How to write an engaging children’s information book
Have you ever wondered how to write a non-fiction book for kids? What would make it fun and appealing? In what ways could you represent the information about the topic? Here are some thoughts from several of our popular non-fiction authors, including their top tips.
Firstly, our authors explained how they first developed an interest in writing children’s non-fiction.
John Townsend (author of the Live from the Crypt series) explained: ‘I was a secondary school teacher trying to engage reluctant readers… so I tried writing material myself. I began publishing fiction and then editors requested “true stories” and text with factual content. I continue to write books of various styles/genres, often full of information (non-fiction can be a misleading description!). I have written quite a lot of fiction but with plenty of factual information embedded – what I call “faction”.’
‘I decided I didn’t want to be an academic after one term as a lecturer, so I started writing,’ revealed Anne Rooney (author of You Wouldn’t Want to Be In a Virus Pandemic! and other books in the You Wouldn’t Want to… series). ‘I tried out lots of different types of writing and settled on writing children’s non-fiction as my favourite.’
Alex Woolf (author of the All the Way Down books) discussed how he worked as an editor of children’s non-fiction. He noted that ‘while editing these books, I realised that I would enjoy the challenge of trying to write them myself. So I became an author. Twenty years and some two hundred books later, I’m still going strong!’
For Sean Connolly (author of the Adventures in the Real World series), it was his family background in printing that set him on his way. ‘One of the publishers who used the local printers produced textbooks and other books for young readers. If you think about it, if people in your family work in a bakery then you wind up with fresh bread and pastries. For us it was books – lots of them!’
Researching a topic for a non-fiction book can be a daunting task, but our authors had some wonderful ideas on how to get started.
John recommended ‘Online journals, articles and reliable sites, video clips/interviews, as well as books of all kinds.’ He went on to say ‘Sometimes contacting “an expert” or museum has been useful in the past.’
Alex described his research process: ‘I always use a number of sources for my research, both from the Internet and books. Internet sources need to be authoritative, such as the BBC, museum websites, National Geographic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, etc. If I have to use Wikipedia for something, I always check the citation to make sure the fact comes from a reliable source.’
Sean explained that ‘because most of my books are aimed at younger readers, I do a lot of school visits. Usually I ask a group of pupils… to raise their hands if they have to do homework… I try to get them to connect what they do as homework when they’re researching a school project with what I do for a living. In many ways, I follow the same course. If I know someone who knows about a subject I’ll ask them for information. That sort of first-hand information is really helpful. And even if they don’t tell me a great deal, they might give me tips on how to continue my research. With Adventures in the Real World: Discovering The Tomb of Tutankhamun I was lucky because I’d already written a book in that series – about the Mayflower voyage of 1620. I came to know the sort of books and websites that would help me out.’
Anne pointed out she had the help of a consultant, Dr Andrew Coburn, who she’d worked with before on pandemics. ‘I already knew quite a bit about it. Really it was just updating my knowledge by following the science unfolding for this particular pandemic. It was exciting to be following it in real time, not just taking information from authoritative sources like the WHO and CDC, but trying to see where people were misunderstanding or doubting things and trying to explain those areas in the book, too.’
Choosing what illustrations to use in a non-fiction book can be a key part of a book’s appeal. But how do you choose the right illustrations?
John explained that he tends to ‘research images/photo libraries to suggest ideas for an illustrator or I just try to describe what might work best. For cartoon strips, I provide a brief outline for each frame to assist an artist.’ He also pointed out ‘illustrators and editors will have their own ideas, of course, and it’s great to throw around suggestions and to try out different visuals collaboratively.’
Alex commented that working collaboratively with the illustrator is important. ‘For the All the Way Down series, I had many discussions with the illustrator about how best to illustrate certain spreads. For example, in the Rainforest title, there was one spread on the rainforest canopy that was looking a bit plain, so I introduced some text about the many ways we can observe the rainforest – such as walkways, airships and aerial trams – giving the illustrator lots of new elements to include. This is a great example of author and illustrator working together to make it a more visually interesting book.’
Sean gave his opinion on illustrations: ‘I think illustrations must be interesting enough to make you stop and look at them. But also, they need to “work for the book”. Believe it or not, writers find it easier to write lots of words than small amounts. So when you’re faced with a limited number of pages to tell a story, you want to choose illustrations that help move that story along… so you can save some of the words to describe other things as well. Of course, illustrations and maps also help explain some complicated things where words might not be enough.’
Anne identified that she needed a mix of entertaining yet informative images. She wanted to keep it humorous despite, in Anne’s words, the ‘sometimes grim subject matter.’ ‘David Antram (illustrator) did a great job of interpreting my often rather bizarre requests in just the right way to make everything clear, non-scary and quite fun where appropriate.’
Ensuring that the text in a non-fiction book is suitable for the intended age range is very important. John explained his method of working: ‘I try to keep sentence length/syntax/vocabulary relatively simple and regularly run readability checks. Having written for phonic reading schemes for all ages and taught literacy, I like to think I’ve got a reasonable feel for general text-level suitability. That said, redrafting with a specific age group clearly in mind can help to iron out a few textual crinkles along the way.’
