Nonfiction Books and the Creative Process [Part 1]

creative process and nonfiction

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

When we think about the creative process, fiction often comes to mind. After all, what’s more creative than making up stuff?!

Yet as nonfiction authors and illustrators can tell you, the process of making a nonfiction picture book incorporates a good measure of creativity as well. And their research informs their process in interesting ways. For more specifics, I asked the authors and illustrators of a couple of our Spring 2018 picture books to share something about the creative process for their new nonfiction books.

Meet My Family! Animal Babies and Their Families

Meet My Family

Author Laura Purdie Salas

I always felt embarrassed as a kid about the ways in which my family was different from all my friends’ families. I had extremely strict parents with very different rules. I also had a big sister who washed her hands hundreds of times a day—a condition now recognized as OCD, but back then, it was not a diagnosis. You were just “crazy.” So at the heart of this book was my question about how to make kids less embarrassed about their own seemingly weird families.

I brainstormed a lot of different approaches to that question, but once I merged that with my fascination with animals, I realized that using the widely varying structures of animal families could be perfect! Almost every human family structure you can think of has a wild animal counterpart.

And even once I had the concept, I tried a bunch of different structures and voices. Should it be rhyming or prose? Did I have to describe the animals third-person, or could I let the animals actually speak for themselves? I was so glad Carol liked the idea of using a first-person voice for this book because I love the idea of readers hearing these various lines spoken by other kids—even if those other kids aren’t human! So even though this book is informational, it grew out of my own personal experiences and involved a lot of trying out different approaches!

Illustrator Stephanie Fizer Coleman

People are often surprised, because I don’t work in a hyper-realistic style, that I spend a lot of time drawing from life or reference photos or videos before I jump into illustration a nonfiction project. Especially when I’m illustrating animals that I’m not yet familiar with, it’s important for me to understand the anatomy of the animals as well a bit about their environment and general characteristics. Once I have a good bit of knowledge, then I’m ready to start sketching the spreads in my style.

Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones

Fossil by Fossil

Author Sara Levine

My books often come from questions I ask while teaching college students. I’m always trying to get them to think about comparative anatomy in a way that they haven’t before: “What kind of animal (or dinosaur) would you be if you had this particular bone or this particular variation?” The questions that make them laugh and get them thinking and excited about the topic are ones that often end up in my books for children.

To begin my research, I generally read all of the children’s books available on a topic—both to see what is out there and also for comprehension when studying a new topic. Children’s books are often more clearly written than nonfiction for adults and, when well done, they don’t assume prior knowledge of a topic. Then I go on to read books and articles targeted for an adult audience.

For Fossil by Fossil, I also went to a number of natural history museums to see the fossils up close and to see how the information was being presented. In my research, I found that it’s very rare to find a children’s book or a museum in which the dinosaur bones are labelled and compared to the analogous human bones. This is one information gap I am hoping Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones will help address.

Illustrator T.S Spookytooth

I always start with really quick sketches. I never work in a sketchbook, always on loose sheets of A4 paper, which makes the process of sketching less precious. Working in a sketchbook tied me up too much as I felt everything had to be well drawn and perfect. No one else sees these sketches so it doesn’t matter if they aren’t very good. 😊

I’m just trying to work out very rough compositions at this stage across the whole book based on the layouts from the publisher. Once this is done, I start a second stage of compositional layouts, and alongside this I also start doing research on the subject of the book, in this case, dinosaurs. This is done via books, the internet, and visiting museums to see real-life fossils. This book required very accurate representations of the dinosaur fossils, so it was very important to do a lot of research.

At this stage, I’m also designing the characters that will be featured in the book. The early stages are a juggling act as I move from one thing to the next to keep things fresh and so the sketches and ideas don’t become too labored.

The rough stage is probably the hardest stage of the whole process. Once the layouts and characters have gone through three or fours stages of refinement, the final rough artwork is complete ready to send to the publishers for approval, and then it is onto the painting, the fun part!

Read More

Thank you so much to Laura, Stephanie, Sara, and T.S for this behind-the-scenes peek at how these books came together.

Coming soon—thoughts on the creative process from the authors of a few of our nonfiction photo books!

Want to read more about creating nonfiction books? You can also check out my posts on the element of surprise in nonfiction and elements of excellence in nonfiction books.

4 thoughts on “Nonfiction Books and the Creative Process [Part 1]

    1. carolhinz

      Thanks so much for reading, Carrie! In putting together this post, I learned something I hadn’t known before about each contributor’s creative process!

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