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Writing MG Nonfiction: Top Researching Tips

I think half the fun of writing MG nonfiction is done before ever beginning to write. It all begins with research. I love to do research. I can spend hours just searching for that one really weird fact that sends me down another research rabbit hole. Those strange and little-known facts are what grab kids attention and what makes your book stand out from the rest. So research is not work to me—it’s really fun. And what it ultimately leads to is the story behind the facts. You want to get to that story . . . it’s what really hooks young readers.

Through working in publishing as an editor and solo as a freelance writer/editor, I’ve gathered some very reliable resources of interesting information that I either use on the book I’m writing or that I tuck away in my “future book ideas” file. I write a lot of science- and history-focused books, so here are some of the best resources I’ve found to help me with that research. Feel free to add some of your top research resources in the comments.

 

Library Databases: Free to access (with a library account) and filled with a wealth of information, library databases can be accessed either online or onsite at your local library. You can search academic journals, historical newspapers, scientific collections, historical collections, government publications, maps, music, and much more. Onsite databases offer even more than what libraries have online. Most writers wouldn’t be able to afford one or two of the subscriptions to these databases each year, but libraries can offer them free to the public. You just have to know where to look on their website or on computers in the library—and librarians are always willing to help you find the best databases for your research needs. Here are just a few of the many databases available through my local library’s online resources:

  • Birds of North America Online: Life histories of bird species breeding in the U.S. (including Hawaii) and Canada, including maps, images, videos, and audio files of songs and calls.
  • EBSCO Megafile: Magazine and journal articles, reference books, and images. Provides general and academic coverage of multiple subjects including science, technology, religion, philosophy, psychology, and business.
  • General Science Collection (from GALE): Full-text articles from journals on physics, mathematics, nanotechnology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more.
  • National Geographic Virtual Library: Full-text magazine articles. Includes books, maps, images and videos. Goes back to 1888.
  • New York Times, Historical: Digitized images from the original newspapers, New York Daily Times (1851 – 1857) and New York Times (from 1857 on, except the most recent 4 years).

 

An LOC image of Wilbur Wright gliding in level flight, moving to right near bottom of Big Hill; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Library of Congress: I am constantly findingnew treasures on the Library of Congress website. Whether it’s a historical photograph that helps me describe a hunting scenes and near-extinction of buffalo and bald eagles in North America or Civil War maps that help me understand more about the history of the war, this site is packed with primary sources that can be used not only for research on the topic, but also for free historical images that can be used in your book. It contains digital images, music, and manuscript collections; reference guides for researchers (like this one on natural disasters); great backmatter inclusions, like this list of sites for kids and families, turn-of-the-century films of San Francisco before and after the great earthquake and fire ; articles with links and images about important inventions, like the Wright brothers’ airplane and first flight; or the America’s Story site for student use.

 

Google Alerts and GoogleScholar: If I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll set up a Google Alert on the topic. This is particularly helpful when writing about current topics that are affected by daily events. The alerts send me links to the latest news articles and research papers on the topic. For example, I found this really useful when writing a book about exoplanet discoveries, as new planets are being discovered on a daily basis. I use Google Scholar to search academic journals for the latest research.

 

Research Papers (Lead to Interviews and Much More!): Not only great for primary source information and data to support your arguments, research papers are a goldmine for interview leads. They always include author information, sometimes even email addresses for the scientists who led the study and wrote their analysis. If not, by digging a little further, you can usually find contact information through a scientist’s listing on the university website of where they work. I have gotten many interviews with top scientists in their field this way, and the majority are thrilled to speak with me. Many will even send me other papers relevant to my topic, or not-yet-published results from some of their studies.

I found this incredible photo through a research paper on earwigs and their intricate wings.

Research papers may also include photos and diagrams related to the study. Some include a release for media professionals or contact information for media inquiries. I’ve never had a problem getting permission to use these images in the books I write, and since they are so specific to the topic, they can show exactly what’s described in the text (rather than the typical stock images, which is often what publisher’s use when specific images are not available). Authors of these studies will often send me laboratory photos to use in my books as well, which cannot be found elsewhere. For example, for a book on animal and plant longevity, a scientist studying Greenland sharks sent me the most amazing photos of him tagging the sharks for further study and of the shark’s eyeball (which is used to determine its several centuries-old age). Scientists rock! Their willingness to help authors educate others leads to some of the most interesting angles and stories behind the data of their studies.

