The Options Are Endless. The topics mentioned above are just a few that I've covered in over 20 years of writing nonfiction for children. Not only are the possibilities for topics unlimited, I almost always get to choose what I want to write about. I pick topics that interest me. I also look for an unusual angle or a bit of mystery or intrigue. When writing Sleeping and Dreaming for Childrens Press, I included information on how kids could remember their dreams and use their dreams to solve problems. I also included a funny story about a sleepwalking butler who set a table for 14 people -- on the bed of his master as he lay sleeping!
3) The Markets for Nonfiction Are Growing. There are many new markets, and market categories, for nonfiction children's writers. Today, publishers are aware that even the youngest children want to learn more about the world around them. Early reader and emergent reader books now feature nonfiction topics as often as they do fiction stories. Fresh ideas for concept books (shapes, colors, numbers, alphabet, etc.) are always in demand as new parents search for ways to stimulate their pre- schoolers. Supplemental materials for curriculum and educational publishers include such things as BIG Books, workbooks, anthology passages and hi-lo (high interest, low vocabulary) books. Many middle school and high school publishers now include topics on current social issues as well as "self-help" for kids. Biographies are a staple, of course, and books featuring "pop culture" (dirt biking, skate boarding) are hot, along with multicultural books showcasing ethnic diversity.
Such books are published by both trade and educational publishers, who each have their own unique style and viewpoint. A savvy nonfiction writer will adjust his or her style and presentation to appeal to a variety of publishers, while writing at a number of different grade levels.
4) You Can Establish Positive Relationships with Editors. Writing nonfiction, especially for educational publishers, can be a bit different from writing fiction. Often a publisher and author will collaborate on an idea. An editor may e-mail or call to discuss strategies, especially if the piece is to be part of an anthology or series. I've found that most editors are happy to have me suggest ideas, even when the overall concept has already been established. Editors welcome a new angle, a fresh approach, or a great new title they can add to an already existing series. If you can be a good source of creative ideas, can produce quality writing on time, and if you always conduct yourself in a professional manner, you'll be an editor's dream author... which brings us to our last reason for writing nonfiction...
5) You'll Get Assignments! Yes, believe it or not, you can have editors calling you to offer you freelance writing jobs. Of course, you can't expect this the first time you write a nonfiction piece. But once you have a few under your belt -- and especially if you specialize in something that not every other writer in the world is doing (like writing anthology passages, test assessment passages or assessment test questions), you can quickly join the "stable" of on-call writers that editors of these pieces turn to each and every school year for new material.
This kind of writing is not for everyone (thankfully!). But for those of us who are closet school teachers (or maybe former school teachers), it is perfect. Anthology or test assessment passages are quick to write, and they offer me a great opportunity to hone my skills at being creative while maintaining an educational focus.
Now for the two greatest myths of nonfiction writing:
Myth #1: Nonfiction Is Not Creative. Think again! I write both fiction and nonfiction (although I prefer the "non"). I can say unequivocally that I blister just as many brain cells when I'm writing nonfiction as when I'm writing fiction. The truth is, good nonfiction has a lot of fiction in it (and vice versa). Today's discriminating readers expect, and publishers require, nonfiction that is a cut above what we had even a few years ago. "Creative nonfiction" is a genre that purposefully combines the elements of fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction children's writers, today more than ever before, must produce fresh, exciting ideas and they must write with a unique voice.
Myth #2: Nonfiction Writing is "Second Class" to Fiction Writing. Excuse me? Perhaps there was a time when that was the sentiment. But not today. Current nonfiction titles figure just as prominently in most publishers' line-ups as fiction.
It is true that some educational publishers have been slower to embrace the changes in pay structure that reflect nonfiction's growing importance. Some, but fewer than several years ago, still offer only flat fees to writers. But more offer advances, and the advances of educational publishers are inching closer to those of trade publishers. Consider, too, that educational publishers often keep their books in print longer. So overall, the pay is comparable to that of fiction publishers. These are just a few of the reasons I write nonfiction. If, by some chance, my sharing them with you has ignited a spark of creativity in you toward a nonfiction topic... well, great. Welcome to my world. I can promise you that around here you will never get bored; you will never stop learning; and you just might get published a little more often. Good luck!
Copyright © 2001 Rita Milios
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.