Each year when I judge entries in the children’s literature category of the international writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, I keep hoping to find well-written nonfiction articles or interesting chapters excerpted from dynamic nonfiction books. Some actually do arrive, while others seem promising before descending into a central set of flaws.
In an obvious effort to be fresh and lively, many writers start their nonfiction for children with scenes straight out of a novel. For example, they might begin with dialogue, a problem, a child’s thoughts, or an amusing conversation that reads like the opening of a sit-com. Often, a main character asks a grandparent about a subject soon to be addressed but, unfortunately, not nearly soon enough. These novel openings sound good at first but quickly bring confusion since readers will rarely be able to tell what the book is about until they read a page or two or three.
Another problem arises with credibility and accuracy – or the lack thereof. With no bibliography to cite sources at the end of a manuscript, no one knows if the author has spent weeks searching, sorting, and sifting through reliable information or just passed along personal opinions and assumptions as fact.
A more common flaw occurs in the quality of the writing. For instance, passive voice seems particularly prevalent as illustrated by circling phrase after phrase that states, “It is” or “There was.” Such a passive voice usually comes across as a passive writer, who did not take time to search for active verbs and strong nouns that readers can readily picture.
Speaking of pictures, young readers need to be able to envision what they’re reading whether the pages contain illustrations or not. For the writing to be this clear, each sentence usually needs an easy-to-picture noun that brings to mind a person, place, or thing, but not a vague idea. An active verb can then put that noun into motion. If the nonfiction manuscript happens to be the text for a children’s picture book, those mental images on every page become vital or, voila, no picture book.
That seems obvious, but, fortunately, so do solutions to each of the problems mentioned. Most writers have fine minds and can figure these things out for themselves once they recognize a problem or even know to look for one. What often happens, though, is that we get caught up in stories we can’t wait to share with our kids or grandkids, forgetting that children can not follow unless we remember they’re right there beside us, waiting for the next picture, the next thought, the next word they can easily connect with, enjoy, and understand.
(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.