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Writing Nonfiction and Biography with Author Alice McGinty

Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan

When it comes to writing biography and creative nonfiction picture books, Alice B. McGinty, award winning author, is the perfect person to ask for advice. SCBWI Japan members and friends had the opportunity to do just that when she came to talk to us on November 8, 2019.

Photo of Alice McGinty with SCBWI Japan members and friends


Alice came ready, not only to talk about her own work, but to inspire and provide practical advice on all the who, what, when, where, why and how questions we had. She began by taking us through her writer’s journey and her transition from fiction writing to biography and nonfiction. She made the switch particularly because she enjoyed “crafting a story out of real-life experiences.”

There are many steps Alice takes before she decides on a project, the first of which is to do market research. If there is already a shelf worth of books on the subject, you need to ask yourself what you can add to the topic. If you feel there is room for another book, finding a new angle is key. Regarding biography, Alice warned us against writing the person’s life story, but rather “to write the story in a life” by finding a pivotal incident or character trait on which to build the narrative. Alice reviewed a number of ways to do this using an array of picture-books, both her own and other authors, as examples.

The Girl who Named Pluto–one of Alice’s recent biography picture books


Having picked a subject, clearly you need to do some research. Gathering information from written sources is a good start, but it is also important to visit relevant places and interview key figures where possible. “No-one,” revealed Alice, “pays for your research trips. You have to give yourself permission to go places and do hands on research.” But, if you need help with travel costs, Alice reminded us that the SCBWI awards and grants for writers and illustrators which can be very useful. Alice spent some time talking about how to develop voice in our writing, illustrating how voice can change depending on who the narrator is and its importance in bringing alive stories from the past. Alice talked, too, of how to make complex ideas accessible to young children. Using her book Pancakes to Parathas, as an example, she showed how a focus on color, shape and taste of foods was more relatable to children when exploring what families around the world eat for breakfast, rather than listing foods the reader might be unfamiliar with. We were lucky to have the illustrator of the book, Tomoko Suzuki, join us, too, for this session.  

Pancakes to Parathas


Alan Havis, Alice’s co-author for an upcoming book The Sea Knows, was also on hand to share his experiences of working with Alice as a first-time author. It was intriguing to hear how they developed the story together, from initial idea to completed manuscript.

The Sea Knows–upcoming release


Throughout the talk, Alice gave us opportunities to flesh out one or two ideas of our own. Her encouragement and insight gave all of us something to think about, and I admit as soon as I got home, I sat down to do a bit of market research on a possible candidate for a biography.

Mari Boyle is a writer and teacher.