Surging into Nonfiction!

The last few months have been a whirlwind of events for me. I’ve attended three different conferences, where I either presented or attended workshops — all about nonfiction. Why? Nonfiction is HOT right now.  That’s great for those of us who read it and even better for those of us who write it.

Why is nonfiction such a hot topic? That’s easy.  Between the state standards, the Common Core, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),  publishers are looking to add lots of nonfiction to their lists.  They are searching for everything from picture book to YA, in the categories of history, biography, science, technology, nature, and much, much more.

Looking to find some great nonfiction books? Check out these awards:

NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children


The book that won this year’s award was:
The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade)
Here is the tumultuous, heartrending, true story of the Romanovs at once an intimate portrait of Russia’s last royal family and a gripping account of its undoing. Using captivating photos and compelling first person accounts, award-winning author Candace Fleming (“Amelia Lost”;” The Lincolns”) deftly maneuvers between the imperial family’s extravagant lives and the plight of Russia’s poor masses, making this an utterly mesmerizing read as well as a perfect resource for meeting Common Core standards.


The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal winner for 2015 was:
The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus by Jen Bryant (Eerdmans BFYR)

2015 Caldecott Honor Book2015 Sibert Medal Winner2015 Orbis Pictus Honor BookFor shy young Peter Mark Roget, books were the best companions — and it wasn’t long before Peter began writing his own book. But he didn’t write stories; he wrote lists. Peter took his love for words and turned it to organizing ideas and finding exactly the right word to express just what he thought. His lists grew and grew, eventually turning into one of the most important reference books of all time. Readers of all ages will marvel at Roget’s life, depicted through lyrical text and brilliantly detailed illustrations. This elegant book celebrates the joy of learning and the power of words.

NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books for 2015. This is a pretty comprehensive list of some awesome science books! I will include just a few below, but for all, check out the website here:
Batman Science: The Real-World Science Behind Batman’s Gear (DC Super Heroes) by Tammy Enz

When it comes to fighting crime, technology is Batmans greatest weapon. From his gadget-packed Utility Belt to his high-tech Batmobile, the Dark Knight tackles Gothams criminal underworld. But does any of his gear have a basis in reality? Or is it merely the stuff of fiction? Batman Science uncovers the real-world connections to Batmans techand much of it will surprise you!


Bone Collection: Skulls by Camilla de la Bédoyère (Scholastic)

BONE COLLECTION: SKULLS is follow-up to the beautiful book BONE COLLECTION: ANIMALS. This spectacular collection of awesome skulls will take a closer look inside some of the world’s most fascinating creatures. Learn what an animal’s skull can tell us about how each creature lives. Discover the narwhal, the unicorn of the sea. Marvel at how a hippo’s eyeballs nearly pop out of its head. Take a look at the rhinoceros’ enormous beak. Featuring the skulls of pythons, piranhas, rams, bears and more, readers will be amazed by the wide variety of skulls in the animal kingdom.

Where does one go to find out more about  the type of nonfiction books coming out or how to learn how to write fabulous nonfiction?

Check out some conferences!  Many regional and even the national SCBWI conferences are including nonfiction workshops these days.  To find one look here:


The Highlights Foundation offers conferences about nonfiction. In fact, I just conducted one at the beginning of the month.


And finally, one of the best conferences (in my opinion) to attend to learn about nonfiction — if you are a teacher, librarian, or aspiring writer, is

the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference.

I went this past June and it was FANTASTIC!  With industry professionals from over 28 organizations including publishers, librarians, the NSTA, Bank Street College, and many more, there is something for everyone.

The conference was a great way to connect with editors, educational professionals, and other authors. Workshops on craft and writing were timely, interesting and fun.  They even had intensives for more in-depth learning and also open table discussions to promote exchange of information between authors and editors.


++++ Talk about perfect timing, Publisher’s Weekly just discussed the Surge in Nonfiction in one of their articles yesterday. It is titled “Is Children’s Nonfiction Having its Moment?”  The answer is YES!!

You can read the article here:

It is easy to find ways to “Surge into Nonfiction” all you have to do is to look!

