Friday, 22 November 2013

What's the Story on Non-Fiction Picture Books? by Malachy Doyle



I’m a story writer, first and foremost.  But there’s a whole world of wonderful picture books out there that don’t tell a story.  Or not a made-up story, anyway.  I’m talking about the world of non-fiction.

Non-fiction picture books are a much bigger phenomenon in the United States than here (by here I mean Britain and Ireland, because that’s where I’m based and that’s where most of my work is published).  Here the market for picture books is very much age seven and under, and very much story-led.

There are exceptions, of course.  Walker Books, for example, have been, and still are, publishing a wide range of very high quality non-fiction picture books.  My first for them, way back in 1999, was Jody’s Beans, illustrated by Judith Allibone.


I wrote it as a story about a little girl growing a sunflower.  But a) I discovered there were too many books about sunflowers on the market so I turned it into one about runner beans. And b) Walker wanted to publish it in their Read and Wonder series, so although it was a story about a little girl and her grandfather, we threw in lots of added information and it somehow became ‘non-fiction’.
Maybe because they appeal to the schools market, non-fiction can sell well and remain in print longer, so though I’ve had four fiction picture books with Walker since, Jody’s outsold them all.

I then, in 2002, had Cow published.  This was basically a day in the life of a cow.  I went down to the river, sat in a field of cows, and meditated on what it might be like to be one.  Angelo Rinaldi did some superbly lifelike illustrations, and of all the nearly a hundred books I’ve had published, it’s still my highest earner. Oh, and it won the  English Association Award for best non-fiction picture book that year, so that was nice. 


Simon and Schuster wanted Angelo and me to do another one, and suggested horses.  I wasn’t at all sure about this, as I’ve always been somewhat wary of the beasts - they’re big and they bite.  But a job’s a job, so I spent the summer getting over my fear.  I visited Michael Morpurgo’s Farm for City Children when I was down in Pembrokeshire, and generally hung out with horses.  You still won't see me on horseback (once was enough), but I’m actually very fond of them now, and never go past one without saying hello.  And yes, you guessed it, Horse is still in print long after some of my other S&S picture books have fallen by the wayside. 


 So if you’re writing (or reading) picture books, don’t look down your nose at non-fiction.  Children need them (and love them – especially boys, who are often drawn to information books when they wouldn’t be seen dead reading a ‘story’ book).  They can be just as high-quality.  The research can be fun.  Oh, and they sell!

13 comments:

  1. Yes, the non-fiction books I've written for young age-groups give me amazingly consistent PLR, year after year. I once did a big series called 'Who Am I' for Belitha. It still gets used today, years and years after it was finished and no longer published. I still get emails from all over the world and requests from schools...I used to do a school visit for the youngest children based on the books, and they were so pleased to get someone in who was working with young non-fiction. It was unusual.

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    1. Good point, Moira - they stay in libraries for a long time, so are very handy on the PLR front. (Public Lending Right, to those who don't have it, is a small payment made to the author / illustrator for every copy loaned.)

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  2. Nice post. So how does it all work? Do you approach a publisher with a possible non fiction project?
    I love the look of the cow book btw ;-)

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    1. Yes, I think you look for a gap in the market, Jonathan. Something that hasn't been covered, but that children would find fascinating and would make a stunning-looking book. Then go out and sell it to a publisher. Easy, so!

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  3. Oh, ands i totally share your distrust of horses, though I am fond of heavy horses ;-)

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  4. Fab post Malachy. Thanks you've given me an idea for a book - something very dear to my heart and would be ideal for school libraries as it fit in with the curriculum.

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  5. Thanks for the food for thought, Malachy, I've never done any non-fiction picture books, but never say never -except three times in this reply, of course :-)

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  6. Non-fiction tends to come in sets - So with the Walker books, for example, there was a selection by different authors in the series, I believe. I'd advise coming up with an idea and showing how it can be extended to other books in a series - making the premise more interesting for a publisher.

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  7. A really interesting topic, and I think it's fairly new that non-fiction has been allowed to appear in such lush and lovely ways as the Cow and Horse book. So much more appetising than the more obviously information kinds of books. Thanks, Malachy.

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  8. Thanks for sharing! Very interesting!

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  9. I've never written a non-fiction book but I might give it some thought now - thanks Malachy :)

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