Posted by: nancyisanders | January 9, 2014

Nonfiction Picture Book: Narrow Your Topic, Part 2

Let’s talk about how to narrow your topic down to one focus that you will write about in the nonfiction picture book you plan to write.

If you already have your topic narrowed down to one specific focus, then you’re ready to go.

If not, then I recommend you choose one of the following three strategies to use during our journey together here on my blog. This is because these are the three strategies I’ll be teaching about, so you might as well take advantage of the tips and guidelines I’ll be offering as you progress forward on this current project.

Three Strategies to Narrow Your Topic.
Choose to write a “slice of life” picture book.
Choose to write a “compare and contrast” picture book.
Choose to write a picture book of “lists.”

Does this sound like a foreign language? To help you better understand what I’m talking about, look at the three picture books we’ll be using as our samples to help guide us along:

The Camping Trip that Changed America by Barb Rosenstock

Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley

So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George

The Camping Trip that Changed America is a “slice of life” book. It focuses on one single event (a camping trip) of a broad topic (America’s National Parks). These types of picture books are called “slice of life.”

If you want to choose to write a “slice of life” picture book, choose one significant event within your broad topic. This should take place in a week or less. If your event takes place over several months or more, it’s still probably too broad of a topic. Narrow it down to something significant that happened in a very short period of time.

This event will be your fresh and unique angle on your topic.

Those Rebels John and Tom is a “compare and contrast” book. It takes one universal theme (rebels) and compares the similarities and differences between two people (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson).

If you’re writing about a topic that involves two key people or two organizations or two animals, etc. you can choose to narrow your topic by focusing on those two elements. For example, if your broad topic is building the transcontinental railroad, you could choose the two different teams who worked on it, one from the east and one from the west.

First you would choose the two different main “characters” you want to compare and contrast.

Next, you would choose the universal theme to focus on. If you’re not sure what a universal theme is or how to brainstorm ideas for this, I go into great depth on this in Section 7.1 Fresh and Original on pages 164-171 in my how-to book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Beginning Readers and Chapter Books.

You can also find helpful lists of universal themes on the site of my favorite writing buddies, Writing According to Humphrey and Friends.

Armed with information about universal themes, choose one universal theme for this target age and use as your narrow focus for your nonfiction picture book.

This will be your fresh and unique angle on this broad topic.

So You Want to Be President is a book of lists. You may choose the broad topic of “women in the American Revolution” or “teachers in the space program.” You might have a list of people or events that you want to write about in your nonfiction picture book.

If you choose to write a book of lists, once again, you need to choose a universal theme to narrow your focus. For example, in our sample book, So You Want to Be President, the broad topic is “American Presidents.” The universal theme is how every kid wants to grow up to be president. This universal theme is the thread that ties the entire list together.

Narrow the topic of your list by choosing one universal theme to tie your list together.

This will be the fresh and unique angle on your broad topic.


  1. Great post, Nancy. Thanks. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Thanks for a detailed and clear description of how to do this!

  3. Glad you’re finding this helpful…it’s actually not a very difficult task to do, so that’s where a few simple pointers can help take what FEELS like a mountain to climb into something very achievable.

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