A Matter of Fact -
Weird and Wacky World
Copyright: Jill McDougall – All rights
Help! I’m in
charge of a class of restless six year olds and none of the usual storybooks seems to grab their attention.
Not even my battered copy of The Rainbow Fish.
A couple of boys down the back are engrossed in something of
their own. Humphh!
“I’ll have that,” I command in my best teacher
Expecting to be handed an electronic game or nervous beetle, I
gawp when a small green book lands in my lap.
“Can you read that one?” beg one or two voices as I glanced at
Sure I can. I’ll read the phone directory if it’ll hold their
attention. I open the first page …
“Crocodiles are dangerous and deadly reptiles.”
Bottoms wriggle forward and mouths gape open as I embark on a
tale about ruthless reptiles and mysterious monsters. The rest of the lesson lesson is a
It’s a fact!
According to statistics compiled by School Library Journal, 50
percent of all books published for children is non-fiction. Are you paying attention? That’s half of all books!
Schools buy non-fiction titles by the truckload. So do public
libraries. Magazines and journals are in constant need for well-written non-fiction.
So why do many children’s writers overlook this market?
Enterprising non-fiction writers with a fresh idea and a readable style are much more likely to be published
than the battalions of writers aiming to crack the fiction market.
Some editors claim that 90% of what they need is non-fiction,
but 90% of what they receive is fiction.
Wacky and weird
Over the past two years I have written and published over
forty non-fiction titles for primary-aged readers. I’ve had a lot of fun and learnt some wacky facts along the
Did you know that crocodiles swallow stones to help them
digest their food? And that the first passengers in a hot air balloon were a sheep, a duck and a rooster?
Writing non-fiction has helped me become a champ at tabletop
soccer (don’t even ask!) and an expert on making worm farms. My kitchen is regularly turned into a research lab
where I experiment with everything from making jelly boats to growing wheat.
Publishing success lies in writing engagingly on a fresh
topic. Publishers can’t sell material that is already in the marketplace (unless it’s verrry old).
Enterprising non-fiction writers study catalogues and search
online bookstores to find the gaps in publishers’ lists.
If the latest P.E. craze is yo-yo spinning or line-dancing and
only conventional sports have been covered, then hey presto! It could be a hot topic.
I keep up with new information by subscribing to online
science mags such as Planet
Science. Another great site is Science News for Kids.
You can also receive weekly summaries of BBC and ABC science
programs. Through the wonderful world of the ‘net you can listen to radio broadcasts around the
Be alert to items on the news and in your local paper. When
our city council offered free composting worms to primary schools, I saw a book begging to be written. Make a
Worm Farm is now distributed in several countries and is one of my best sellers.
Get them hooked
Mysteries, puzzles and unusual facts make good hooks for young
readers. Contemporary non-fiction texts tend to resemble
website pages. Frames and boxes contain additional information and fact files, quizzes and the ubiquitous
Did you know? are popular ‘extras’.
A well-written synopsis or query letter will contain details of these
enticers as well as other semantic organisers such as labelled diagrams, cross-sections, flow charts, tables
of stats, comparison charts, graphs, maps, cartoons, websites and tables of contents.
Writers are not usually expected to provide their own finished
illustrations; however, detailed information about these extras will enthuse the art
Non-fiction text should be as vivid and exciting as a good
fiction story. Creative non-fiction includes all the elements of a riveting drama – memorable characters, plenty
of action, vivid descriptions and even dialogue.
A story on Joan of Arc (in Orbit magazine) contains the
‘She inspired the French soldiers who found new strength in
“Fight boldly. Be Brave. God is with us. Fight on. Don’t turn
back. They are beaten,” she would cry.’
Did Joan of Arc say those exact words? Probably not. The
writer is using a common creative technique to bring an historical tale to life.
Factual information doesn’t have to be dry. A light, fun tone
has instant reader appeal.
My new book on biomes (Why Don’t Polar Bears Live in the
Desert?) opens with a riddle:
Q: What would you get if you left a polar bear in a hot
A: A very unhappy bear.
And my soon-to-be-released Smarty Plants*
Warning: This book is not for the faint-hearted. All around you – in
gardens, in ditches and along innocent roadways - lie tales of trickery, lethal battles and yes, even
(*A snappy title is a winner too!)
A common technique to lighten the tone is to address the
reader directly. This use of first person is particularly suitable for young readers as it bridges the gap
between personal experience and new information.
In my biography Oceans of Courage about a young sailor who
became a quadriplegic I said:
Some people think Andrew’s story is sad. Other’s say it’s
amazing and even inspiring. You can judge for yourself.
You can also place the reader directly in the centre of the
action such in as this excerpt from my book Pioneers on the Prairie:
Just imagine. You pack up all your things and say goodbye
to your friends. You travel a long, long way from home and arrive, tired and hungry, on a vast
Think outside the square
Contemporary students are expected to read a range of genres –
everything from procedural texts (such as recipes) to explanations, discussions and reports. Most publishers
seek to include a range of text types in their list so you’ll increase your chance of publication by offering a
manuscript in a less familiar genre. (Explanation is quite a tricky one to write.)
Remember: information does not have to be contained in a
straight-forward narrative; it can be presented in emails, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, interviews,
craft instructions, science experiments, game rules, timelines, and so on.
Probably the best way to write vibrant non-fiction is to view
the world through the eyes of a curious child. To wonder, to be amazed, to seek out the weird, the wild and the
Apart from writing great non-fiction, you’ll be a hit at
© Jill McDougall 2007 http://www.jillmcdougall.com.au
Jill is the author of over a hundred books for children.
Visit her website to find more writing tips.