Monday 28 November 2022

Sometimes You Have To Try On Different Trousers: How to Revamp Nonfiction Picture Book Ideas


I’ve Been Trying on Different Trousers  . . .


In the past few years, I’ve written four new nonfiction books.


I began them with gusto. I love true stories. Those nuggets of facts that make you go ‘wow, really?!’ have me dancing round the house to find someone who will listen to my latest discovery. I also love detective work, even if it means going to great lengths to fact-check and dig for missing links or get in touch with an expert.


But then those manuscripts didn’t sell. So I went back to the drawing board.


I read. I did more research.  


I was searching for a new way to grip the reader (and editor). One that would ‘fit’ the story in a different way.


I asked myself:


Was there another way in to tell this story? Could I change the point of view? Could I include different facts? Could I change the style of nonfiction or the target age group?  Could I make it longer, shorter, with sidebars, more back matter or . . .?


According to bestselling nonfiction author, Melissa Stewart, I was shopping for a new text structure. It’s like shopping for a pair of trousers (pants, if you’re American), she says.


“When we shop for pants, we usually know what purpose we want them to serve. Are they for playing sports? Relaxing around the house? Going to a fancy party?”


Authors have to figure out what they’re most excited to share with readers.  They have to rule out pants that are the wrong colour, size or fit. Pants they don’t like. Pants that are not fit for purpose.

Text structures are patterns that help us to arrange and connect ideas so young readers can “access, understand and remember information more easily.”

In the case of narrative nonfiction, they are an important part of the voice and way IN to the story.


Melissa Stewart has identified seven structures:



Sequence /Chronological Sequence


Compare & Contrast

Cause & Effect

Problem- Solution

Question & Answer


Finding the right text structure is like building
the right frame for a house - it can really make a book!

Once you rule out some structure types that instantly don’t seem like a good fit, you eventually get to the point where you have to try them on to see which fits best. That’s where mentor texts can really help. Looking at other picture books with a critical eye and acting like a detective can be useful to reassess what kind of structure would work best on your book. In their book, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia, the authors suggest looking at the same topic with different text structures. For instance FROGS. When you do this, it's amazing how many different approaches you can find for exploring just one topic in a children's nonfiction book! Lots of different structures, lots of different lenses.


Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books
by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia

Sometimes, you need another element as well – a personal connection to the story, an a-ha! nugget that will really hook young readers and make them take notice. You have to write and rewrite to figure out and understand what your book is really about and why it matters. Is it surprising to you? Does it make you think in a new way?


When even when I finally find the right fit, the right pants, I also need to personalize them – I need to check: why am I writing this story?  


Melissa points out that there are other structures that imaginative authors have invented to fit the topic. For example, in SWIRL BY SWIRL: SPIRALS IN NATURE by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes, the text starts with examples that are small and snug; these get bigger and spiral outward and finally curl up again for the ending – just like a spiral. 



In one of my favourite recent nonfiction picture books, WHAT’S IN YOUR POCKET? COLLECTING NATURE’S TREASURES by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga, Heather tells stories of what famous scientists’ collected and kept in their pockets as children – and links how these later led them to make important discoveries as grown-ups. 



For instance, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, kept snails, slugs, scorpions and lizards in his pockets – and later discovered more than thirty new species of frogs. And Bonnie Lei collected tide pool creatures and later studied sea slugs and even found a new kind!


From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

Heather Montgomery cleverly makes each figure relevant to young readers by tapping into a universal childhood love for collecting and outdoor play – and cleverly links this to how they were growing science skills that would lead to a lifelong passion working in the field.


This is what I am hoping to somehow create for each of my nonfiction book ideas. But how?


LOOK really closely at your topic. Look for:


• patterns

• key vocabulary words

• how do you want to make the reader FEEL?

• links to children’s lives and interests!


The hardest part? Keeping it SIMPLE and not being tempted to jam in everything!


I am inspired by Melissa Stewart’s tales of how it can take a long time to find the right structure and sell a book to an editor. For instance, it took her from December 2010 to December 2014 to get the manuscript for Can an aardvark BARK? accepted.  In this time, she experimented with four different structures!

Perhaps there is hope for my ideas and revised stories yet. I’m not giving up!



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses! She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at

1 comment:

Heather L. Montgomery said...

Thanks for the shout out, Natascha. Discovering the perfect structure is always the part I struggle with the most.