Feel free to share below any other great nonfiction books or nonfiction events in your area. Let’s keep this nonfiction vibe going!!



Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 books for children. A self-professed science geek, when not writing, she can be found trolling through the internet searching for cool science discoveries and experiments.  Learn more about Jennifer at her website:



An Interview with Veteran Book Reviewer Michael Jones

Writing JournalAuthors sometimes have a love/hate/live-in-fear/live-in deep appreciation relationship with book reviewers. In my past, I have reviewed children’s books for a major daily newspaper, and I can tell you that it’s an all-consuming job and requires a strong pair of eyes and the ability to write economically. Not my strong suit, to tell you the truth. It’s why middle grade books are oh so much easier for me to write than picture books, which I love desperately. Anyway, this month, I thought I’d interview a seriously accomplished children’s book reviewer. Someone who reviews a lot of middle grade books for a major periodical and that person is Michael Jones.

Michael lives in Southwest Virginia with way too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who lets him rant about work whenever needed. He also owns a plaster penguin that probably wasn’t carved by Michelangelo.

Here’s my interview with Michael, an Olympic athlete of reading.

1) You have a passion for children’s literature and review many books. What made you fall in love with children’s books?

I grew up with books. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. Apparently, I started teaching myself how to read after watching Sesame Street when I was very young. My parents supplied me with everything from the Bobbsey Twins to the Oz series, and I never grew out of it. For me, it’s all about the infinite potential of storytelling—the characters, the worlds, the adventures. Sometimes it seems as though children’s books allow themselves a greater freedom than adult books, and enjoy a greater sense of wonder.

2) There may be many readers out there who are already book reviewers but there are also those who would like to try it out. What steps would you recommend for someone who would like to get into book reviewing?

I got into book reviewing when a mailing list to which I subscribed asked for reviewers for a new website. From there, I gradually moved from one opportunity to another. There’s no one true path to becoming a reviewer, but the first step is easy: write about the books you read and enjoy. If you contribute quality reviews to Amazon or Goodreads, for instance, you can gain valuable experience and find opportunities to obtain books. Find a review site or blog you enjoy, and see if they need new reviewers. Start your own site or blog or Tumblr account or whatever you’re comfortable with. There are a lot of ways to get your voice out there. If you’re feeling ambitious, make friends with other reviewers who write for different sites; maybe they can pass along opportunities as well. It means you’ll often be reviewing for the love of it at first, but once you have that presence, things can happen. But it’s all about reading the books, and reviewing them, and getting those reviews out where others can see them.

3) How many books do you read in a week and how many of them do you review?

I’ll read anywhere from two to six books in a week, depending on what else is going on. If I’m on a road trip, that number can jump up considerably. I review the vast majority of them, since most of my reading is for work these days. Sometimes I’ll allow myself a freebie or two—books I read and don’t intend to review. You don’t even want to see the list of books I’ve read and intended to review but still haven’t gotten to… hint: it stretches back a few years. There’s only so much time and energy to go around. I once did ten reviews in a single week for Publishers Weekly, just to prove I could.

4) How do you discover new books to read? Do the publications that you review for give you the ARCs, or do you get them directly from the publishers and then decide if you want to review them?

I use every method possible to find new books. PW sends me everything they assign me, so that’s a major source of new reading material. I also search through Netgalley and Edelweiss, which are aimed at getting advance review copies (ARCs) into the hands of reviewers and industry professionals. I also try to make friends with authors and publicists. A few years back, it was more common for publicists to send out boxes of books, but the industry has changed and they’re a lot more frugal. Electronic copies have made it easier and cheaper to send things out as appropriate, and the very nature of review platforms has shifted from a magazine-based system to an online system, which made publishers less inclined to send out those books willy-nilly.

So for work, my assignments are sent to me. Otherwise, I scrounge around for things which look interesting, and then decide what I want to review in my (hypothetical) spare time. I used to buy books at the store, but had to cut back when my cats demanded I feed them instead.

5) Authors and readers alike can be disappointed when a book doesn’t get a favorable review, yet it’s a part of the business. As authors we often like to make up stories (they carry a poison pen, they had a bad day) about the reviewer when it doesn’t go our way. Is it also hard for the reviewer as well when the book isn’t what you hoped it might be?

