Sometimes You Have To Try On Different Trousers: How to Revamp Nonfiction Picture Book Ideas


I’ve Been Trying
on Different Trousers  . . .


In the past few
years, I’ve written four new nonfiction books.


I began them
with gusto. I love true stories. Those nuggets of facts that make you go ‘wow,
really?!’ have me dancing round the house to find someone who will listen to my latest discovery. I also love
detective work, even if it means going to great lengths to fact-check and dig
for missing links or get in touch with an expert.


But then those
manuscripts didn’t sell. So I went back to the drawing board.


I read. I did
more research.  


I was searching
for a new way to grip the reader (and editor). One that would ‘fit’ the story
in a different way.


I asked myself:


Was there
another way in to tell this story? Could I change the point of view? Could I
include different facts? Could I change the style of nonfiction or the target
age group?  Could I make it longer,
shorter, with sidebars, more back matter or . . .?


According to
bestselling nonfiction author, Melissa Stewart, I was shopping for a new text
structure. It’s like shopping for a pair of trousers (pants, if you’re American),
she says.


“When we shop
for pants, we usually know what purpose we want them to serve. Are they for
playing sports? Relaxing around the house? Going to a fancy party?”


Authors have to
figure out what they’re most excited to share with readers.  They have to rule out pants that are the wrong
colour, size or fit. Pants they don’t like. Pants that are not fit for purpose.

Text structures
are patterns that help us to arrange and connect ideas so young readers can
“access, understand and remember information more easily.”

In the case of
narrative nonfiction, they are an important part of the voice and way IN to the


Melissa Stewart
has identified seven structures:



Sequence /Chronological


Compare &

Cause &


Question &


Finding the right text structure is like building
the right frame for a house - it can really make a book!

Once you rule
out some structure types that instantly don’t seem like a good fit, you
eventually get to the point where you have to try them on to see which fits
best. That’s where mentor texts can really help. Looking at other picture books
with a critical eye and acting like a detective can be useful to reassess what
kind of structure would work best on your book. In their book, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and
Writing Instruction with Children’s Books
by Melissa Stewart and Marlene
Correia, the authors suggest looking at the same topic with different text
structures. For instance FROGS. When you do this, it's amazing how many different approaches you can find for exploring just one topic in a children's nonfiction book! Lots of different structures, lots of different lenses.


Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and
Writing Instruction with Children’s Books

by Melissa Stewart and Marlene

Sometimes, you need
another element as well – a personal connection to the story, an a-ha! nugget
that will really hook young readers and make them take notice. You have to
write and rewrite to figure out and understand what your book is really about and why it matters. Is it
surprising to you? Does it make you think in a new way?


When even when I
finally find the right fit, the right pants, I also need to personalize them
I need to check: why am I writing this story?  


Melissa points
out that there are other structures that imaginative authors have invented to
fit the topic
Sidman and Beth Krommes,
text starts with examples that are small and snug; these get bigger and spiral
outward and finally curl up again for the ending – just like a spiral. 



In one of my
favourite recent nonfiction picture books, WHAT’S IN YOUR POCKET? COLLECTING
NATURE’S TREASURES by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga, Heather tells stories
of what famous scientists’ collected and kept in their pockets as children –
and links how these later led them to make important discoveries as grown-ups. 



instance, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, kept snails, slugs, scorpions and lizards in
his pockets – and later discovered more than thirty new species of frogs. And
Bonnie Lei collected tide pool creatures and later studied sea slugs and even
found a new kind!


From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

Montgomery cleverly makes each figure relevant to young readers by tapping into
a universal childhood love for collecting and outdoor play – and cleverly links
this to how they were growing science skills that would lead to a lifelong
passion working in the field.


This is what I
am hoping to somehow create for each of my nonfiction book ideas. But how?


LOOK really
closely at your topic.
Look for:


• patterns

• key
vocabulary words

• how do
you want to make the reader FEEL?

• links to
children’s lives and interests!


The hardest
part? Keeping it SIMPLE and not being tempted to jam in everything!


I am inspired
by Melissa Stewart’s tales of how it can take a long time to find the right
structure and sell a book to an editor. For instance, it took her from December
2010 to December 2014 to get the manuscript for Can an aardvark BARK? accepted.
 In this time, she experimented with four
different structures!

Perhaps there
is hope for my ideas and revised stories yet. I’m not giving up!



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons,
illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for
Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020.
Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs

Blue Elephant Storyshaping,
an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering
writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is
the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses!
She is Co-Regional
Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.
Find her at

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