And just a few more . . .

Digging deeply into your research will lead you on pathways you had no idea existed for your book. So have fun and dig as deep as you can as you work on your nonfiction. Kids will notice your work!

Editor Spotlight-International Editon – Meira Firon from Tal-May Publishing!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! As you may recall, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be included on a PJ Library-sponsored trip to Israel. Besides getting to meet many fantastic authors from here, one of the highlights of the trip for me, was one really fun night where we met authors, agents, and editors based in Israel. I was lucky to be at the same table as Meira Firon from Tal-may Publishing. I have to say that besides being such an accomplished author and editor, she couldn’t possibly have been any nicer. So, I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight – International Edition!

Hi Meira, thanks for joining us today!

JR: To start with, can you tell us a little bit about Tal-May and the type of books they publish?

MF: Tal-May was established at 2004 with the purpose of publishing children and YA books. We publish Hebrew books and translations, new and old, classics and modern. Among the classic books we translated: The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, The Outsiders by S.E Hinton and a great adult book, which I decided will be appreciated by YA: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

 

JR: All great books! You’re also an accomplished author with many books out. What types of books do you write?

MF: I write for young readers, and the subject that draws my attention the most is the relationship between siblings. I wrote a series of four books about Shira (third grade) who adores and envies her older sister Yael (sixth grade). The books are full of humor and realism. The beautiful black and white illustrations are by Alina Gorban. The first title is: Spying, Snooping and Hot Chocolate. I also wrote picture books, and one of them isn’t really realistic. It’s about a kid that goes to the movies with his parents and big sister. He can’t sit still. He is thirsty, hungry, the girl in front of him is too tall and he can’t see the screen. He needs to go to the bathroom… His sister screams and says she will never go anywhere with him, but then the monster from the movie gets out of the screen and comes to sit next to him. From that point on, everything gets wilder. The title is: Stop moving! And it’s illustrated by Tamar Hochstadter.

 

JR: That sounds like a lot of fun! What was the first book you worked on after you became an editor?

MF: The first book I worked on as an editor for children and YA was a translated picture book: Don’t Let Go! By Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. I love this book. It’s about a father who leaves home, and his daughter asks him to teach her to ride a bike so she will be able to come visit him in his new place. It is really touching.

JR: Does Tal-May pay attention to overseas markets, and look to acquire many books from Europe and the U.S. as well?

MF: Of course, we pay attention to overseas markets! We even attend the Bologna Book Fair every year. Mostly we translate from English and Swedish. We love the Swedish and Norwegian literature – Alf Proysen, Rose Lagercrantz, Mats Strandberg, Hakon Ovres, Pija Lindenbaum. From the English we translated many books – we love Jenny Valentine, Gary D. Schmidt, Lois Lowry, Mo Willems and many others. We even translated Sage Blackwood’s fantasy series: Jinx. And we are always looking for new exciting things.

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

MF: I am very happy to say I enjoy every aspect of my job – how lucky am I, right? I love to read and choose books, I love to work with authors and edit manuscripts, to choose the illustrator and to translate. I guess that at the bottom of the list I will have to say – proofreading, I don’t enjoy that very much.

JR: What sort of books do you personally look for?

MF: I don’t look for a certain kind of book, but I have my personal taste to guide me. When the story is fascinating, when the writing is accurate, when I am completely immersed in the world created by the author and I feel the characters are part of my life while reading – I’m into it and I really don’t care if It’s Fantasy or suspense or realistic prose. I can fall in love with any kind of genre as long as it captures me.

JR: That’s great. Very much how I am. Are you very hands-on with your authors?

MF: I am very “hands-on” with my authors as you put it, but I must remind you that I am not alone in Tal-May. Yotam Shwimmer, chief editor, is the one that works with them closely, and he is so great that they can’t get enough of him. Thanks to Yotam almost every Israeli author wants to publish with Tal-May. Nevertheless, I am very involved in the process from the beginning.

JR: Yotam was also incredibly nice and through social media, I’ve been following Tal-May’s successes this year. What’s the state of publishing in Israel right now? In particular, Middle Grade?

