By Paulette Bogan
“Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction that tells a story and usually has characters, setting and a plot, or at least a problem, or conflict, or an obstacle,” said children’s book author Susanna Reich. “It has a beginning, middle, and end the way a fictional story might. It has turning points, builds to a climax, and has a resolution at the end.”
According to Reich, nonfiction is generally divided into two categories: Expository Nonfiction and Narrative Nonfiction. Expository nonfiction focuses on facts and a straightforward presentation. Some examples: newspapers, cookbooks, textbooks, or an illustrated book such as Super Dinosaur Encyclopedia.
Reich writes narrative nonfiction and acknowledged that there is often confusion about exactly what that is. “Some people mistakenly think that narrative nonfiction means that you have the leeway to invent fictional elements. But in my opinion, and most nonfiction writers’ opinion, in true nonfiction, you don’t make stuff up. You don’t make up dialogue or invent characters. As soon as you do, you’re actually writing informational fiction or even historical fiction.”
Susanna Reich was born in New York City and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson in the fourth grade, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Reich considers herself one of the river people, a lover of the Hudson River and the environment. “The Hudson Valley is very dear to my heart,” said Reich.
Reich’s mother was a musicologist who specialized in 19th-century women in music and, particularly, Clara Schumann, one of the most significant pianists of the 19th century and a composer. Reich’s first book is about Clara Schumann!
Reich has led an exciting and varied life in New York. She was a professional dancer until she was thirty, a floral designer for ten years, designed the floral arrangements for Julia Child’s 80th birthday celebration in New York and then became a children’s book author. So how did she become a children’s book author? By taking a T’ai Chi class with Ed Young, a Caldecott winning children’s book illustrator, of course!
“And so I was introduced to the world of children’s books by getting to know Ed, and he was always talking about his artistic process and how he put books together, and I just kind of got drawn into the whole world of children’s books through my friendship with Ed,” says Reich.
Reich talked extensively about choosing a subject for a narrative nonfiction book. Her approach is to find a balance between what you’re interested in and what editors are interested in, and consequently, what the market will buy. “You don’t want to spend a couple of years researching and writing a book that nobody wants to buy, and at the same time, you don’t just want to write to the market. You want to be interested in your topic. So, I kind of begin with what sparks my curiosity and my passion.” she said.
A few of Reich’s favorite nonfiction books:
Research, research, research! Reich says, don’t be afraid of research. It’s like solving a puzzle.
After Reich chooses her subject, she thinks about primary and secondary sources. Some primary sources are speeches, memoirs, letters, diaries, government records, newspaper articles, and interviews. Reich uses secondary sources too. “If I’m writing a biography, I will find the most well respected, authoritative, scholarly book on that person. I will then use the bibliography in that first book to find other books, and I’ll read at least three or four books on my subject.”
Reich takes meticulous notes when doing research and writing. She advises you to keep track of all your quotes and keep track of your bibliography. Your editor is going to want a bibliography!
She discussed some of the nitty-gritty details of writing narrative nonfiction. For example, a picture book for ages 3-8 is typically 32-40 pages long, and the word count is 50-500. A nonfiction picture book generally is 32-48 pages long and can be 500-1500+ words. The point of view for a nonfiction book is usually 3rd person. However, there are always exceptions. Her husband, Gary Golio, a children’s book author, wrote Dark Was the Night: Blind Willy Johnson’s Journey to the Stars, in 2nd person. And memoirs are written in 1st person. “Play with voice and point of view to find what makes sense in your story,” said Reich.
Art by Paulette Bogan
In closing, Reich said, “Follow your fascination, follow your passion, whatever you’re interested in. If you can find a way to get that research done and then craft a narrative that’s enticing and interesting and suspenseful and has all those things you look for in a good novel, if you can put that into a picture book or a book for older readers, you’re going to have success.“
Paulette Bogan is the author and or illustrator of over a dozen books for young readers, including Bossy Flossy, Virgil & Owen, and Virgil & Owen Stick Together. Her book, Lulu the Big Little Chick, was awarded the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award 2010. See her work at www.paulettebogan.com and Instagram: paulettebogan123