Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Writing Nonfiction Children's Books - An Interview with Mary Kay Carson

Meet Mary Kay Carson, a nonfiction children’s author who has had more than thirty of her books published. She’s written about a huge variety of topics in the areas of wildlife, space, weather, nature, and history. I was very interested to find out more about this aspect of publishing, because I think it sounds like a terrific job! One of her recent books, THE BAT SCIENTISTS (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) , was named one of Booklist’s top ten sci-tech books for kids in 2010. Check out the trailer for it at the end of the post.

What advice would you give someone interested in a career as a nonfiction writer for children?

Tell stories! Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it should read like an encyclopedia. True stories of people’s lives, history’s happenings, and scientific discoveries make for dramatic tales.

As far as the nuts and bolts of getting published, nonfiction is generally easier to break into than fiction. The general route is to first build up some credibility as a writer in the genre by getting some magazine articles (print or online) published. The step up to books often begins with pitching ideas to editors for titles that fit into already existing series. Spending time looking through library shelves and online browsing publishers’ catalogs can give you ideas.

Like with any career, you’ve got to nail down what you want and then set goals to get there. Why do you want to write nonfiction for kids? Be honest! Do you have a teacher/scientist/historian inside you who wants to turn kids on to certain subjects? Are you dying to see your name in print and figure nonfiction is an easier route than fiction? Is it a way to earn a living? A combination of these—or other reasons? It’s important to figure out what motivates you, because making money and getting published are two very different things! And you want to go for what will satisfy what you want.

How did you move from magazine articles to your first book?

I began writing nonfiction for kids at Scholastic. I was on staff at their elementary classroom magazine SuperScience for a couple of years. So when I left New York and went freelance in the early 1990s, I took those contacts with me. My first book was a theme unit for teachers about space for Scholastic’s professional books division. I’ve written a lot of teaching materials (teacher guides, classroom activities, supplemental background content, film strip captions, etc.) over the years. The first book I wrote for kids, came out in 1998. Epilepsy is a book in a series called DISEASES AND PEOPLE put out by Enslow, a library market publisher. The science editor there contacted me because another science writer for kids had given her my name. (This is why it’s good to know other writers!) She asked if I was interested in writing a book for the series. So I submitted an annotated outline and sample chapter and was then offered a contract. Ten years later Enslow asked me to submit science series ideas, and I ended up writing a series of books for them about the solar system. (This is why it’s good to stay in contact with editors over the years.) The 12 titles in the FAR-OUT GUIDE TO THE SOLAR SYSTEM have just been released.

Do you pitch projects or are you asked to cover certain topics?

For books, it usually works one of three ways. An editor contacts me and wants a very particular work on a specific topic written, often with word count, reading level, subject matter dictated. This is how it always is for classroom leveled readers, which I write a lot of. Sometimes I’m even provided with an outline and sources—and very little time. A draft of 4,000 words might be needed in two weeks. An example is Amazing Stuff! Materials at Work, a reader for Macmillan-McGraw Hill. Readers like these are fee for service (called work-made-for-hire) books. A lump sum is paid, no royalties.

The opposite end of the spectrum is pitching to trade publishers. I send out cold query letters to editors that pitch a book idea of my own. If someone nibbles, then I write up a traditional nonfiction proposal with an outline, sample chapter, market review, etc. This is how I got the contract to write Emi and the Rhino Scientist for Houghton Mifflin. (Yes, books do come out of the slush pile!) Another book for Houghton Mifflin I wrote, The Bat Scientists, was published this fall.

In the middle of these extremes is being asked to pitch ideas within a subject area. For example, an editor at Sterling Publishing I’d written a middle-school biography for (Alexander Graham Bell: Giving Voice to the World) contacted me. She was looking for science series ideas for kids aged 9-12. They went with a natural disaster series, two of which I wrote, that ended up as very cool books with pages that flip up and flip out. Both were just published, Inside Hurricanes and Inside Tornadoes.

For THE BAT SCIENTISTS.how much input, if any, did an editor have in deciding the content before you began to write it?

Not much! That’s the freedom of trade books—it’s pretty much up to you. I submitted an annotated outline of The Bat Scientists for approval. And the editor made some very general suggestions. But the content of the book changed a great deal from the outline once I started interviewing scientists, etc. That was fine with the editor. She wants the best book possible, and as a trade publisher isn’t constrained by trying to fulfill state content standards, etc.

The process of integrating the text with the pictures and illustrations seems complicated. Do you just concentrate on the text, or do you have a part in deciding which pictures you need to go with it?

Nonfiction authors are asked to do a lot of the image and illustration research and placement. It’s just part of the job. Sometimes, the writing has to be worked around the graphics. The interactive nature of Sterling’s Inside books demand that. I’m finishing up Inside Weather, and wrote the outline and text using a book dummy that had all the vertical and horizontal gatefolds. I needed to come up with diagrams, illustrations, and images that took advantage of a 36-inch wide or 20-inch tall page within the text. It’s actually a big help as a writer to know what illustrations there will be. There’s no reason to write a paragraph about the types of clouds when there’s a terrific 20x9 inch diagram illustrating them all at their respective heights in the atmosphere.

Narrative nonfiction books like The Bat Scientists (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) are different. The fabulous photos by photographer Tom Uhlman (my better half!) were taken specifically for this book. He and I traveled together to see the scientists at work, talk to them, and take photos. Together we choose a selection of the best photos for each chapter. But it’s the book’s designer who makes the final decisions, marrying images with the flow of text on a spread.

Thanks Mary Kay! And I just had to post this picture of Mary Kay and her husband. I think the subject of working with a spouse could take up a whole blog post by itself. Find out more about Mary Kay and her books at her website: http://www.marykaycarson.com/

~Dee Garretson


  1. Very cool trailer, my little brother would love this book.

    I just got a rejection on a PB about mantids--came this close, but it was a small publisher with a small list. Working on another one now.

  2. I think your readers will enjoy this video interview with Carolyn Marsden.

    Interview with Children's Author Carolyn Marsden

    Take a trip to the beaches of San Diego to meet children's author, Carolyn Marsden.

    The award- winning author talks about her books and the art of collaboration and how she learned to write with others. She offers good writing tips for writers both young and old.

    MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual FIeld Trips for Kids is a series of free kid-friendly educational video podcasts for children ages 5-13. Each episode comes with a list of recommended books, a list of fun websites and a Learning Corner of questions and extended activities.

  3. Great interview, Dee and Mary Kay. I can hardly wait to read The Bat Scientists! :)

  4. Yes, the book sounds awesome!!!!

  5. I will enjoy this video interview with Carolyn Marsden. Great interview, Dee and Mary Kay.

  6. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your journey, Mary Kay! As a mom of three boys, I so appreciate well-written, engaging, and informative non-fiction.

  7. Cool film! Great interview! Awesome book!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!