MF: Middle Grade books are the most popular in Israel and teen books are much less popular. Fantasy are best sellers and now we are all looking for comics and graphic novels.  But you must keep in mind that our market is very small – even tiny – so the sales aren’t that big compared to the USA. That is a problem of course, because you have to be at peace with the fact that you won’t get rich from publishing. So, if I’ll go back to question 5, I’ll have to admit that the money aspect is less enjoyable. But, we are not here for the money, right?

 

JR: Well, that’s for sure 🙂 What advice can you give to authors?

MF: My advice to authors will not be new to them: write. Don’t stop writing even if you feel you don’t know what to write about. I’m sure it will come to you if you sit long enough in front of your computer. And just another one: Look around and listen. The world is full of stories waiting for you to capture them. Wow! I sound to myself like some guru.

JR: I think that’s great advice, and yes, guru-like! What was your favorite book as a child?

MF: As a child my favorite book was The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I read this book over and over again and wanted the Cat to be my friend and help me make a big mess and then fix it all. I think it’s a perfect story and I still love it today.

 

JR: One of my favorites, though Thing 1 and Thing 2 scared me as a kid. Speaking of which, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

MF: I wish I could come back to my childhood need to read a book over and over again without getting tired of it. This is such a wonderful feeling. The book is your friend, your world, your escape from everyday life. I wish I could be so happy when given a book like I was as a child. And if I may add – I wish I could be as carefree as the child I was – but that has nothing to do with books. (Or does it?)

JR: I’ll allow it. 🙂 How can people follow you or Tal-may on social media?

Facebook Meira Firon

Tal May Facebook

Tal May Instagram

I’d like to once again thank Meira for taking the time to speak with us today, and hope you enjoyed reading!

 

Well, that’s all the time we have today, since I have to make hurricane preparations. So, wish me luck, and until next time my Mixed-Up friends, keep reading!

 

Jonathan

Interview with Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Lurie at a Florida SCBWI conference, as well as take a workshop she was giving. Besides being extremely informative, she couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know her, she’s the Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, and I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight!

Hi Stephanie, thanks for joining us today!

JR: You’ve had a long, successful career in publishing. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor, and eventually working for Disney-Hyperion?

SL: Being a children’s book editor was a career choice I made very early on. When I was fifteen, a local bookstore owner asked me to review a book a townsperson had written for young adults. As I read the book, I thought, “Too bad this woman doesn’t know how kids really think.” It was an “aha!” moment for me: I could help authors make their books stronger. I’m not even sure how I knew such a job existed. . . .

I went on to be a creative writing major at Oberlin College, and during the first semester of my senior year, I had an internship for college credit at Dodd, Mead and Company in New York (a publishing house that was ultimately acquired by Thomas Nelson Books). My experience working for a children’s book editor at Dodd, Mead proved to me that I had found my calling. Dodd, Mead offered me a job after college–for a whopping $8,000 a year!–in sales promotion and customer service. I learned a lot, but I wanted to get back to children’s editorial. I jumped over to Little, Brown, where I grew up from editorial assistant to senior editor over twelve years. After that I ran the imprint Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for six years. My next stint was as president and publisher of Dutton Children’s books at Penguin. In my ninth year there, a friend of mine who was working at Disney Hyperion talked me into applying for an editorial director job by saying, “How would you like to do what you are doing at Dutton but not have any other imprints competing for marketing and publicity attention?” That sounded pretty good to me, and over the past decade there I have enjoyed being part of a boutique publisher within a huge entertainment company.

 

JR: That’s some exciting journey! What was the first book you worked on?

SL: I had a generous boss at Little, Brown who allowed me to “cut my teeth” on manuscripts by their top authors at the time, such as Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Matt Christopher. One of the first authors I acquired was Neal Shusterman, who has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner with other editors.

JR: When you first saw The Lightning Thief, what about it appealed to you so much?

SL: Rick Riordan’s first middle grade novel, The Lightning Thief, was acquired at auction before my time at Disney. Rick chose to go with Miramax Books, which eventually became part of Disney-Hyperion. Jennifer Besser (now at Macmillan) edited the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I took over as Rick’s editor after she left, picking up on the Kane Chronicles trilogy. I was amazed by how he made ancient Egyptian mythology relevant to modern readers with exciting adventure, relatable characters, a healthy dose of humor, and a breakneck pace. He makes it look easy.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

SL: What hasn’t? I’m so old (How old are you?), I pre-date office computers! Yes, we had to type on Selectrics, using carbon paper. The biggest changes have come from: corporate buy-outs of family-owned companies, which necessitated more attention to the bottom line; the rise of chain bookstores; the Harry Potter phenomenon, which brought hardcover fiction back from the brink of death; the importance of social media in author promotion; Amazon’s dominance; and today, more focus on diversity.

