Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Finding Neglected Topics to Write About (Part 1)

In my early years as a picture book author-illustrator, I read some how-to books to learn more about the field. One had a statement to the effect that “there isn’t anything NEW you can do in children’s books, but try to think of a fresh angle” on the same old thing, presumably. It may be that whoever concocted that theory was thinking about fiction... there have been quite a few books about “the seven basic plots,” or whatever number an author comes up with. And heaven knows, the world surely doesn’t need another variation on the endless I'll Love You Till the Cows Come Home or the Sun Explodes, Whichever Comes First genre of picture book(!)

When it comes to nonfiction though, there are plenty of subjects that haven't been adapted for the picture book age. My first school visits inspired an became clear that writing was emphasized at an earlier age in the curriculum than during my elementary years, even in Kindergarten. The thought occurred to me that if these young students had writing skills, what could they do with them? How about making a newspaper? I checked in Children’s Books in Print, and there weren't any books for kids about it, except perhaps a documentary-style book about being a journalist. I wanted to show characters working together to create their own newspaper. That
question, “what can kids write?” resulted in The Furry News: How to Make a Newspaper, then later books about writing letters and books.

I routinely research the competition (if any) to see if a subject has been done to death or not. Rather than a drive to the library to rummage through Books in Print, nowadays a search on Amazon quickly shows what has been published. (The Advanced Search limits titles to the 4-8 year range for picture books.) It’s not uncommon to find a topic that has only one or even zero picture books about it, which makes me more inclined to pursue it. Also, and this may be obvious, but Amazon or any search engine is the best way to test titles. For example, once I was considering When Pigs Fly as a title, but there were already several published books entitled with that phrase. No sense in confusing potential readers.

So how do authors find a neglected topic to write a book about? The classic method is to have an idea pop into your head seemingly out of nowhere. But if that fails, read on...

Often teachers, librarians, parents, and other book people can suggest ideas. “You should write a book about X.” These are often excellent leads, although despite several suggestions I have yet to attempt a book about Groundhog Day. When I send out my enewsletter, I always ask for ideas and usually get some good ones. Editors are another great source, naturally. My longtime editor (Margery Cuyler) once told me there weren’t many picture books about math and how about giving one a try? Which has turned into eleven books so far. Not every externally-generated suggestion will fit, which is the way it goes. But sometimes a not-so-good idea can spark a thought process that leads to a great one.

Checking out curriculum guides and/or standards can be intriguing, such as those developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. These can often be viewed or downloaded from the web sites of national associations, local school districts, or from a state level organization, such as this one for Florida. I don't know about you, but to me this practically pulsates with possibilities: Differentiate between living and non-living things.

(To be continued next month.)

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