Alex noted that ‘this comes from experience and practice. I read and edited lots of children’s books before becoming a writer of them, and became familiar with appropriate reading levels for different age groups and for reluctant readers. I have… conducted workshops with thousands of children, so have seen at first-hand how children read and interact with books. I assume no knowledge of any subject I’m writing about, and try to find ways of explaining things in fresh and engaging ways. It may have helped that I was a reluctant reader myself, so I understand the challenges of decoding text.’
Sean commented: ‘Because I’ve written many books for young readers, I’ve had years of experience knowing the sort of thing that does (or doesn’t) make sense to younger readers. Don’t forget – editors are really good at helping me out in that area. I’ve been lucky with my Salariya editors, who are excellent judges.’
‘I’ve been doing this for about twenty years, so it’s really automatic now,’ Anne acknowledged. ‘First, I aim to be clear. Second, it has to move quite quickly – young readers don’t want to be bogged down in heavy, dull and complicated sentences that repeat things… I try to keep it as concise as possible, to use words and sentence structures that are easy to understand, and to give the information a logical flow. It’s important to remember that some will be new readers, and some will be reading in a second language; they deserve authors to make an effort on their behalf.’
Non-fiction books for children may address difficult subjects or complex concepts, and it is therefore important to make sure they are accessible to a young reader. John explained that ‘simplifying complex ideas into a palatable form is something I’ve always enjoyed tackling. I try to strip down meaty content to the basics and then re-tell everything in as simple a way as I can… If I’m asked to tackle a subject I know little about, it can be easier starting from scratch and describing tricky information to myself in simple terms first. If I then understand it, I’ll try to retell it in my own way and hope to make it as clear as possible. I’ve even tackled nuclear physics with this approach!’
Alex takes the approach of taking on the role of the reader. ‘I try to imagine myself in their shoes, reading the text I’m writing. I read and re-read every paragraph I write to ensure that there’s no assumed knowledge, and that the writing is as clearly and simply expressed as possible. I keep sentences short. I make sure that each sentence contains just one or two ideas, and that the sentences build on each other in a logical way. That way even complex subjects can be explained in a manner that a child can understand. With some topics you cannot avoid using some technical language, but this should be used sparingly, with difficult words defined in the glossary.’
Sean commented, ‘My own children are now older than the age level of Tutankhamun and other books in that series.’ He went on to say ‘I’ve been writing young-reader books for many years…. beginning when they were very young. I remember the sort of explanation that made sense to them back then, and how to find familiar experiences that shed light on tough or difficult subjects.’
‘I think throwing away the idea that it’s difficult is the first step,’ explained Anne. ‘If you approach something as though it’s going to be difficult, that puts people off. (Young readers don’t have adult preconceptions about some topics being “hard”.) Then find points of contact with the readers’ experiences and interests and use those to introduce unfamiliar material. Make the material relatable, relevant and exciting – and all topics are exciting, so that’s not difficult.’
Selecting a writing style for a non-fiction book is important to help the book appeal to the target audience. John revealed ‘the subject and intended audience often guide the approach/style to follow. Sometimes, as with Live from the Crypt where historical characters are being interviewed, there is plenty of scope for humour and a chatty style, with factual information being discreetly scattered throughout – like chocolate chips sprinkled in a cookie!”
For Alex, ‘the most important factor is the reading age. This will determine things like sentence and paragraph length, the amount of text on the page and the complexity of the vocabulary. Another factor is the type of topic. Different topics call for different styles of writing, such as conversational, humorous, sensational or serious. Books about ghosts or UFOs, for example, would require a different writing style to books about bullying or mental health. Sometimes you can mix things up a little though. One of my most successful books is You Wouldn’t Want to be in the Trenches in World War I. This introduced a little humour into a pretty dark topic, while remaining respectful of the suffering of the soldiers in that conflict.’
‘I must stress the importance of a good relationship between authors and editors (the publishers),’ explained Sean. ‘Usually, the ideas for young-reader titles (or series) come from the publishers, and they (through the editors) let authors and illustrators know how heavy or light (or even humorous) they expect the books to be. After all, it wouldn’t do for my Tutankhamun style to be very different from that of other books in the same series.’
Anne mentioned that she always tries to adopt an informal voice, as though talking to the reader directly. ‘I use comparisons, analogies, jokes, and anything else that will help make things clear and interesting. The important thing is to sound friendly, engaged with the reader and their interests and to be genuinely enthusiastic about sharing the topic. I don’t think you can fake the last of those. If you’re not enthusiastic, how will you make the reader enthusiastic?’
Making your non-fiction book distinct from other books on a given topic can help a book stand out from other titles.
