I enjoyed reading your comments about writing a great picture book in the Nathan Bransford email today. Your words really gave me some food for thought about an idea I have been kicking around. I have a protagonist with a problem [redacted], and a solution that she finds through her own exploration.
I am wondering if some of the structure ideas you discusses could still be important for a non-fiction picture book…
Thanks for writing, Julia!
Non-fiction picture book structure
In a lot of ways, picture book structure for non-fiction is similar to fiction. In non-fiction, we still have a problem, an inciting incident, and a story line that focuses on the key points of that particular plot line. If it’s a biography, we might see a particular character trait or belief that follows the subject throughout their life as they work towards some larger goal or change.
If we’re reading about a historical incident (say, the sinking of the Titanic), then we’ll read about all the things that lead up to the climax (the sinking of the ship and the disastrous loss of life). So, the belief that the ship was unsinkable, and thus didn’t need enough lifeboats or floatation devices for all those one board, would be something we’d see as the ship was built. And perhaps the theme in that version of the story would be the hubris of man. [Okay, maybe this is not exactly how a Titanic picture book would be done, as editors would probably say it needed to be toned down just a bit to be more child-friendly. Also, that’s pretty much the standard theme for the Titanic story – so if you were going to do a Titanic picture book today, you’d probably have to come at it from another, fresher angle.]
In other words, it’s absolutely impossible to see everything that’s happened in one person’s life in a picture book – or a novel – and so the author has to pick that thread that they’re going to follow throughout that person’s life or that particular event.
What is non-fiction?
All that said – I’m not exactly sure that your book would be best marketed as non-fiction. I see a lot of picture book submissions in my query box that are marked as non-fiction, but is a story based on someone’s child or dog. In that case, it’s usually better to write and market it as fiction.
Especially in the case of a dog, the fact that someone has, for example, a dog named Floof doesn’t mean “Floof Dreams of Biscuits” is non-fiction, for both definition and marketing reasons.
Non-fiction is a story which is known to be true – it’s verifiable with first hand accounts or other sources. Diaries, photographs, newspaper accounts, interviews are all sources that can be used to reference a non-fiction piece.
But in the case of our dog book, nobody can verify what Floof dreams about. How could you prove that with a first hand source? Even if she eats biscuits, we can’t ever truly know what a dog is thinking or dreaming about – and a behavioral observation is not enough to push this into non-fiction. Floof can’t say “Yes, I do dream of biscuits.” (And don’t get me started on books where the animal talks but it’s still labeled as non-fiction!)
On the marketing side, even if the story is about your pet dog who had puppies, and everything that was written was 100% true and verifiable without any conjecture as to how the dog was feeling or what they were thinking – I still wouldn’t query it as non-fiction.
In the non-fiction market, we’re looking for stories that would have a broader interest and could potentially fit in a classroom curriculum. For biographies and events, we’re looking for stories of people that made a large impact on the world or overcame great adversity – but perhaps hasn’t already been written about ad nauseam.
Floof having puppies made an impact on Floof’s family, but it wouldn’t have made enough impact outside of Floof’s family to be a draw for a non-fiction audience.
So all that said, I think the problem that you shared is more universal, and unless the girl going through it has made some larger impact on the world that was inspired by that problem, I don’t know that you want to write the story as non-fiction. I think you’d have more freedom and marketability for the project if you pitched/wrote it as fiction.