With this post, The Whole Megillah focuses on nonfiction! Our cyber-roundtable includes senior agent Ken Wright of Writers House and three of his clients: Steve Sheinkin, Marc Aronson, and Deborah Heiligman, each distinguished in his/her own right.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Few agents handle children’s nonfiction. Why do you?
Ken Wright (KW): When I was at Scholastic I was the editorial director for nonfiction books. When I left to become an agent, it seemed to me that many of the nonfiction authors I’d worked with as an editor, or I knew of by reputation, were either unrepresented or under-represented, and it seemed like a good opportunity for them, and for me, to focus on trying to help them with their careers. It’s a category of publishing I have a real passion for, and because there were not many of us agents helping nonfiction authors, I took the opportunity and ran with it.
TWM: Authors, how did you find Ken or did he find you?
Steve Sheinkin (SS): An editor I work with, at Roaring Brook, recommended Ken. It’s true that not many agents handle children’s nonfiction, so I was lucky to team up with him.
Marc Aronson (MA): In a sense both. I have known Ken for years—we worked together as editors at a couple of houses. I had recently switched over to Writers House, and when he came there it seemed a natural fit, given our backgrounds, interests, and water-cooler conversations stretching over many years.
Deborah Heiligman (DH): I found him. Here’s what happened: I had been represented by Writers House many years ago. But for about ten years (and many books) I was on my own and that was going fine. But then I began to feel that my career was stalled. I decided that either I had to quit or really go for it. Well the idea of quitting didn’t appeal to me—there was nothing else I wanted to do in my work life! So I figured to really go for it, I needed an agent again. I wrote to Amy Berkower, who started the children’s book division at Writers House. I asked her if there was anyone she thought would be a good match for me, since I still had books represented by WH. Ken had just started and she thought he’d be perfect for me since his specialty was going to be nonfiction. He and I emailed a bit and then met. We clicked immediately. At least that’s how I remember it. I also remember that his eyes glowed when I described Charles and Emma (then called A Leap of Faith). And he really encouraged/pushed me to do that book.
TWM: What do you look for in a nonfiction book?
KW: That’s easy. The immediate answer is “story.” I am a firm believer that nonfiction is every bit as good a vehicle for telling a good story as fiction is. It’s the same thing I look for in the fiction I represent. In the hands of writers such as Deborah Heiligman (Charles and Emma) or Steven Sheinkin (The Notorious Benedict Arnold) or Sally Walker (Blizzard of Glass)—to name just three of the many wonderful writers at work in this field—real life stories read as good or better than any fiction I have read.
TWM: Authors, what attracts you to nonfiction?
SS: Well, I have to admit I was a history textbook writer for many years. So now I’m trying to atone for my past crimes by writing history books that kids will actually WANT to read. I love true stories – I love finding them, researching them, and telling them to kids. I love proving to them that history is actually cool.
MA: Well I would reverse that, why assume that NF is a special interest and F self-evident? Most adult male readers prefer NF, and if we include self-help, I suspect that is close to most readers overall. So the real question is why do children’s books not assume NF is a predominant reading interest? As I write this I am preparing a talking for 700 NYC school librarians, who are figuring out how to deal with the new Common Core Language Arts standards, which assume kids will read 50 percent NF. I begin by talking about the pleasures of NF—knowledge, structure, the power to act in the world, and, best of all—ideas, inquiry, books that stimulate readers to first gain insight and them form questions—what could be more thrilling?
DH: I love doing research. I’m naturally nosy and this is a polite and acceptable way for me to satisfy that urge. I tell kids that one of the reasons I adore my job is that I get paid to learn.
TWM: How do you select your subjects?
SS: It has to be a story or person I’m really interested in, since I’m going to be working on the book for a year or two. And it also has to be a subject that’s not too common, but also that’s possible to research—I mean, the information has to be out there, even if it’s hard to dig up. Several times I’ve gotten excited about book ideas, only to discover that the source material just wasn’t good enough to support great nonfiction.
MA: The crossing point between what interests me and what I believe will engage my readers.
DH: That varies, but I do seem to have a gut reaction that leads me to people, or topics. I love writing about quirky people, about people who have made a difference, people who either no one knows about, or about a side of someone that not many people know about. I like to break new ground. I also love to write about complex things for kids. Mostly I love a challenge. I also really don’t like to be bored and so I want as much as possible each project to be very different from the next.
TWM: What do you think are the greatest challenges in writing and selling children’s nonfiction?
