WRITING Tales from the land of Non-Fiction

What are the challenges of non-fiction picture book writing and who can we ask for insider tips? Fran Price went to an online talk by author Sandra Nickel to get the facts.


Sandra Nickel, an American lawyer-turned-actress-turned-children’s author, breezes onto our screens from her home in Switzerland. Her non-fiction picture books include the Crystal Kite Award-winning The Stuff Between the Stars, and Breaking through the Clouds. Both books are about pioneering female scientists.


She also wrote the invention story Nacho’s Nachos and, coming out in September this year, she has a fiction picture book, Big Bear and Little Fish. Sandra is an active SCBWI member and has presented workshops throughout Europe and the US. She is also part of the European team for Undiscovered Voices.


Sandra's book won the 2022 Crystal Kite Award

What advice would you give to writers wishing to break into the non-fiction market?

It’s important to write what you love – and what nobody else is writing. I spend a lot of time with my ideas – it took me months and months to research each of my 32-page books – and I’ve learnt from experience to check the market, having once done all the work to find out there were actually five books already out there on my topic. So please learn from my mistake! I do a general topic search on Google and Amazon, then on Publishers Weekly Rights Report.


Things seem to have got more blurred between fiction and non-fiction. Can you describe the different types?

Luckily for all of us there’s a wonderful book by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia that makes things clear and discusses the five types of non-fiction: Active (how-to books), Traditional, Browseable, Expository and Narrative Non-fiction.


What a Shell Can Tell, by Helen Scales, published by Phaidon, an eg of expository non-fiction


The first four are all considered ‘expository’. The 5th, narrative non-fiction, describes stories that are told with an arc like any other story. This type of non-fiction is ideal for biographies and historical events, and I would say it’s the most popular type of non-fiction right now.


Where do non-fiction writers get their ideas from?

Some people get their ideas from the Smithsonian, some from Britannica’s On This Day in History webpage, some from invention sites. I'm much more haphazard – I collect my ideas through life by going to the zoo, by seeing things on the street, by talking to people, by reading books.

Apart from the five main types of non-fiction, I’ve heard of ‘info-fic’. Can you describe this? 

Info fic is a mix of fiction and non-fiction – so with made up dialogue or characters, or the story is told out of chronological order. It’s great for people who really love to research, you can learn about a topic, but be more creative. For instance, recently I got interested in one kind of bird and read everything on the topic – suddenly this fictionalized character appeared to me and I fell in love with it. So I wrote that story: I used many of those true facts that I’d learned, but with a made-up character.


Breaking Through the Clouds, by Sandra Nickel, illustrated by Helena Perez Garcia

Any insider tips you can share with us?

What I have learnt is that writing narrative non-fiction gets easier when you know a couple of tricks.


Trick 1 – put all your extras into the back matter.

When you’re researching, you usually get lots and lots of facts and it’s difficult to find a way into a narrative arc: rising tension, the climax of the story, and then the denouement or the resolution.


So, put all the extra details into the back matter and your afterword.


Trick 2 – find your antagonist(s).

Look for an antagonist that can really build the dramatic tension. For example, in The Stuff Between the Stars, Vera Ruben had multiple antagonists that made her life very difficult – which was great for writing her story!


Screen shot of Multiple Antagonists

In Breaking Through the Clouds, there was a single antagonist, a prominent meteorologist who treated Joanne Simpson quite poorly. At one point, he finally accepted what she was doing, and the tension in the story was resolved. Because of Trick 1, however, I was able to include all the important things Joanne Simpson did in the book. I rounded out the arc of the story and then put her other impressive accomplishments in the back matter.

How do you start researching, avoid information overwhelm and decide what to include?

I find it helpful to begin my research with a theme in mind. Sometimes it's easy because your idea is your theme. So in the case of Kate Hosford, she became fascinated by sleeping animals and so her idea was her theme when she wrote A Songbird Dreams of Singing, Poems about Sleeping Animals.

Screenshot of Idea As Theme


If you're writing a biography it can become much more messy: there are so many paths you can go down.


With Breaking Through the Clouds I was lucky enough to discover a potential theme early on, and in the end, I stuck with it. As a child, Joanne Simpson used her stubbornness to navigate a life filled with challenges, and she used her stubbornness throughout her entire life. Because of this, I used the subtitle The Sometimes Turbulent Life of Meteorologist Joanne Simpson, and then I ended the story with a quote by Joanne herself. "You just don't sit there, and all of a sudden, a lightbulb flashes over your head and you say ‘Aha!’ What you have to learn to be is stubborn."

But a theme doesn’t always happen that easily. With The Stuff Between the Stars it took me months to come up with one. I needed to do most of my research before I realised that Vera’s life reflected her work. Because she was a woman, Vera was pushed to the margins of science and her career was slow-moving. She ended up studying stars at the edges of galaxies, which were also thought to be slow-moving. When Vera discovered that these stars were moving just as fast as those at the centre, she changed our view of astronomy and physics in a MASSIVE way by discovering dark matter. But she also changed her own life. She became famous. She was no longer like a slow-moving star at the edge, she was at the very centre. But I could never have seen this parallel theme of life and work until I knew everything about her and completed all of my research.

Screenshot of Life Reflects Work

What else have you learnt from your research process?

I have learnt to dig deep and not to make assumptions. For example, when researching for the invention story Nacho’s Nachos, I assumed nachos were invented in a casual restaurant. My thinking went ‘nachos is a casual food, the restaurant where they were invented must be casual also’. Makes sense right? Wrong! The restaurant was posh. When I discovered how wrong my assumptions were it scared me, and it taught me to dig deep, otherwise I’ll be telling kids things that aren't right.


How popular is non-fiction?

Very popular! When interviewed, 80 per cent of first graders (age 6-7) said they prefer non-fiction. You don’t see much non-fiction on the bestseller lists at, say, Amazon or the New York Times because they are compiled from sales to book sellers, not to schools and libraries.


Narrative non-fiction picture books have a classic story arc, just like any good story

So is 6-7 years old the typical age range for non-fiction picture books?

That’s really the prerogative of the publishing house – but there’s a newish thing: non-fiction picture books for 9-10 year olds (third grade in the US), an age where they’d usually be reading MG if it wasn’t non-fiction.


The Stuff Between the Stars, for example, which is a complicated topic – about the discovery of Dark Matter and the galaxies – is aimed at a higher age range.

Would you recommend writing a proposal and getting a commission first, before doing months and months of research, or should a ‘newbie’ write the whole thing and send it out on spec?

I have only submitted non-fiction books as a completed manuscript. Writing a proposal is, of course, another way to go. 


* For more information about non-fiction writing: Melissa Stewart has written over 180 non-fiction books.


* With thanks to Elizabeth Brahy, Regional Adviser for SCBWI France for hosting the webinar ‘Non-fiction Picture Books with Sandra Nickel’ in May 2022.

*Header by Tita Berredo; 
other images (except seashell spread) courtesy of Sandra Nickel


Fran Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact: deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org


Tita Berredo is Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at illustrators@britishscbwi.org. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or find her work at www.titaberredo.com

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