Judith Heneghan has written over 50 titles for the children’s educational market, on subjects ranging from pets, sports and hobbies to grittier topics such as terrorism and the power of the media. In 2013 she received the School Libraries Association Children’s Choice award for Love Your Hamster. Judith is also Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and programme leader for the MA Writing for Children at the University of Winchester and Director of the annual Winchester Writers’ Festival - www.writersfestival.co.uk.
Alison Smith caught up with Judith to ask her a few questions in advance of her upcoming London Masterclass, Writing Nonfiction for Children.
What makes a good subject for children’s nonfiction?Anything! Ask a young person you know. What are they curious about? What matters to them? It isn’t always poo or dinosaurs or mini-beasts (though it might be...) Children will engage with the big questions, but like everyone they enjoy a close focus. Why does chocolate taste good? What can an earthworm show us about our planet? Who made my pants? There are no limits to curiosity. Our job as writers is to nourish it with texts that are clear, memorable, compelling, interesting and true. Of course it helps if it links to the National Curriculum in some way, and/or is likely to have a broadly international market, but that’s grown-up stuff!
Does it have to tell a story?True stories make great nonfiction. Everyone loves a beginning, a middle and an end – the pattern is natural to young readers and keeps them turning the pages. Think of the ending as a reward. It might be an exciting climax to a true story about a trek to the North Pole, or a life cycle story (ah, back to the beginning!) or it might simply be the answer to the question posed at the start, or the sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is where progression comes in. How does your text build? Some nonfiction books are designed for dipping in, but the most satisfying are those that take the reader on a journey.
Can you make things up?Put simply – no. Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself whether your reader will understand that any made-up bits aren’t true, or didn’t really happen. That’s not to say you can’t be creative! Language, narrative voice, simile, humour, speculation and story structure are all at our disposal.
What about pictures?Most nonfiction books contain pictures that enhance and enliven the learning and information. These days, writers are expected to do picture research and supply accurate references, but you won’t have a say over the artist – the publisher makes that decision.
How do you find a publisher?Nonfiction works a little differently to fiction. Most nonfiction authors send in a proposal, first – a short, concise document outlining their idea, market and audience, with a chapter breakdown and perhaps some sample writing. Publishers won’t expect you to have an agent, either, though of course agents are brilliant for negotiating contracts!
What do you hope the session will have achieved by the end?
- We’ll have nailed what your text is actually about
- Considered its purpose, its angle, its voice
- Devised a structure that keeps the reader turning the pages
- Created a plan for your book proposal
- Fired you up to write and submit it!
I’m really looking forward to working with other writers. It doesn’t matter if you have a first draft, or just an idea or if you are simply looking for inspiration. Be curious!
Masterclass Information: When: Saturday 19 March from 12 noon - 4.00pm Where: The Theodore Bullfrog Pub, First floor meeting room, 26-30 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6HL
Cost: £35 per class for SCBWI members, £42 for non members, £128 special SCBWI member discount when you book for four classes. (All prices include pre-ordered lunchtime food and an afternoon tea or coffee.) Booking: Places are limited and can be booked online here.