Back to the classroom

Thursday, January 19, 2017
George Ivanoff

Photo of George Ivanoff in front of a bookcase
George Ivanoff

Remember what it’s like being at primary school? The readers you got to take home to help you practice? The books you read together as a class? The comprehension cards with a short piece of writing on one side and questions on the other? The non-fiction books that helped you with your unit of enquiry?

People often forget about all these books when they’ve grown up. Everyone focuses on the trade books you buy in bookstores – the big hits, the bestsellers, the ones you go and buy as presents for the young people in your life. 

But all those educational materials from primary school are still around. They are vital to young readers, helping them to learn and practice their reading, introducing them to new ideas and concepts, taking what they are learning in the classroom and putting it into a wider context. And they constitute a huge part of the children’s book market. But if you’re intending to write for this market, there are a few things you’ll need to know.

You are not going to get rich and famous writing these types of books. They are sold directly into schools and libraries (rather than through bookshops) and the marketing focus is on a series and its educational benefits rather than on individual books and authors. Having said that, there can be regular work for writers willing to learn.

The education market is brief-driven. Books are written to be part of a set, so authors are given series guidelines to adhere to – reading age, word-count, chapter breakdown, that sort of thing. If you’re lucky, you may be offered a choice of topics for a non-fiction book. Or you may simply be asked if you can work on a specific topic. In either case, it’s likely to require a fair bit of research.

I’ve written non-fiction books on topics ranging from astronomy to unexplained mysteries, from the history of aeroplanes to nutrition, from piracy in the modern age to Olympic Game technology, from dinosaurs to fossil fuels. In each and every case, I had a glorious time learning about those topics and discovering things I never knew.

Even fiction will require a considerable amount of research. Chapter books and novelettes often need to fit in with particular areas of the Australian curriculum. So it’s off to the virtual classroom to learn about what the kids are learning.

These types of books are often very specific in their needs. Writing for the award-winning Discovering Geography series (Pearson), I was asked to create a story about the protection of places of environmental and cultural significance. This story needed to encapsulate the ‘similarities and differences in individual and group feelings and perceptions about places, and how they influence views about the protection of these places.’ A recent holiday to Lake Mungo provided the inspiration, as this location was protected for environmental and cultural reasons. But then the research began – looking into the way the area was managed, its history and the plans for the future. All this research then needed to be incorporated into an exciting story that would engage its young readers.

School readers are very carefully graded into reading levels. This will sometimes involve the use of high-frequency words, which you will be assigned. You’ll need to use these words a specific number of times; sometimes several times per page. All this can be quite a learning curve for the writer who has never been restricted this way before.

Every now and then, particularly interesting or unusual projects show up. Most recently I was asked to contribute short essays to a high school English language book, to be published in China. This was interesting in that any cultural aspects unfamiliar to Chinese teenagers needed to be explained within the text.

Another interesting project was a five-book series called ‘Corey Jansen: Teen Spy’ (Pinnacle Press, Curriculum Concepts). This was aimed at early high school boys with reading difficulties. The interest level and topics had to be aimed at the 13-year-old mark, but the reading ability had to be much younger. Additionally there needed to be five slim (and therefore non-threatening) volumes. Each had to tell its own story and be complete, but together they needed to form a greater whole – the idea being to encourage the reluctant readers to continue through all five books. 

Now, think back to when you were in school. Think about all those educational materials you had to read. Did you like them? Did you enjoy reading them? Or were you skimming your way through as quickly as possible, so you could get to the next Roald Dahl or Paul Jennings book?

The challenge as an author writing for the education market is to engage the kids, get them interested in and excited about what they are reading, while also meeting the education requirements and technical aspects of the brief you are writing to. Not an easy task – but such a wonderfully rewarding one.

The education market is an extremely interesting and worthwhile area of children’s publishing. It gives you the chance to learn as you write, earn money and broaden your horizons (always a good thing for an author). It gives you a chance to engage with what kids are being taught in schools. It gives you the opportunity to contribute to the education of the next generation. 

Who could ask for more?

About George Ivanoff

George Ivanoff is a Melbourne children’s author with more than 100 titles under his belt. Although best known for his ‘You Choose’ series and ‘RFDS Adventures’, he has written intensively for the education market. He’s won a few awards, including a YABBA, and has books on the Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge booklists.

George will be running a workshop Writing for the Education Market at Writers Victoria in February 2017.

This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer magazine.