Monday, 8 July 2019

Tips on writing picture book non-fiction • Moira Butterfield

Moira Butterfield was one of our Picture Book Den co-founders, and has recently been writing lots of highly-illustrated non-fiction for age 4+. Her book Welcome to Our World (Nosy Crow)was an international bestseller in 2018. Her new book Home Sweet Home (Red Shed, Egmont)came out at the end of June 2019. In 2020/2021 she will have picture book non-fiction published by Nosy Crow, Walker Books and Quarto. 

What is picture book non-fiction? 
Picture book non-fiction uses the medium of the illustrated picture book to explore real life. It might be for ages 4+, or pitched slightly older at 6+ (as is Home Sweet Home). The text will be paired with the work of an imaginative picture book illustrator. 

Moira’s new book – Home Sweet Home. 

The text needs to be a great out-loud read 
Picture book non-fiction text needs to exhibit the same writing skillsets as a storybook. As it is likely to be a shared reading experience between adults and children, the author needs to think hard about the way the book will hold up as a ‘together’ read. Just as you would do with a story, read your work out loud regularly as you write. That way you can catch anything that doesn’t flow well, is long-winded or confusing.

The text might be poetic or caption-based 
Some non-fiction picture book text is lyrical – using the features of poetry to explore a subject. By contrast, some non-fiction texts use an introduction and short caption facts (as per Home Sweet Home). For instance, lyrical non-fiction about a butterfly might read more like a poem about a butterfly, whereas in a caption-based text you might want to explain – step-by-step - the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. It should still sound great out loud (and with its meaning as clear as a bell), but it’s not laid out as poetry. 

I myself have written both these styles and I’m happy to mix them up in the same book. I think it makes for a good varied read.

This poem comes from the beginning of ‘Everybody Feels Angry’ 
(QED, illustrated by Holly Sterling). 
The book contains a mixture of material exploring a child’s feelings. 

Here’s a snippet from a Home Sweet Home spread.
It shows an introduction and caption.

Be hyper-aware of the needs of your age-group 
Be very careful to ensure your text caters to the age-group you’re aiming at. Will they be interested/able to connect with what you are saying and the way you are saying it? For example, a 4 year-old might prefer the poetry approach as a way of accessing a subject. A 6+ year-old might prefer longer content with more caption facts. 

The text should have a sense of wonder 
Most importantly the language of a non-fiction book should impart a sense of wonder in its subject. That’s why picture book non-fiction is such a great genre. We’re getting the chance to spark a child’s interest in the amazing world around them. 

The opening spread of Home Sweet Home, illustrated by Clair Rossiter
and written to get children interested in life around the world.

Page length varies 
Picture book non-fiction may not always follow a 12-spread pattern. I have written for 48pp and longer recently. In fact a publisher has just suggested that I write with no page numbers in mind, which I think is a great idea. The designer will then work on the text to see what comes out. That’s pretty radical and has given me the impetus to be very creative without stricture! 

Children need to feel involved 
A non-fiction picture book text should, in my opinion, connect to the lives of the children who read it. So, for example, Home SweetHomelooks at homes around the world and in history, but with reference to a child’s own experience. I am giving them surprising and (I hope) fascinating facts but making sure I link the information to what they know.  In fact, in this case I decided to ask the reader questions as they move through the book – to get them actively connecting themselves to the things they are learning. 

First example of including questions -
taken from
 Home Sweet Home.

Second example of including questions -
taken from
 Home Sweet Home.

The text needs heart 
Above all, a picture book non-fiction text needs heart, just as a story does. Are you passionate about it? What’s the reason you chose a particular subject? If you have something important to say, then your feeling is more likely to shine through in your work. 

Twitter @moiraworld
Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor


Karen Owen said...

Interesting post, thank you. I'm presuming that you have a much more involved relationship with the illustrator than for fiction picture books?

Pete said...

Excellent post.

One thing I have noticed about certain sites is that, even though they have tons of content, the site looks great and the headlines are eye catching is that the material is simply filler. It’s downright unreadable. You can forget it 6 seconds after you read it. Not the case with your post though, really enjoyed it reading it and it held my attention all the way through! Keep it up.

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