Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Happy New Year everyone - here’s to a genuine nonfiction lollapalooza in 2012! And speaking of writing great books, I’d like to propose a literary challenge for the year. Authors, editors, teachers, librarians, school boards, and other movers and shakers, you are hereby invited to cut the ties that bind. No, no, I am NOT saying we should cut the ties binding us to our loved ones. I propose something else entirely; cutting our ties with The Sacred Rules for Writing Children’s Nonfiction.

“What sacred rules?” you may ask. “The only rule I know is that it takes extraordinarily good writing to make an extraordinary book.” I beg to differ. The Rules for writing Fiction for Readers of all Ages and The Rules for Writing Nonfiction for Adults are lenient. The Sacred Rules for Writing Nonfiction for Kids are not lenient. Not at all. Check it out:

Rules for Writing Fiction for Readers of all Ages

1) Nothing is sacred (although porn for kids is a no-no).

It is just fine to showcase terrible violence (The Hunger Games and Hansel and Gretel spring to mind). You can listen in on whatever your protagonist is thinking, invent whole new worlds, or add humor, melodrama, absurdity, or creativity to the mix any time your heart desires, and more power to you.

Rules for Writing Nonfiction for Adults

1) Nothing is sacred.

Be sure to posit brand new theories, promote a strong opinion about religion or politics, tell tales of corruption and scandal, make predictions for the future, and add a sense of humor about all of the above. Do these things and you will be noticed and win a big award.

Sacred Rules for Writing Nonfiction for Kids (just the ones we need to cut)

1) Unless an author is very famous, he or she must tie his or her work directly to the school curriculum whenever possible. According to the publishers, that’s what sells books.

Soooo limiting. How many ways can you spin the stories of the 20 or 30 most famous Americans? I say there are lots of other amazing people and true stories out there that have nothing to do with the standardized tests.

2) Tell the absolute truth unless it’s not politically correct. In that case, leave it out.

No matter what happened in real life today or in the past, women, minorities, and certain religious groups are never allowed to do anything stupid or evil according to today’s moral standards or the book in question is at risk of being banned from the lists of recommended books for schools.

3) Focus on America

There are lots of amazing places in this world that are not tied to the USA in any way. Publishers tend to exclude most of them because the books might not sell, but I’m betting otherwise.

4) Unlike fiction and adult nonfiction, no wimpy kids or other losers are invited to share their diaries in print unless there’s an uplifting ending.

5) Be even-handed at all times so that kids get an unbiased, well-rounded view of the world.

This can be a very good rule, but sometimes it can tie your hands as well.

6) Do not posit brand new theories, promote a strong opinion about religion or politics, tell tales of current corruption and scandal, make predictions for the future, or add a sense of humor about any of the above or your book will be banned and you will not win an award.

I still believe we’re in a Golden Age of Nonfiction for kids and that the best writers are getting better and better all the time. And there is some great nonfiction for kids that breaks the sacred rules; just not very much of it. Congratulations. I hope the outliers sell a million copies. But meanwhile, I sure would like to cut the ties that bind nonfiction authors and don’t apply to authors in other genres. Once we’re not so hamstrung by these sacred rules, just watch our fire.


Jim Murphy said...

Great post, Roz. And here's a toast to a New Year of rule breaking!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Hear, Hear!

Steve Sheinkin said...

Totally agree, Roz. The story I'm researching now is sort of a civil rights story, but not so clear-cut as Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson. It's good to be reminded that we should embrace messy, thought-provoking stories!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks everyone. Just today I was reading a list of the hottest new nonfiction books for adults and it was so very interesting (and messy)....just filled with ancient mysteries,groundbreaking theories about the universe, controversial topics, and everything else we'd like to put in our books for kids. I say let's go for it so we don’t have to keep re-inventing the same tired material over and over again to please our publishers. Here's hoping this time they will bite.