SS: The big challenge is making it as fun to read as fiction. That requires working really hard to find every little detail and quote that can help you create scenes and action. I’ve found that a lot of kids figure history is going to be boring. So you’ve got to blast through that assumption by grabbing their attention and holding on. I actually think most kids find nonfiction to be pretty cool, once they find a good book on a subject they consider compelling. In terms of selling nonfiction, that can be tough for the same reason—editors think kids would rather read fiction.
MA: The news, good and bad, is that it is a very tight market. That means you have to work extra hard to engage readers, deal with fresh subjects, find spectacular illustrations, share your work with experts and young readers—in short, make it good. That is hard but great.
DH: I recently wrote a piece on I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) about my latest challenge—falling in love with a subject and then realizing after a lot of work that I couldn’t find enough material to write the book I wanted to write. Click here to read the article>>>
TWM: What are the greatest challenges in pitching nonfiction?
KW: It’s that the broader marketplace (primarily trade/retail) does not embrace nonfiction in a big enough way to make editors and publishers feel like they can take chances on publishing it. Nonfiction for children is seen by many as exclusively an institutional buy, which keeps the numbers down, thereby making it hard for an editor to make his or her P&L robust enough to be able to acquire the book.
A few great titles break through every year. I am thinking of books like the ones I mentioned above, and others, such as Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin, or Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom, or the works of Jim Murphy, Russell Freeman, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and Marc Aronson. And they typically break through because of the attention they get in the library market by winning awards, like the Newbery, Printz, and Sibert. These eventually bring the books to a broader audience.
TWM: Steve, of all the children’s nonfiction you’ve written, which project brought you the highest personal satisfaction and why?
SS: Well, I wanted to write a book about Benedict Arnold for about ten years, so when I finally got the chance, that was hugely satisfying. The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which came in out 2010, was my attempt to write a nonfiction page-turner, a book every bit as exciting as any adventure novel. It’s been fun to see it out there in the world, and I’m proud to say it just won the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction.
TWM: Marc, how about you?
MA: They are too different to compare. For example I am just back from South Africa where I met and interviewed Dr. Lee Berger, who is investigating Sediba, the hominid fossil from 1.97 million years ago that may be the link between chimp and the line leading to human. That was great — and similar to my trips to Stonehenge to work with archaeologists there for another book, or the interviews I did with the Chile mine rescuers. But next spring my YA book on J. Edgar Hoover will come out, and that is perhaps the most ambitious book I’ve ever written. Each has its own satisfaction—and its own potential hook to readers.
TWM: And Deb?
DH: It is actually hard to pick just one. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction over the years, and I have found most of those projects really satisfying on both a personal and professional level. I think the harder the book is to write, the more satisfaction I feel when it is done! I wrote a biography of Barbara McClintock many years ago. That was the first book I worked on with Nancy Feresten and it was a terrific experience. I had to educate myself on genetics (I was a religious studies major in college! Took one course in science–biology for poets!), and I had to really dig to get personal information about her (I learned how to interview family members and friends, how to comb through archives, how to follow leads…). That book got lovely reviews and notices and then went out of print quickly because Scientific American did only three seasons of children’s books, but it remains on of the books I am proudest of. Two others, quickly: From Caterpillar to Butterfly, because it is read all over the country over and over again. And, of course Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. That book truly was a book from my heart, I worked harder on it than I had ever worked on anything, it was a love note to my husband, and I actually wrote the book I wanted to write. Even before it got a single review, way before it got noticed at all, in fact, I felt complete and utter satisfaction from having written it. The rest, while glorious, truly glorious, was gravy.
TWM: How important is photo research. Review by subject matter experts?
KW: Photo research is enormously important. So much of a good nonfiction story can be told through pictures. Elizabeth Partridge and Marc Aronson have written incredibly well on this and are much smarter than I am. I suggest your readers have a look at what they have to say about all this. It’s really pretty fascinating.
Yes, review by subject matter experts is important, but I don’t think it’s a requirement. I tend to think my authors ARE the experts and that they have done the work that’s needed to get the facts right. And that sometimes includes running something by an outside expert. It’s a part of the work, and organic to the process, when an individual author thinks he or she needs it.
SS: Photo research is a very important part of my next book, which will be about the global race to build, and steal, the atomic bomb during World War II. I think it will really enhance to book to show all the scientists, spies, commandos, etc. And since there’s a bit of physics involved, review by an expert or two is helpful too.
