Wednesday, October 11, 2023

A Roundtable on Structure in STEM picture books

  by Sue Heavenrich
 Last month over at Archimedes Notebook, Elizabeth Shreeve said, “Structure is so important for nonfiction! Otherwise we’re just relaying facts.” So this month I invited her, along with Heather Montgomery, here to the GROG so we could hang out around the kitchen table and chat more at length about writing nonfiction and structure. 
I was first introduced to Elizabeth through her book, Out of the Blue, which highlights evolution. Her most recent book is The Upside-Down Book of Sloths, which you can totally read sitting right-side-up.

I met Heather through her books, initially, and then in person at a Highlights science and nature workshop in 2022. Her picture books include Bugs Don’t Hug and What's in Your Pocket? She’s also written about roadkill and three years ago, when we were locked down for the pandemic, we had a great talk about poop right here at the GROG.
So, let’s all grab our coffee and introduce ourselves before we dive into shop talk. I’ve taught science in the classroom and in my kitchen (homeschooling) and was a science/agriculture reporter for local and regional papers. I write because I’m curious about all kinds of sciencey things, but I’m particularly passionate about bugs! And fungi. And flowers. What about you?

Heather: I am a curious person who loves to share my passion for nature with kids of all ages. I love all parts of nature but have a special place in my heart for bugs and am particularly fascinated with the way bodies work. I have a B.S. in biology, a M.S. in environmental education and over 25 years of experience teaching inside and outside of the classroom. Research is my life!

Elizabeth: I consider myself a student of nature. To me, the history of life on Earth offers the most compelling and fascinating stories imaginable. There’s so much to learn! In college, I majored in geology and went on to a master’s degree in landscape architecture. After working for 35 years in a design firm (plus raising kids and writing a few books along the way), I decided to put that hodge-podge of science and art into full-time writing. I’ve always been a big scribbler, and working in the architecture field taught me the discipline of spare, concise writing. One more essential ingredient—I love children! I admire their joyful, open “beginners minds,” their curiosity and how they relate to the natural world without any sense of separation. My goal is to create fun, informative books that nurture those connections.

Sue: We all start with ideas and scribbles, but sometimes it takes forever to figure out how to write the book. When I first wrote 13 Ways to Eat a Fly it wasn’t much more than a list. Like, yeah – here’s all these different ways to dine on diptera. An agent at a retreat said, this is great but it’s not a book. It took me a long time to figure out how to make it into something kids would enjoy listening to.

When do you start exploring possible structures for your story? And how many different ways do you try writing it out?

Elizabeth: For me, the discovery of structure depends on the initial idea. I start with a deep dive into research. Once my head is full, a structure usually emerges from the gloom when I’m first waking up or walking the dog. Sometimes it seems obvious. For example, a chronological sequence worked best for Out of the Blue. But the approach seemed boring, until I found a question that precedes the title page. For The Upside-Down Book of Sloths I was struck by the differences between modern tree sloths and their amazing prehistoric relatives, the giant ground sloths. So I fooled around with charts until a pair/compare structure emerged.

thinking about structure for Out of the Blue 

Heather: Figuring out the structure has been my greatest challenge.  And the shorter the book, the greater that challenge is. When I can't ignore the idea that one of my questions might need to become a book, my mind typically jumps to a structure right away. That's not a good thing because the brain has a way of latching on and not wanting to let go—and that first idea has never been THE structure that finally works. Take Bugs Don't Hug for example. The first time I submitted it was to Ranger Rick and it was a list of insect parenting behaviors written to celebrate Mother's Day. It took me about 3 years to let go of that idea. Sigh.

Sue: What are some of the tools and techniques you use to explore structure? For example, I use word banks because sometimes that will help me see connections. I also use storyboards to look at page turns and see whether there’s enough space for the illustrator.

Heather: I use sticky notes. I put one idea/concept/example on one sticky note, post them all on my wall or a huge piece of foam board. Then I move them around to see how I can put them together to build to one big idea. I'll often take a photo before I mix the notes all together and make myself re-arrange them in a different structure. I also do this digitally in PowerPoint to make it easy to save my work. I set up PowerPoint slides as spreads of a picture book and map out ideas (one per page or spread).

Elizabeth storyboarding Upside-down Sloths
: I’m a fan of storyboarding, too. It’s something I learned from working in a design office. When an idea for structure pops up, I grab it! I outline and sketch in notebooks. Next I lay a picture book template on the table, roll out trace paper, and make a nice big storyboard. This helps with page turns and balancing content between spreads. It’s useful for revision, too, when you’re reviewing a sketch dummy.

Sue: In addition to doing research about my book topic, I also spend time reading and studying other books to glean ideas for structure. When the idea for The Pie that Molly Grew started germinating in my brain, I began looking at other books that adopted the "House that Jack Built" as a structure. And I always look at what authors add in their back matter, both content and how they present it. 

Elizabeth: Want to know the best way to spend the day? Visit local libraries and bookstores for picture books to study and read. (I’ll also buy picture books - supposedly for our granddaughter, but actually for me.) If a book impresses me, I’ll type it out word for word. By typing, I absorb the flow and can analyze word count, page turns, repetition of key phrases and metaphors. When people ask me to critique their drafts, that’s my advice—get yourself ten books that you admire, type them out, and then come back. It’s helpful for understanding the pacing and content.

Sue: I do that, too … typing them out.

Heather, probably studying structure of a book...
: I spend tons of time studying and teaching about the structure of other trade books. One of my favorite things to do is to find a structure (such as the mirror structure in Liz Garton Scanlon's One Dark Bird where the second half of the book presents information in the reverse order as of the first half) and try to apply that to one of my projects.

Sue: When I wrote The Pie that Molly Grew, I thought I was writing about the growth process of a pumpkin plant. After I finished, I realized I was writing about connections – both natural and human. Do you ever discover something unexpected when you are writing your book?

Heather: All the time! When I wrote Bugs Don't Hug, I thought it was a book about insect and human parental behaviors, but I discovered that my big idea about families could humans connect to each other as well!

Elizabeth: I often cram too much information into a draft. As my brother, also a writer, says…sometimes it’s best to unpack an idea or a page. With The Upside-Down Book of Sloths, I’d included too much information on each page. That led to a major revision which made me realize I need to find the space between the facts.

Sue: Well, my coffee’s gone and there's nothing left of the muffins but crumbs, so it’s time to skedaddle. A huge thank you to Elizabeth and Heather for joining me today. Please visit their websites to learn more about them and their wonderful books:

Elizabeth at
Heather at


  1. This is where I struggle most - structure. I love research and want to do a data dump! Thanks for all the tips.

    1. I think we all do - struggle about structure, that is. Maybe because every book is an individual act of creation...

  2. Great post, you three! Wonderful insights and ideas for finding the right structure for nonfiction. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is so inviting and insightful. I having coffee with you as I'm "hearing" and learning from your conversation. Thanks!

  4. Yes! I do enjoy studying structures. It’s a fun way to revise picture book projects.

  5. Great discussion, authors. Structure is key to PB STEm Ty for all the tips.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful discussion. Loved spending time with all of you!!

  7. I love this! And I love how varied nonfiction structures can be... even if it does make our jobs that much more difficult! ;)