I love picture book biographies. I love reading them and being inspired and thinking, “Wow, that’s an amazing story. How come I didn’t know that?” And I love writing them. Why? Because picture book biographies are all about inspiring kids to their own greatness. This is important to me.
In addition to being full of inspiration, picture book biographies continue to be one of the hotter areas in children’s publishing. The educational push of Common Core standards towards teaching and exploring nonfiction has created a market need that continues to grow. This need makes picture book biographies a smart choice for writers looking to break into children’s writing.
Here are three key questions that will help you get your story off on the right foot.
Do you write picture books? Picture book author (and author of this post!) Michael Mahin is giving away a free manuscript critique of a picture book of 1,500 words or less. Interested in entering? Follow @MahinWriter on Twitter, then tweet @MahinWriter and @crisfreese (in the same tweet!) with the title of your picture book, and the hashtag #WDMahinPB. We'll choose a random winner. The winner will be chosen on Friday, November 17.
1. Do you have a great hook?
A great hook has a “wow-factor” that sells itself. In the case of picture book biographies, a great hook is first and foremost a great subject.
Subjects for these books generally fall into one of two categories: 1. People who are recognizable public figures, but whose stories we may not fully know. 2. People who made some exceptional contribution to the world, but who have been forgotten by history.
My book Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, illustrated by Evan Turk, falls into the first category—Muddy Waters is a recognizable name, though most of us don’t know the story of how he overcame extreme poverty and racism to find his musical voice and become the godfather of rock n’ roll.
On the other hand, the book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu, falls into the second (for most people). In this book, we learn about a woman whose genius and whose name we may not know, but whose accomplishments are instantly impressive. Ever heard the term “computer bug”? Yeah, well Grace Hopper coined it. Your choice of subject should be equally impressive.
One thing to consider is that many of these “forgotten figures” are women and/or people of color whose stories have been marginalized by a culture that has historically favored a white, male point-of-view. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks folks have done a great job of articulating the need for stories about diverse subjects and by diverse authors. Since the publishing business continues to make a concerted effort to address this, you might consider this when looking for your subjects.
If you do not identify with a minority culture, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about it. It just means that you need to be diligent in your research and extra sensitive to your subject matter. Sensitivity readers are a good way to make sure you are being culturally aware.
Another great type of hook is one that puts a new spin on a tried and true topic, like Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer’s Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country), and What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley. Both take the very famous and well-trod personages of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and find a new and fun way into their lives. In these cases, the “new-spin-on-the-old” creates an irresistible hook into subjects we thought we knew.
All of these examples have great hooks because their subject, their subject’s accomplishments, and/or their new-spin-on-the-old, give them a “wow-factor” that make them instantly compelling. Your subject must do the same thing. If it doesn’t, find one that does. A poorly chosen subject will kill your book dead in the water.
2. Do you have a great climax?
The trick to structuring a picture book biography, and all nonfiction for that matter, is being true to historical events while making sure the story stakes escalate in a way that builds to some sort of satisfying climax. Identifying a compelling climax is crucial because it helps you identify what your story is about and how to structure it.
With this in mind, as I start researching, I am always on the lookout for the big moment that will serve as the story’s finale. This moment doesn’t necessarily have to come at the end of my subject’s life, but it does have to represent a significant achievement and turning point in their life’s journey.
For Muddy, I built the book around his first, big hit song. For my book on Carlos Santana, When Angels Sing: The Story of Music Legend Carlos Santana (forthcoming in 2018), I chose to climax with his career-making performance at Woodstock. From a storytelling perspective, I chose these moments because they represented clear and significant turning points that set the stage for the people that they would become later in life.
Climaxing with these moments also helped me overcome a common pitfall of picture book biographies—what to include. It is very hard to compress a person’s life into 1,300 words, and most agents and editors would prefer your picture book biography be even shorter. By choosing a climactic moment from early in a subject’s life, I’m able to limit the material I need to cover. Granted, this won’t work for every story, but it’s something worth considering.
After identifying my climax, my job then becomes to turn this climactic event into a moment of high-drama. To do this, I ask, “What are the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of that climactic accomplishment?” The unique way that your subject actively overcomes those obstacles is, of course, what makes them special.
3. Do you have an awesome author’s note?
For writers of picture book biographies, it’s important to remember that your first goal on the way to a sale is not getting kids excited about your story, but rather convincing your agent or editor that you have a story worth telling. For me, the author’s note is one last chance to convince an agent or editor that I do.
Your author’s note shouldn’t be a book length exploration of everything you had to leave out, but it should be long enough to clarify why the person you’ve written about is historically significant. Since historical significance is only something that can be explored with perspective and distance, it is very hard to convey this directly in the flow of a present tense narrative. This is why you need an author’s note, and it’s especially important for subjects who are not household names—this is where you convince your reader that even though they don’t know the story, they should.
On a basic level, you want to explain what your subject accomplished in their life, and why that is important to us today. If you’ve done it right, your reader should be looking forward to the author’s note the same way you look forward to the historical photos and notes that follow many “Based on True Story” movies. A good story will make readers want to know more.
Writing your author’s note is also a chance to make sure that you’ve told the right story. If your author’s note is more compelling than the story you’ve actually written, it’s time to revisit what you’ve focused on. Don’t forget that while the author’s note tells the reader why someone is important, your story should be showing them.
In my forthcoming Stalebread Charlie and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (2018), illustrated by Don Tate, this is where I tell the readers that the homeless, 15-year-old Stalebread Charlie’s real name was Emile Lacoume, and that “spasm” bands like his are now considered an important part of the evolution of Jazz music. It’s a pretty cool detail, and one that states precisely why my subject is unique and important.
If you’ve chosen a good subject, this note should be full of “wow-factor” accomplishments that make your reader say, “This is a story that has to be told.”
While following these suggestions is obviously no guarantee of success, I can tell you from experience that they’ll at least get your story off on the right foot. That’s a great thing, because, now, all you have to do is write it! And that, of course, is the fun part.
Michael Mahin is a children’s author, aspiring screenwriter, and self-confessed wannabe rockstar. His debut picture book, Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters (Atheneum), is a Jr. Library Guild Selection; a Gold Medal, Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Picture Book Award Winner from the California Reading Association; and has been named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2017. Michael admires people like Muddy Waters who, despite great suffering, find the courage to be themselves in a world that wants them to be something else. Michael hopes his books inspire kids to do the same. He blogs about the craft of writing and dreaming big at www.MichaelMahin.com and can be found on Twitter at @MahinWriter.
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