MA: Both are crucial. One definition of NF for young readers is that it is illustrated—and our selections have to be as visually apt and well chosen as the art in a picture book, except we don’t get to make it up; I always look for experts to read my mss. For the Hoover book I sent it to two experts on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and got two totally different reports—both highly useful.
DH: I’ve never depended heavily on photo research. Either my books have been illustrated or I’ve worked with a publisher who has done the research for me (like my Holidays Around The World series, and my photo-biography of John F. Kennedy, High Hopes both published by National Geographic). With Charles and Emma, since I wrote the book as a nonfiction novel, I didn’t want photos to interrupt the storytelling, and my editor Laura Godwin agreed. So we put the photos in the middle of the book, and didn’t use that many of them. That’s just how I like to do it. Other nonfiction writer friends of mine are experts at photo research. One of them, another client of Ken’s, Elizabeth Partridge, taught about photos and photo research at Kindling Words and I found it fascinating.
I depend on experts to review my manuscripts. I learned how important this was back in my days of writing and editing at Scholastic News. If I can, I have more than one expert read my manuscripts. I had THE world’s foremost expert on Darwin read the manuscript of Charles and Emma. But before I gave it to her, I had two other experts read it. I have a picture book about the mathematician Paul Erdos coming out and I had an expert read the manuscript and the illustrator is having experts look at the illustrations and when all is put together we will have another expert read the whole thing—at least another.
TWM: Do you personally read nonfiction for leisure? If so, what is the best nonfiction book you’ve ever read?
KW: What leisure? I have none. Seriously, I have so little time to read for leisure. But when I do, yes, I do read nonfiction for fun. Both adult and children’s. And picking just one as the best I have read is really tough. There isn’t one. I loved Taylor Branch’s three-part life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr. And I will read anything Jonathan Weiner writes. Steven Johnson. Bill Bryson. I am a big fan of Paul Theroux. And I am eagerly waiting for the third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. There is so much more.
TWM: What’s the best nonfiction book you’ve ever read? What made it the best?
SS: Too many possible answers. But I just finished one called Alive, which is right up there at the top of the list. It’s an incredible survival story about a rugby team from Uruguay that gets trapped in the Andes after their plane crashes. Like the best nonfiction, it’s so many things at once: exciting, surprising, disgusting, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, inspiring…And I love that the author doesn’t insert himself or his interpretations into the action; it makes everything feel more immediate.
MA: I read so many, there is not one that stands out. In the current Horn Book I talk about Peter Godwin’s memoir Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa as being great because it shows the power of small moral choices that lead to major risks and actions; but in an SLJ piece I praise Athan Theoharis: Abuse of Power, as a brilliant warning about FBI abuses in the past, present, and—if we are not alert—future; while on my night table I am reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for clear writing and personal power, as well as all sorts of books on the history of Central Asia, the mysteries of math, the world history of language—all endlessly fascinating.
DH: I can’t say I have a favorite, but here are a few that knocked my socks off: Tracy Kidder’s House. First time I read about a subject that I wasn’t really that interested in and I couldn’t put down the book. I still think about that book and I think I read it at least fifteen years ago. [Three memoirs I have to mention: The Color of Water by James McBride; Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller; and When A Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin. In each of these books I learned about a world I'd never been in, could really never be in, and felt as if I had been transported there and back again and changed in a way I never could have been without those authors as guides.] And the nonfiction book that changed my life: Peyote Hunt by Barbara Meyerhoff.
TWM: What advice do you have for children’s nonfiction writers?
KW: Don’t quit your day job? I am only half kidding. It’s a tough market, and fewer and fewer publishers are taking chances on nonfiction. So, if you are really passionate about it and have a great story to bring into the world, do so, but don’t expect to get rich and to be able to devote full time to it and make a living. Work at night, and on the weekends.
MA: Go meet kids, read the CC standards, spend time in libraries and classrooms, and find out what excites you—finding the meeting place between your interests and theirs.
TWM: Ken, what is the best way to query you about a nonfiction project?
KW: A great query letter and a thoughtful proposal that describes the wonderful story you want to write and indicates you have done the research and understand the marketplace—what is out there, where your book fits in, who is doing similar work, and what your book will add to the “conversation,” so to speak.
TWM: Thanks, everyone. Any last words?
MA: From a Jewish POV, I would add that NF is really Pesach—it is all about getting young people to ask questions—why is this X different from all other Xs? As you know, the seder is not real unless kids have genuine questions, and that is precisely what great NF should spark in readers.