How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 3: Research

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book

Hello, writers! I am starting a series of posts on writing a nonfiction picture book. I’m writing it as I go, and I will later compile this on my own website, I think. So, if you have questions, please do ask! That will help me know where I need to be more specific (without being overwhelming). Also, I’m trying to spell this out in a very linear way, breaking down the steps into discrete processes. But in real life, the process is recursive, with steps being repeated, done in a different order, skipped (if a brilliant idea comes to you fully formed–a real rarity), and so on. So think of this as an ideal process, but not the way every single book happens. Thanks for reading!


Step 3_ Research

Step 3: Research

This is my first phase of research, though I will come back to researching many times over the course of writing a nonfiction picture book. And, honestly, I would usually already know a little bit about a topic because I would have chosen a topic I’m interested in. Since I chose trucks as my example topic, though, I’m starting from scratch!

At this first research stage, I’m looking at several kinds of resources:

  • general online articles (I would never use Wikipedia as a bibliographic source, but it’s great to get a general sense of a topic, and it can point me toward more credible resources)
  • a book or two for adults on the topic—or browsing through magazines on the topic if there are any published on it
  • picture books on my topic published in the past five years or so
  • videos on YouTube

And here’s what I’m looking for:

  • basic background information
  • what approaches have already been done to death in picture books
  • what are some areas that might connect well to kids?

(I’m looking for these areas because my next step will be choosing my angle.)

Here are a few of the concepts that I noted in my research:

  • The defining characteristic of a truck is that it can haul cargo.
  • Cab and cargo area are two distinct places.
  • Monster trucks are extremely loud and really big!
  • Wide variety of sizes and materials, plus specialized equipment attached to them.

There was LOTS more that I read, even in my basic research, but most of it was very complicated (to me, anyway) and not really picture book material.

From looking at picture books, I got a sense of what is being done for this age. Here are just a few of the books I looked at.

20180128_073217.jpgSome of these are written for the educational market and sold mostly to school libraries. You can tell those if you recognize the educational publisher names, if you see the copyright is in the name of the PUBLISHER, not the author, or if you see the books are part of a series. I’ve written many books for the educational market, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here.


Series listing is usually a sign of a book published by an educational publisher

When I look at “bookstore” books, or “trade market” books, I see mostly books that name the different kinds of trucks and other big vehicles. Those are for very young kids and are really concept books.


I also see books that involve a fictional element. SUPERTRUCK, which I love, shows different types of trucks and the work they do. But the fiction element of a garbage truck turning into a superhero snowplow truck after a blizzard is the heart of the story. It’s not really a truck book. It’s a book about how even the unsung person (like a kid) can be a hero.

Supertruck (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)) by [Savage, Stephen]OLD MACDONALD HAD A TRUCK uses the song to introduce a bunch of types of trucks (with varying degrees of success in the meter). Cool idea.

BIG RIG involves a talking big rig—fun!

But as far as nonfiction with no fictional element, it becomes pretty clear to me that most of the books at a typical picture book age (3-5) really focus on just naming the different kinds of trucks with images or perhaps a word or two describing what different trucks do.

Trucks are complex enough that books that really try to explain anything about how they work seem to mostly be done by educational publishers.

Because I’m not truly going to write a picture book about trucks, I am doing fairly shallow research here. I’m really trying to get a sense of what publishers think works for different age groups and what has been done a lot so that I can think about what I can offer that’s different.


  1. Read a very general encyclopedic online article on your topic.
  2. Read an adult book on your topic (or a number of in-depth magazine articles).
  3. Do an Amazon search for picture books on your topic that have been published in the past 5 years. Put them on reserve or on interlibrary loan through your library. (Here’s one place where picture book e-books are so convenient! I hate picture book e-books for actual reading. But for research purposes like this, they’re fast and fabulous.)
  4. Watch 10 YouTube videos related to your topic.
  5. Summarize your findings. What did you learn? What most interested you? Which facts do you think have the most kid appeal? Are there clear trends in how your topic is treated? Have a zillion picture books been published with your topic? Or zero picture books? Both can be a sign of trouble, but neither is absolute cause to give up. The goal is to feel like you have a good understanding of how your topic has already been treated in picture books in the recent past.

NOTE: Even if you already know a lot about your topic, it’s worth doing this survey. There is always more to learn, and exposing yourself to more general info might actually help you get a better big picture oversight on a topic you know intimately.

Next up: What’s Your Angle?




About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
This entry was posted in Writing Advice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 3: Research

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never thought to look for You Tube videos in my research…what a great idea! I use all the other methods already, but definitely plan to add this to my arsenal. Question: do I include sources from this stage of research in the bibliography I submit to an agent or publisher, or only the ones I end up relying on during the actual writing phase?

    • I am not a big YouTube watcher for fun–video isn’t normally my thing. But while working on a poem about howler monkeys, I found cool video –amazing, freak-me-out, put me in the moment video–on YouTube and realized how great it was for research. Sheep-shearing was another thing I found on YouTube long before I got to see it in real life. Now I use it as a preliminary research tool, and it sometimes heads me in a whole new direction I hadn’t thought of! I don’t include all of these sources in my bib. I’m mostly just doing general, get a feel for the topic kind of research here. But sources that grab my attention or teach me several new things, I do note those so I can find them later. Some end up in my bib with the submission, but others don’t. When I submit, I try to include at least one or two very credible overall topical resources that gave me good grounding in the topic. Then I mostly include the sources for very particular facts. I do include great YouTube videos, too, even if all I really got from them was mood or sound–no particular fact. Those videos can be great for helping editors and illustrators feel the action of a particular scene or event.

  2. Pingback: How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 12: Cut It! The Long and Winding Read | Mentors for Rent

  3. mrsmouthy says:

    I just wanted to thank you for giving me a clue how to start researching for a nonfiction picture book I want to write! I’ve written a ton of fiction books but am having a hard time cracking into the market, so I’m going to try getting in via nonfiction. I had no idea how to even start. Thank you thank you!

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