The Highlights Foundation Magic

Visiting Highlights Foundation for the first time is much like entering an enchanted forest, the leaves dripping with writing magic. Three nonfiction story ideas were born in my little cabin in the woods. Several familiar Illinois and VCFA writer names were spotted in the Cabin #10 journal, reassuring me that I was among friends. Drastic revision of my narrative nonfiction project occurred. Even more powerful: the community of writers who gathered in The Barn to share their love of KidLit nonfiction.

My Tell It True workshop was taught by Leda Schubert and Tod Olson, with Skype visits by Steve Sheinkin and MT Anderson. Editor Kandace Coston also visited in person. If you have the opportunity to hear any of these nonfiction experts speak – take it! So much wisdom and encouragement was packed into our four days together.

My first revelation: Nonfiction picture book biographies are super popular right now.

Okay, maybe that should have been obvious based on the nonfiction picture books being published right now. For this workshop, students were asked to submit a narrative nonfiction piece for the group to critique. What surprised me: almost everyone submitted a picture book biography. I thought I was in the beginning stages of researching a middle grade piece, but my workshop group disagreed. I had also submitted an early draft of a picture book biography.

How did they know?

Research constraints. The primary source documents available for most of the historic women in engineering I’ve been researching are mainly newspaper and magazine articles from their adult lives. There are no letters, memoirs, interviews, or transcripts of the key scenes in these women’s lives. These women are also no longer living, so the opportunity to ask them questions is gone. In some cases there is so little information that a woman’s story is lost to history. I selected the woman on my research list with the most primary sources, but it is likely enough for a picture book, not a middle grade story.

Here’s why I can write a picture book biography with less primary sources than what is required for middle grade:

  • Picture book biographies have more summary than scene, with many of the scenes shown in the illustrations rather than described in the narrative. Why? A tight picture book word count, and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.
  • Dialogue is often not used in picture book biographies, avoiding the tricky question of how to document what exactly was said in historic conversations.
  • Little internal monologue is used in picture book biographies, once again because of the tight picture book word count and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.

There must be voice, character emotion, and conflict to tell a nonfiction narrative story – of course – whether it is a picture book or a longer biography. For middle grade or young adult, this story must be told primarily in scene.

It surprised me to hear every one of the authors who write middle grade or young adult nonfiction mention a story they were passionate about but had to walk away from. Why? Not enough primary resources to develop the key scenes, or not enough scenes that kids will find engaging and connect to.

My second revelation: The personality of the biography subject is super important.

The best picture book biographies don’t use a bland narrator voice spewing out chronological facts. Narrative nonfiction is a story, not a history textbook. The narrator voice can bring a subject to life, especially if that voice is inspired by the personality of the subject.

It is also very difficult to impose the author’s preferred narrative structure on a person’s life. Real life timelines are very different from narrative storylines. Reading about the subject’s life and getting to know his personality will bring out a structure that best fits that person’s story.

The picture book biography comparison our group kept coming back to was Handel: Who Knew What He Liked versus Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd. Both were written by MT Anderson, both are picture book biographies of composers, and yet they have completely different narrative voices and structures. We asked MT Anderson why. His response: the two composers had very different personalities.

My third revelation: I will find a narrative nonfiction story idea that is not a biography.

My workshop group probably thought they were encouraging me that I was on the right track. My story is a picture book biography, which might be an easier sell in the current market. They are correct. I have begun significantly cutting the text with the use of a picture book dummy, thanks to Leda’s wise suggestion.

What my workshop group had in fact done was lay down the challenge for me to find a non-biography STEM topic with enough research materials available to write middle grade narrative nonfiction. Challenge accepted! A few ideas were already germinating during my long day of travel back to the real world.

My fourth revelation: I must return to the Highlights Foundation. It’s not a question of if, but when.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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