What I’ve Learned Writing Middle Grade Nonfiction

Image: young girls in period costume at historic printing press
Photo credit: MizGingerSnaps on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Today’s guest post is by historian and author Tim Grove. His latest book for young readers, Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, is now available.

Most people don’t “fall into” writing middle grade books with a major publisher. But I did.

I was working at a high-profile museum and had published two books—one for practitioners in my field, and another with a university press, both for adults.

But on the job, I was writing in different formats for family audiences. Several work colleagues completed a children’s book project with Abrams and the publisher was looking for another project at the museum. I was working on an exhibition that featured an airplane with an amazing story few people knew. It was an adventure story that I would have loved as a young reader. I decided to pitch it, and despite the risks involved in signing an unknown story and an unknown author, Abrams approved it.

The finished product, First Flight Around the World, received some great reviews. I had enjoyed the process so much that with the support of my boss (because writing books was not in my job description), I pitched another book that Abrams accepted.

First Flight gained some major attention as a finalist for the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Excellence in Nonfiction award. I began looking for an agent when one came to me. I signed with the Trident Media Group, and suddenly gained momentum as an author.

Today, my third middle grade nonfiction, Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, has recently been published and my fourth will launch in 2021. Many librarians and teachers tell me there is a great need for history nonfiction for students. My goal as a trained historian is to make history accessible to readers and to help them understand the process—how historians look at source materials and draw conclusions. It’s the detective aspect of the work that gets lost in history class. And if I can change perceptions along the way, even better. Changing perceptions of history is not always easy, but book by book, I hope to do my part to try.

Here are some things I’ve learned about traditional publishing.

  1. Topic relevance. Why should the reader care? You must be able to show an editor that your topic will be of interest to a wide audience. Although my book Star-Spangled is set in and around Baltimore, most Americans know the national anthem, so a young reader in Idaho will already have a personal connection.
  2. Narrative is key. The more you can add elements of fiction the better: narrative arc, character development, plot, tension, etc. While demand exists for survey-type books or how-to books, narrative has a better chance to capture an editor’s attention.
  3. Author platform. As with any nonfiction, you must show an editor why you are the person to write this book. What gives you authority? While many good writers can do research and can write a good history book, I bring a greater authenticity than some because I am a trained historian with years working in the history field.
  4. Timing is crucial. You must trust the editors to know what will sell and when. For history books, it’s helpful to be aware of trends and anniversaries in history. The 250th anniversary of the USA is 2026, for example—and editors will be looking for books that tie into this milestone.
  5. Back matter. The best middle grade nonfiction books include end notes, a bibliography, a glossary, and an author’s note about his/her process. This adds extra authority.
  6. Visual images. If you’re writing history, try to include images of your sources. This helps readers see where the information comes from: letters, historic maps, paintings. I am fortunate that my editor encourages this. Often in history books, maps are crucial visuals that help a spatial learner see how things fit together.
  7. Quotations. Use original quotations when possible. I try to infuse my writing with the best quotations I can find from my research. In nonfiction, you can’t put words into your characters’ mouths, so you must choose characters that have spoken in the form of journals, letters, diaries or official military or government papers. Sometimes that writing is archaic and stilted, with difficult words for young readers. You may decide to only use part of it, or use brackets for clarification, but giving readers a taste of another time is important.
  8. Subject matter. Choose your subject with great care. As with any book project, you must live with it for a long time. The topic must sustain your interest on a personal level. Your passion will come through. And the source materials must provide sufficient variety of perspective and insight into character that allow you to spin an interesting story.

Sometimes it feels like every writer I meet wants to write fiction, but librarians and teachers need more nonfiction for young readers. Several large publishers have recently launched new imprints for young readers of nonfiction.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out Tim’s latest book Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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