That varies. I’ve run into a lot of books where the premise is interesting, and the story has potential, but then it’ll fall apart for some reason. Maybe the writing isn’t up to par, or the story veers into unsuccessful territory, or the author makes a choice I don’t agree with. It’s hard when a book lets you down, and you have to be honest about your feelings as a reviewer because otherwise, what’s the point? Good reviewers don’t let personal issues affect their work, but we’re still bringing a lot of ourselves to the table, because that’s the nature of writing these things. I’d rather be honest when I find something I don’t like or enjoy, because anything else is a disservice to the reader/potential buyer. But since every reviewer is different, there’s no shortage of second, third, even tenth opinions out there.

6) Can you always tell from the first page whether you’re going to love a book or not? Or have there been some books that have required some warming up to? How much time do you allow yourself before you turn off from a narrative?

It really is different with every book. Sometimes, I can fall in love with the first line, sometimes it takes a while to understand a book. There’s no magic formula, and it varies with every reader as well. If it’s an assignment, I’ll read the whole book, no matter what I think of it. If it’s for fun, I’ll give it a page, or a chapter, to see how the writing style, the premise, and so on work for me. It’s a lot easier to move on when it’s for pleasure.

7) What would you most like to be known for as a reviewer?

I’d say that one of the greatest joys a reviewer can experience is seeing their review quoted on a book cover or on the inside. That means they said something worth repeating. That’s something I always look forward to. As far as what I’d like to be known for, I just want readers, authors, publishers and everyone else to know that my reviews are fair, honest, reliable, and entertaining. I want to be remembered as a trustworthy reviewer, who gets to the heart of the story and conveys it well enough to help other people make decisions about their book-buying or reading habits.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at and on her Facebook page.

Houses and Stories

I love houses.

Old and new. Big and small. Cozy and sprawling. Mansions, cottages, castles, ranches, igloos. Tudor, Cape Cod, Colonial, French Provincial. No matter the size or style, houses simply fascinate me.

One of my all-time favorite books for young readers is The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942 and winner of the Caldecott Medal. I remember being completely taken by this book as a child — the story of a little house that was happy living in the country, swallowed up by progress, then moved and happy again. I delighted in sharing this book with my three children.

153540What struck me as a kid, and still strikes me now, is the house’s expression and how it changes from a smile to sadness and despair, back to a smile again. How interesting it was that a house could have a face!

But the truth is, I think houses have stories too, shaped by the people who live in them and the neighborhoods they are a part of, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much.

I’ve never been a runner or very good at going to the health club, but I do take a long walk almost every day. Sometimes when I’m out walking and get a glimpse inside someone’s house, I immediately start imagining the story of the people who live there. (It’s a little creepy, yes, but admit it — you’ve done it too.)

My mini-obsession with houses prompted me to set my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, in a cul-de-sac of eight houses. Here’s a drawing from the first page of the book. Each house in the neighborhood has a story and a personality. Mr. D, a reclusive neighbor who never comes outside, has a neat house with the shades revised cul de sac finaldrawn tightly. One house is for sale and it’s unloved and empty, with overgrown grass and broken shutters. Mrs. Chung’s house has Christmas lights strung around her trees year-round and marigolds in front.

All of these details come into play in the story, as the main character sets out to do 65 good things for her family and neighbors the summer after eighth grade, except things don’t go exactly as she envisions.

For me, character’s houses (or apartments or huts or igloos) go so much beyond just the setting. They’re almost characters in themselves, with quirks and emotions and unique attributes. And the details that are found in houses can become important parts of the plot, such as a lost toy or Grandma’s antique table or a rusty, squeaky swing set.

I particularly loved Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window for just that reason. Seventh-graders and best friends Sophie Young and Grace Yang, who 12848132make a game out of spying on their neighbors, stumble on an adventure and mystery that unfolds from something they see in a house.

To me, home is not just where the heart is, but where the heart of the story is.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Both books are on 2015-2016 state reading lists. Michele can be found at