JR: I grew up doing all my reports on typewriters. Slightly easier now. And by the way, I could’ve sworn I heard Gene Rayburn say the “I’m so old” part before you answered (How old are you?) But back to the interview. Disney has recently acquired a lot of new properties. Does that mean anything for the publishing division?

SL: Disney now encompasses several premiere brands, such as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Entertainment. We can publish against all of these brands, from straight movie tie-ins to extension books that tell new stories based on the characters from the movies. It also means that there is more opportunity for intercompany synergy for authors writing their own IP (intellectual property).

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

SL: I’m having a blast helping Rick curate the Rick Riordan Presents line of middle grade fiction by under-represented authors who want to write stories about their own cultures’ folklore and mythology. I send him submissions to consider, acquire the projects we agree on, edit the manuscripts, and collaborate with my colleagues on book design and promotion.

JR: All that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. What sort of books do you look for?

SL: For Rick Riordan Presents, we want the same qualities that make Rick’s own books so popular, because the imprint was created to satisfy his fans’ craving for adventure based on mythology. We look for a funny, snarky teenage voice; a fast pace; an exciting, high-stakes plot; and a likeable but flawed protagonist who grows over the course of the story.

JR: The kinds of books I love! Are you very hands-on with your authors?

SL: I’ve always enjoyed helping writers bring out their story by asking pointed questions and making suggestions to improve logic, flow, and clarity. For the Rick Riordan Presents authors, my guidance may be a bit more involved, because there is a certain flavor we are trying to achieve while retaining the author’s own voice. It’s a delicate balance.

JR: What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

SL: It can be difficult for a book—any book—to break out in this time when there is so much entertainment content for consumers to choose from and there are fewer retail outlets for print. Amazon is grabbing more and more market share, but the online site doesn’t encourage browsing. Buyers who shop there usually go already knowing what they want. This is part of the reason best-selling authors remain best-selling authors and new authors have trouble competing. Authors need to partner more with their publisher on promotion as a result.

JR: Probably more important than ever for authors to get involved in the promotion process. What advice can you give to authors?

SL: The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Remember that you are communicating with an audience and not just writing to satisfy your own ego.

A good concept isn’t enough by itself. Write the entire manuscript.

You may have to land a literary agent before you can land a publishing deal.

Choosing an agent and editor/publisher is like choosing any partner. Make sure there is good chemistry between you.

Be open to feedback but stand up for what is important to you.

Don’t expect the publication of your book to satisfy all your desires or change your life.

Writing the book is only 50% of the work; promotion after publication is the other 50%.

School visits are still one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth.

Support other authors on your way up, and they will (should) do the same for you.

 

JR: All of that is outstanding advice. In my experience, many authors have been extremely supportive of each other. I think strong relationships are extremely important in that regard. I read that Harriet the Spy was one of your favorite childhood books. I have a few friends who wholeheartedly agree with you. What did you love about it and what other books were among your favorites?

SL: I loved how honest Harriet the Spy was about a kid’s real life—I believe it was one of the first contemporary middle grade novels ever published. To this day I enjoy books in which a well-meaning main character makes a big mistake that causes them humiliation, e.g. The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. As a kid I also enjoyed animal-based fantasies such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. High fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stood out, too.

JR: The Narnia books were also among my favorites as a child. Speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

SL: My fun-loving dad. He taught me to always remain a kid at heart.

JR: Okay, that answer hit me. If there’s one thing I could wish for from then, it would also be to see my dad. How can people follow you on social media?

SL: For publishing news and comments, Twitter is probably the best bet: @SOLurie.

JR: Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly admire authors—both aspiring and published—and wish everyone a fulfilling journey. Your book could be the one that makes a reluctant reader a forever reader, changes a kid’s perspective, and inspires someone else to be a writer.

JR: Extremely true. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today!

 

Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. I’d like to once again thank Stephanie Lurie for joining us! And if you ever see her listed to speak at a conference, I strongly suggest you go listen!

Until next time . . .