Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Finding Neglected Topics to Write About (Part 2)

Continued from last month. The first half of this post is here.

Occasionally a notion comes from my own personal reading. If it’s interesting enough for adults to read about, maybe a version for kids could work, too. In general over the years, there has been a move towards introducing many subjects to ever-younger readers. On the other hand, sometimes there’s a good reason a topic hasn’t been done as a picture book because too many complex concepts are involved, it’s not visual enough, it’s too difficult emotionally, and so on. (Some picture book authors do indeed tackle some very tough themes, with varying success.) I try to imagine my 2nd grade self... would I have wanted to hear about this?

Kids provide great clues, too. In addition to observing my young relatives in their natural habitat, I’ve taken quite a few photos of student-made projects hanging on school walls that show what they find interesting and/or funny. Unicorns? Muscle men? Futuristic cars? Lemurs? Kings and queens? There often is a regional flavor... surfers may appear at the coast while young camo-clad hunters roam in rural areas.

I usually have a few potential book ideas brewing at all times, and a fun way to see what has been published recently is to attend ALA, IRA, and other book conferences. Nothing beats browsing through the pages. Wandering from booth to booth, I check out what IS or is NOT being done with my possible book topics. And if a book or two exist already, are they well-designed, entertaining, satisfying? Do they take a similar or a very different approach than what I’m thinking?

Several of my books have been follow-ups to previous books. Not necessarily sequels, they may be more loosely related. Most recently I wanted to do another sayings book like There’s a Frog in My Throat, but didn't want to duplicate the format of 48 pages filled with over four hundred sayings (which took eons to illustrate!) Instead, I focused just one type, creating a surprising tale exclusively with similes in my Fall 2008 book, Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story. To get an inside peek, check out this fun musical video trailer. By the way, one of my editors passed along a trend spotted in a college-level early education class: using book trailers as a “reader motivation technique.“ Sounds like an excellent idea to me!

I often do get vague book ideas in the random pop-into-the-head way, but then need to develop them further via brainstorming. A book that I learned several brainstorming techniques from is an oldie but goody, Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher. It’s great for opening up new possibilities, breaking out of a dry period, or organizing a tangle of competing goals. When I first read it shortly after finishing college, it definitely expanded my vision of what I could do with my life. It’s now available for free online here.

One thing I don’t worry too much about is the competition from textbook companies. Just because they have published a topic doesn't mean there isn't room for a fun, creative book from me (or you). If anything, the fact that a textbook company has included a subject probably means there’s a definite interest in it. They all have web sites with an online catalog. For example, on the National Geographic school publishing site, you can search by grade level and subject.

I’m sure other I.N.K. authors have their own favorite ways to find good topics, if anybody cares to chime in! It’s always fun the hear the origin story behind an author’s book.

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