Nonfiction Books and the Creative Process [Part 2]

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

Earlier this month, I shared the creative process behind two nonfiction picture books. You can read that post here.

Today I asked three authors to give a peek inside how they created their photo-driven nonfiction books. 

Laura Purdie Salas on How to Make a Rainbow: A Crayola® Color Story

How to Make a Rainbow: A Crayola Color Story

I can’t emphasize brainstorming enough! When I knew I was going to write about colors and how they make a rainbow, I immediately brainstormed 10 possible ways to do it. My 10 ideas started out like this:

  1. Maybe you’ve built houses and train tracks and castles. Have you ever built a rainbow?
  2. Have you ever looked at a rainbow and wondered what it was made of? The answer is colors!
  3. Rainbow Recipe
  4. The Color Parade
  5. Backstage at the Rainbow Play
  6. Sky playing hide-and-seek with colors
  7. Grey day “rescued” by rainbow
  8. Rainbows look like magic, but they’re actually beautiful science.
  9. Are you ready to go on a rainbow scavenger hunt?
  10. Leprechaun needs help finding a rainbow

Even though some ideas will never work and might sound silly, just seeing what your brain comes up with is always a great place to start. When I have a list of choices, my attitude becomes one of, “I can choose the best!”—otherwise, if I start with only one idea, my attitude is a bit more desperate, like, “I HAVE to make this work!”

Sandra Markle on Snowy Owl Invasion: Tracking an Unusual Migration

Snowy Owl Invasion!

Sometimes my first idea for a book is completely different from what that book ends up becoming. Snowy Owl Invasion! is a perfect example.

I was excited to learn that during the winter of 2013–2014, snowy owls flew out of their Arctic home and came to the United States in greater numbers than ever before—and flew farther south than ever before recorded. This unusual event gave people a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these amazing owls close to their homes—even in cities. So initially, I planned on telling a lyrical, fictionalized nonfiction story about a girl and her father going on a walk and experiencing the magical moment of discovering a snowy owl close to home.

However, this unusual mass snowy owl migration was such an interesting science mystery that I ended up digging a lot deeper into how scientists were investigating it. This additional research taught me how the snowy owl invasion was giving scientists a rare opportunity to study these amazing birds up close. And so the book became a work of narrative nonfiction with photos!

Rebecca E. Hirsch on The Monarchs Are Missing: A Butterfly Mystery

The Monarchs Are Missing: A Butterfly Mystery

A few years ago, my children and I worked as volunteers at a public butterfly garden. We helped restore habitat and tagged monarch butterflies in the fall. It is the same type of “citizen science” work that volunteers across the country engage in. But one year, all monarch tagging events at the garden had to be canceled. The reason? There were no monarchs. It was the first time I became aware of the problems facing monarch butterflies.

With that in mind, when I began writing The Monarchs Are Missing, I knew an important theme would be the vital role citizen scientists play, especially young people. I imagined an opening scene showing young people catching and tagging butterflies.

To get the scene I wanted, I called around, but there were no butterfly tagging events in my area. I arranged to visit a few schools that were studying monarchs and restoring habitat. I loved meeting the students and their teachers, but I still didn’t come away with the scene I was envisioning.

So in the end, I took matters into my own hands. I ordered an official monarch tagging kit from MonarchWatch, and I made a few homemade butterfly nets. Then, on a sunny September day, I invited two of my kids and another young friend to catch butterflies with me. We spent an exciting afternoon chasing, catching, and putting tags on monarchs. Finally I had my opening scene.

I’m hoping this book will open the minds of young readers to the exciting and important ways they can be involved in helping these insects.

Read more

Thank you so much to Laura, Sandra, and Rebecca for this behind-the-scenes look at how these books came together.

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

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