John noted that ‘it’s really important to avoid the “same-old” and to bring a fresh, innovative and original feel to an information book, however many others on the subject are out there. This is as much down to the visual style and design as to the writing and imaginative content (quirky when possible). Because I often talk to audiences of children, throwing in jokes and asides, I like to write as if I’m talking to a sea of cheery faces, trying to keep them all fascinated, engaged and entertained. I guess that gives a book more of one’s own personal/distinct voice.’
Alex commented ‘I try to approach each book in a fresh and interesting way. There are many, many books about rainforests and the Romans, but even these well-covered topics can be made interesting by finding unusual examples of rainforest animals, for instance, or strange Roman foods. Both publishers and authors always try to find new angles on familiar topics. All the Way Down is a good example of this: looking at the ocean or the rainforest as a series of layers.’
Sean expressed that ‘quite apart from the style or tone of the writing, which can lend a distinctive feel to a book, it’s often a good idea to have a clever framing device – a way of telling the story from an unusual point of view… For Tutankhamun, I used three mummified animals in a museum discussing why a major Tutankhamun exhibition was such a big deal. Those were ways of weaving fantasy and humour with factual history.’
Luckily for Anne, there aren’t any books covering her topic! ‘It’s the first book on the covid-19 pandemic. The rest will have to make theirs different from this one!’
Writing is a continuous creative process and each of our authors interviewed has something in the pipeline. John is just finishing his tenth book in the Live from the Crypt series. John explained: ‘Book ten is about the first Roman Emperors, with all their gruesome power struggles, set against plenty of ancient Roman gross. I’ve even included a few limericks to summarise various points (though not in Latin!). I’m looking forward to hearing what groups of readers make of these scripts when they read/perform them together, and whether events and characters come alive to help make sense of the past. Fingers crossed.’
Sean divulged that ‘Since writing Tutankhamun I have written another book in the same series – about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and the destruction of Pompeii.’
Alex revealed that he is ‘about to start work on a new book called The Invisible Spy.’ Like all good spies, he didn’t give anything away!
Anne revealed that she never works on only one book. ‘At the moment, I’m writing a lift-the-flap book on evolution covering everything from the formation of Earth to now; a pop-up book on microbes; a book about rainforests; a history of planet Earth; and a book of dinosaurs – all at different stages.’
And what better way to conclude this blog but to share with you some top tips from the authors?
John recommends to ‘avoid pomposity! Overly formal text full of jargon or language designed to seem ‘expert’ can often come across as somewhat cold, off-putting or distant. A light-hearted approach can more often engage a reader quickly, and long explanations can be avoided when the narrative uses a lightness of touch with the old adage “less is more”. Reading aloud your writing, as if to a young reader right in front of you, can help authors feel their distinct voice, language and rhythms – and to spot/cut out the stodge!’
Alex’s top tip is ‘always look for fascinating and unusual examples of whatever you’re writing about. Whether you’re writing about history, science or the natural world, children love to hear about the nasty, smelly, gooey, gory, gritty side of life, so don’t shy away from those things – just find age-appropriate ways of writing about them.’
Sean’s opinion is that ‘every author (of any genre) would encourage young writers to read, read, read. In many ways, writing is a craft and writing a book is a form of construction. Seeing how other authors (not just non-fiction but novelists, short-story writers and even poets and songwriters) get their points across is about the best lesson.’
Anne’s advice is to ‘be interested in your subject and your readers and write as though you are confident that they will be interested. Retain the sense of wonder at the world you had as a child and use that enthusiasm to drive your writing. And research very thoroughly, at a much higher level than you are writing at.’
Top tips from our authors:
- ‘A light-hearted approach can often engage a reader more quickly’
- Avoid long explanations: ‘less is more’
- Read aloud your writing to get a feel of ‘distinct voice, language and rhythms’
- ‘Look for fascinating and unusual examples of whatever you”re writing about’
- ‘Children love to hear about the nasty, smelly, gooey, gory, gritty side of life’
- ‘Just find age-appropriate ways of writing about them’
- ‘Read, read, read’
- ‘Seeing how other authors get their points across is about the best lesson’
- Find a way of telling a story from an unusual point of view.
- Weave ‘fantasy and humour with factual history’
- ‘Be interested in your subject and your readers and write as though you are confident that they will be interested’
- ‘Retain the sense of wonder at the world you had as a child and use that enthusiasm to drive your writing’
- ‘Research very thoroughly, at a much higher level than you are writing at’
So creativity and a sense of fun play a huge part in successful children’s non-fiction writing. And such writing can be a richly rewarding experience – that’s fact, not fiction!
Written by Carlos Almonacid
Explore the series discussed in the article:
Interviews with the ghosts of sparky inventors
Interviews with the ghosts of Roman emperors
Live from the crypt: Interview with the ghosts of the Titanic
Live from the crypt: Interview with the ghost of Louis Pasteur
All The Way Down: Amazon Rainforest
All The Way Down: Ocean
Adventures in the Real World: Discovering The Tomb of Tutankhamun
You Wouldn’t Want To Meet Burke and Hare!
You Wouldn’t Want To Be In Alexander The Great’s Army!