Writing nonfiction for kids

One of the things I love most about working in this industry is the people I get to meet and hang out with—people who are talented and generous and spirited and nine times out of ten just as loopy as I am (I mean that in the nicest possible way).

Tania McCartney is definitely one of these people. We met online several years ago and quickly formed a RL friendship that is deeply satisfying. Tania is a powerhouse of talent and creativity and I feel privileged to be her friend.

At the Canberra launch of Smile/Cry written by Tania McCartney, illustrated by Jess Racklyeft

Tania dropped by today for a virtual cuppa and to chat about her gorgeous new book, Australia Illustrated (which she  wrote and illustrated).

I saw this book when it was ‘just’ a collection of A4 spreads in plastic sleeves. I was blown away by the amount of work Tania had done at that stage. I’m even more in awe of how she’s brought it all together —obviously her ‘bananas process’ works!

Tania takes nonfiction for kids to a whole new exciting and classy level. And she does it in a way that’s fresh and quirky.

If you haven’t considered writing and illustrating in this field, this article could well be a major turning point for you!


Oh, Jen, how I love this genre! What is it about non-fiction for kids? In a way, it almost seems bigger than fiction in terms of scope. The possibilities are just as endless. From style to content to format to the literally endless topics or topic interpretation—it makes my heart hammer.

More than half—14 out of 22—of my books to date are non-fiction, with seven more in production or as works-in-progress. Yes, it’s love. And why do I love them so obsessively? I think it has a lot to do with research. It’s so satisfying and so much fun—but only if you’re researching something that interests you. Readers, only research something that interests you!!

Research finds can be shocking, disturbing, exhilarating, crushing, stunning, happy-making, strange and overwhelming. Fact IS stranger than fiction—yes, yes, it’s true. And the satisfaction that comes with a dedication to research … then weaving the results into a narrative or a layout… it’s so challenging and so, SO richly rewarding.

Okay—hang on, need a tea sip.


For Australia Illustrated, of course there was a stack of research and fact-checking needed. But the fun thing about this book was that I could add my own experiences and childhood memories, too. So it was a blend of commonly-known facts and only facts that I could know/feel. There is an inherent wonderfulness in that.

Even the illustrations had to be carefully researched. I drew everything from the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I drew as a pile of coat hangers) to wombats and gelato and clownfish and Melbourne icons (which I sprinkled onto the top of cappuccinos as an homage to barista art), so I had to make sure I got them right. In fact, I nearly shut down Google, so many image searches were had.


Of course, the other great thing about non-fiction books is that you CAN add fictional elements. Like the proliferation of kids that slid from the end of my paintbrush. I had no idea who they were or what they were even doing there in the middle of my watercolour paper, but they appeared nevertheless. It was so nice to meet them. And they made the book so much fun. I mean, Brisbane icons would have been just a boring pile of Brisbane icons if it wasn’t for the girl in her togs making sandcastles in the sand.

The illustrations for Australia Illustrated were some feat. They began as sketches, were inked, filled with watercolour, scanned, digitally touched up and cut-out, then pasted to digital pages, which I also laid out, designed and sorted the typography for. I even created my own fonts—so this really was a convoluted creation.

On top of that, I added mono-printed background pages (scanned in and pasted into Adobe Illustrator) and much of the artwork was digitally-rendered—probably around half. There are even some pages that are fully digital.

I created over 1000 separate watercolour images for this book, and used all but two or three. I even eye-droppered my own colour palettes from photos I took of my telly during reruns of Bewitched. I also did everything back-to-front in terms of how picture books ‘should’ be created. I mean, I did the cover first! It was a bananas process.

And all this took around a year, including research and fact-checking. Yes, I’m tired and yes I’m fatter but I’m also full-up with happy.


Jen, on a completely unrelated note to my side-track-rant on illustrations, I’m going to now give your readers my top tips for writing non-fiction children’s books. As you do. I hope it gets more writers creating great non-fiction.

And thanks for the chat and the tea, my friend. It was delish!

  • Choose a topic you’re passionate about. It’s vital. It will inspire and uplift you, and your work will be its best. Don’t be tempted to fill a perceived market gap unless the topic is a particular passion of yours.
  • Before you even start, be sure to identify your target age group. Go to a library and look through as many non-fiction kids’ books as you can. Get to know what kind of material, content depth and wordage is used for your age group. It can be quite specific.
  • Check the market for other books on your chosen topic–is the market too saturated? How would your work stand out? There IS room for multiple books on one topic, you just need to make yours shine.
  • If you are interested in STEM topics, they are particularly hot right now. In fact, publishers love ‘experts’ in any field, so if you have those skills, use them. Other hot topics are cultural diversity and ecology.
  • Events, traditions, anniversaries, festivals and current affairs are always popular, too. Think Christmas, Mother’s Day, Anzac Day, global warming, etc.
  • Read as much as you can on your topic.
  • When researching, be meticulous. Keep a record of all your sources and never rely on information found online, not even on specialist, government or otherwise accredited sites. If you find info online, you will need to authenticate it from other sources a minimum of three times. You content MUST be accurate.
  • Research tools may include books (including biographies), encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, photographs, sites such as Trove, Ancestory, census, national, radio and television archives, national libraries, museums, universities and research institutions. You can also talk directly to people if you can find an expert, or if you’re lucky enough to be able to meet someone related to your subject matter.
  • Enjoy every single, incredible moment of discovery–get set to laugh, to cry and to stare into the distance in a state of wonder. Fact truly IS stranger than fiction.


Learn more about Tania’s work at www.taniamccartney.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter @taniamccartney

Australia Illustrated is published by EK Books and will be on sale 1 November in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, with a release date of 28 November in the UK. Hardcover, clothbound, 96 pages, AU$29.99, ISBN: 9781925335217 www.ekbooks.org



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