Today’s guest post as part of National Non-Fiction November is brought to you by Sam Hutchinson, Publisher at b small, an independent children’s publishing company with a focus on foreign language learning and creative, hands-on non-fiction for kids.
Notes from a Small Non-fiction Publisher
“In a recent press release about one of our new non-fiction titles, I described the author and illustrator team, Susan Martineau and Vicky Barker, as embarking ’on a swashbuckling mission, cutting their way through a rainforest of information, scaling mountains of data and plumbing the depths of an ocean of research, to bring you only the very best and most interesting, the most entertaining and enlightening that the world has to offer.’ Egotistical self-quoting aside, I hope you’ll agree with me that non-fiction for children is in a particularly exciting stage of life and that the work our authors and illustrators are doing is reflecting that.
As a publisher, it is my job to ‘bring a book to market’. This can involve lots of different things but primarily it involves making sure that people will want to consume what we create. The first question with non-fiction books is to ask why someone would pay for information that is publicly available, usually free of charge. The facts in our books are not creations of our authors, they are facts that are real and true – though they are lovingly rewritten by our authors so that they appeal to children. In thinking about my role in the process, I chose our latest title, Animal Camouflage, as a case study because I happened to write and edit the book as well.
Sarah loves nature and I love learning about different countries. So we came up with the idea of taking children around the world from continent to continent (or ‘region’ to ‘region’ as we discovered when trying to draw up boundaries for a recent atlas book – there are lots of disputes around the world!) and introducing them to the animals there. I have several things to make decisions about at this stage:
– which age range would best suit the artwork and the topic
– who are the customers likely to be
– which format suits these customers and this topic
– how will this book stand out from the competition
– how much can we charge for the book
– how much can we afford to spend on making the book
Nature is a very popular topic within children’s books so we decided that Sarah’s artwork had to be the main event. This would make the book stand out from the competition. Since Sarah’s artwork is so beautiful, we wanted to introduce a handful of animals in each region and then feature a busy search and find scene that contained those animals. Children could read about the animals and then spend some time trying to find them.
Here is Sarah’s artwork for the European spread:
This all meant that my job as the author and editor was to make sure that the facts were interesting and would appeal to the age range we had chosen (6 years and up). We chose this age range as we thought it would best suit the artwork and allow us to include some fun facts. I selected 11 animals from each region that I thought were representative of that region but also different enough to the other animals in the book so that the facts would remain varied. The next job was to find some good facts and write them up in 15-20 words.
As a seasoned facts researcher, I know that they are some topics you can always rely on for a good fact that kids will love. Most of these facts revolve around poo (!) or grossly amazing insects. Superhero-style skills are also good such as being able to run really, really fast or dive from the air at a great speed or weighing more than a car (not technically a ‘skill’ but pretty cool nonetheless). Once you’ve tried the poo angle and looked into other physical characteristics, you can move on to behaviours. This allows you to include a variety of facts across the page – each animal only had one fact about it but you want them to be quite different to the other information on the page. When it comes to behaviours, you have the additional challenge of making sure that the interesting behaviour is age appropriate. Sometimes the information, like the fact that swans mate for life, is a really nice piece of information but you don’t want to have to explain about mating and get into the reproductive cycle of a swan at this age range. So I would say something like, ‘Swans mate for life so you often see two swans and their cygnets (babies) together.’ Most kids will accept this without wanting to know the science behind it.
Once the facts are researched and written up, Sarah and I sat down to rough out the page layouts. Sarah came up with some sketches to show what she wanted to do and we worked out how the text would fit around them. We gave one double-page spread over to the amazing search and find scene and another double-page spread to the facts. Here is what the fact page ended up looking like:
Finally, we added in some little challenges and questions on the search and find pages to encourage our readers to really pour over the artwork. For example, on the European spread we asked them to count up the creatures with wings in the scene.
It was a big job but we are really pleased with how the book turned out. Now comes the hard part…selling it!”
This guest post was provided by Sam Hutchinson. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.