Previously published at Gotta Write Network

Copyright 2002

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By Richelle Putnam


Today young people are reading non-fiction just for the fun of it.  They want to know why ice doesn’t sink, why ashes don’t burn, and how birds find their way during migration.  A writer’s mission is to present interesting, but sometimes boring facts, in a way that grabs a child’s attention.  Easy?  How many times have you tried explaining something to a child, but lost him at, “Did you know?”  Children’s attention span may be very short, but curiosity has driven them ever since they were babes.  They soak up the world around them more than sponges.  They are oceans, able to receive information like heavy rains, and yet never overflow.  Editors know this.  Publishers know this.  Teachers know this.  Writers must also know this.

Non-fiction articles have been written on almost every subject in the universe, so finding a distinctive concept that hasn’t been overused is quite a challenge.  So how does a non-fiction writer find interesting subjects?  One way is to study adult non-fiction, focusing on one highlight, and tackling it with the aggression of a pro football player.  Take for instance, the broad subject of dreams.  Freud proposed that dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious.”  What does that mean to a child?  Do animals dream?  What happens to your body when you dream?  What causes the brain to slip into dream world?  What is Rapid Eye Movement, and why is it important?  Why do people talk in their sleep?  What causes sleepwalking?  Nightmares?  Why do we sleep at night?  Does everyone need eight hours of sleep?  As you can see, there are many highlights to choose from.

Animals have always been a favorite among young readers, and because of that, stories and articles need a new twist that editors haven’t seen.  Instead of an article on the care and grooming of horses, how about doing one on spotting disease and injuries?  Much has been written on creating natural butterfly habitats, so write one on raising butterflies, or nursing an injured butterfly back to health.  Editors spend more than ninety percent of their time reading.  Give them something unanticipated and imaginative.

Many non-fiction articles for children contain fun experiments.  Hands-on projects are the perfect way to enhance a student’s fact retention.  A scientific transcript on carbon dioxide can be made fun with simple baking powder and all-purpose flour.  Adding baking powder to flour and water sets free carbon dioxide gas, which causes the dough to rise.  Where does the carbon dioxide come from?  As a writer, you answer these questions.

Don’t make the mistake in thinking that writing for young readers requires less time and effort.  You must possess the ability to transpose complicated terminology into simple language.  Usually, parents and teachers will not only choose a young reader’s literature, but read to them as well.  Your article must first draw the parent/teacher’s attention before it ever reaches the child’s.   In few words, content has to be correct, complete, and well researched.   How few?  The ideal length for Chickadee runs from 50 to 100 words, while Humpty Dumpty allows up to 500 words.  Also, sentences must be short, informal, fast paced, and entertaining.  Sound elementary?  It’s not.  But if you choose one highlight as previously mentioned, and delete every unnecessary word within your manuscript, restrictive word limits are no problem.

Magazines such as Highlights, Pockets, Turtle, and Ladybug are always searching for innovative ideas.  However, Ladybug and Turtle accept more creative non-fiction shared in stories and poetry, while Highlights wants factual articles with little or no fiction.  Familiarize yourself with the magazine, reading several issues cover to cover.  Some publications focus on a main theme, and all stories, articles, poetry, and crossword puzzles relate to that theme.  Submission guidelines center more on how to send something rather than what to send.  When considering a publication, request a copy of guidelines and monthly themes.  Remember to include a SASE with enough postage.  Articles relating to themes should be sent many months in advance.  Don’t make the mistake of sending a Christmas article in September.  

The children’s department at the public library retains current and previous magazine issues.  I research them every month and keep a notebook.  At the top of the page I write the name of the magazine, the date issued, and list content information below.  For example, the September 1999 issue of Highlights might include a short story about a little girl wanting a horse, article on raising horses, Kentucky Derby history, and biography on a famous jockey.  Also, I detail whether or not it’s creative non-fiction, or “just the facts, ma’am,” and whether sidebars are used.

Sidebars can run the length of the page, be few words or a paragraph, and are added without regard to word limits.   Your side text might be definitions, a famous quote, graph, puzzle, map, etc., and a great spot to add humor.  An article about the nervous system might include sidebars such as, “How Fast Does Pain Travel?” “Why Do You Blush?” or “Why Do We Turn White when Frightened?”  Kids love added explanations and information, as do teachers and parents, who learn a few things themselves. 

Young readers don’t categorize fiction and non-fiction.  They learn from everything they see and read, depending on parents, teachers, and writers to help them differentiate between the two.  Writers have an awesome responsibility, but wonderful opportunities, when reaching out to children.  Your writing becomes a bridge from a small town in Arkansas to Tokyo, Japan, and the power that closes enormous cultural gaps, and breaks down language barriers.  Imagine being able to make Einstein’s relativity and Aristotle’s philosophy comprehensible to young minds.

A writer that shares the real world with children is investing in thousands, maybe millions, of great minds.


Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News.  She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more.  Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild.