Nonfiction query basics … part 1 Picture Books

Tall GrassBarbara Kingsolver once likened writing fiction to planting a garden in the desert. Meanwhile, writing nonfiction is weeding an overgrown hillside into something beautiful.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. … I’m more weeder than planter. Most of what I write is nonfiction, and I know a few Sub It Clubbers are in the same boat. So in tribute to all you “weeders” out there, I’ll spend the next few months posting about nonfiction queries. This month we start with picture books.

Joining me for this post is Hannah Holt, who graciously agreed to let me dissect her query letter for her picture book biography, DIAMOND/MAN (Balzar + Bray, 2018). This is the letter Hannah used to hook her agent. So, THANKS, Hannah!

Sub It Club query master Heather Burnell recently used the framework “the hook, the book, and the cook” for fiction queries. The same rules apply for nonfiction. Here’s the breakdown.

Opening: Dear Super Awesome Agent (or Editor),

1st Paragraph: The Hook

HANNAH’S QUERY: Before a diamond is a gem, it’s a cheap gray rock called graphite. It only becomes diamond through an intense trial of heat and pressure. Tracy Hall’s life was like a diamond furnace—born into poverty, bullied by peers, forced to work at an early age; however, he took his unique skills and became one of the brightest inventors of the 20th century, eventually building the first machine that made diamonds.

Hannah’s concise pitch hooks us with three compelling sentences.We know the protagonist. We have an idea of the problems and conflicts he faced. We get a sense of the larger themes and takeaways of the book.

Side note: When writing a picture book biography, it’s not enough to highlight someone because they are well known or the first to do something. There has to be a takeaway that makes that person’s achievement relevant to children today. In DIAMOND MAN, Hannah has focused on the idea of hardship and pressure creating something priceless. That has universal appeal for children today and makes Tracy’s story worth telling.

2nd paragraph: The Book: Include your title, genre and word count.

HANNAH’S QUERY: My picture book biography, DIAMOND MAN, is a two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. In one direction is the story of natural diamond creation. In the other is a biography of inventor Tracy Hall. The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase. Diamond Man is a lyrical double-bio in the spirit of Martin & Mahalia and Bird & Diz; only in this story, one of the main characters is a rock. It’s a life-cycle/rock-cycle tale that will appeal to young historians and budding geologist alike. Underneath the layers of lava and life experience, this book shows how journeys can triumph over beginnings and how one person can rock the world.

Ok, wow. Is it any wonder Hannah sold this book?

Hannah’s told us her category (picture book) and genre (biography). She’s also noted her book’s unique structure, which is often a selling point in nonfiction picture books. To help agents and editors understand the structure, Hannah’s picked two comp titles as shorthand. We know the type of voice (lyrical). She’s even given the agent/editor some avenues for marketing (appeals to young historians/geologists). One thing Hannah didn’t include was her word count. When I asked about this, Hannah said she typically does include her word count in the query, and it is at the top of her manuscript, which is pasted below the query letter.

3rd Paragraph: The Cook

HANNAH’S QUERY:  I’m a two-time SCBWI WIP grant honorable merit recipient and this year’s Dorothy Markinko Scholarship Award winner. I was fortunate to have access to rare materials about Tracy because he was my grandfather.

Here is where nonfiction queries deviate from fiction queries. Hannah has shown us why she is the right person to write this book: she has access to source materials because of her relationship with Tracy Hall.

In this section, you should include any information that specifically answers the question, “why are YOU the one to write this book?” If you are not related to the person you are writing about, perhaps you’ve done significant primary research, digging through archives and interviewing relatives. Maybe you have an endorsement from the subject of the biography, or the two of you are co-authoring. Perhaps you have a shared religious or cultural heritage (#ownvoices). Or maybe your authority comes from your work experience, education, or hobbies. I spent six years working at NASA, for example, and always include this when I am querying picture books and magazine articles on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics.

4th Paragraph: Sign off

Here you can mention you have “additional picture books upon request” if you are querying an agent instead of an editor. You can state why you are querying this agent or editor specifically (though I often put this at the very beginning of my query before “the hook.”) Then, be polite. Thank the agent/editor for their time and consideration. Paste in your manuscript. Boom. Done.

If you have follow-up questions, Hannah and I are happy to answer them below. And stay tuned for next month when I discuss novel-length nonfiction queries.

Hannah Holt is the author of DIAMOND/MAN (Balzer+Bray, Fall 2018) and A FATHER’S LOVE (Philomel, Spring 2019). She’s represented by Laura Biagi of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. You can find Hannah chatting on Twitter and occasionally posting on her ill-kept blog.

52 thoughts on “Nonfiction query basics … part 1 Picture Books

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      1. Happy to help. Thank YOU, Kirsten for your excellent commentary. I’d written so many query letters that I started to forget the whys and hows of doing it. And sometimes I forgot to include things like word count. Your breakdown was great! Good things for me to remember, too. 🙂

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  1. Wow, this query is awesome! Any agent would know right from the start they are dealing with a talented writer. Thanks so much for sharing, Kirsten and Hannah!

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  2. Thank you, Hannah and Kirsten, for the break-down of Hannah’s query letter. Those letters can be intimidating and I appreciate seeing a successful query.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this successful query letter. I primarily write non fiction picture books. I have just started submitting so this post was timely and very helpful.

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  4. Awesome “critique” of Hannah’s query. I like that saying: the hook, the book, the cook. Very clever. Can’t wait to see Hannah’s book!

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  5. Hannah, a question for you. Did you send this query by snail mail or email? Do you think it makes any difference about query length if it’s an email?

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  6. Congrats, Hannah, and thanks. I’d wondered how much info to put in comp titles–author? publisher? ISBN#?–but I’m glad to see you kept it really simple with just the title. This was so helpful!

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    1. Lucky, I’m sure Heather will weigh in too, but the key to using comp titles it to use recognizable books versus obscure titles. The agent/editor should be aware of the titles or easily be able to find them with a quick search of author and title. If you have to list the ISBN or publisher to help someone find the book, then you might want to consider picking a different comp title.

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