Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nonfiction Picture Books - What I Love and What Makes Me Crazy

I love nonfiction. I do, I do, I do. And I can say without a doubt how far those books have come in style and readability since I was a kid. Even the books I used when I first started teaching can't hold a candle to the great stuff that's being published these days. What follows is an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of nonfiction picture books. Please note that EVERY book listed here, whether used to illustrate strengths or weaknesses, is a WINNER in my book. I do not hesitate to recommend any of these titles.

What I Love, Love, Love
Here's what I love about the current crop of nonfiction picture books.

Illustrations - Holy mackerel! I weeded my bookshelves this time last year and the illustrations and photographs in some of the books produced in the 80s were downright laughable. The books I'm seeing now are SLICK. There's just no better word for it. Those with photographs are gorgeous. Some writers use their own incredible pieces (Nic Bishop, Sarah Campbell), while others rely on a growing body of stock photos that are just as beautifully crafted. And how about those author/illustrators? Their books come in a range of artistic styles and media, but the marriage of text and illustration produces stunning results. Don't believe me? Consider the quality of work produced by the likes of Brian Floca, Gail Gibbons, Lita Judge, Steve Jenkins, Loreen Leedy, Meghan McCarthy, Jeanette Winter, and others. Even non-readers and early readers can find things to enjoy and learn from in these books as they begin to interpret and make meaning from the illustrations.

Quality of Writing - I truly believe that writers of nonfiction for children have gotten more skilled over the years. From texts for the youngest readers to more sophisticated works for the 9-12 age range, it's clear that these folks take the craft of writing seriously. Not only do they manage to share essential bits of information in interesting ways, they organize and arrange the information in a manner that draws readers in and propels them along. And please don't buy into the notion that nonfiction is boring. These people are terrific storytellers and use their skills to great advantage in producing highly readable informational texts.

If you're interested in learning more about the craft of writing nonfiction, what inspires these authors, and how they go about their work, be sure to visit the blog I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.

Wealth of Topics - For a long time it seemed to me that all the nonfiction texts I read, particularly those in science, covered the same ground. These days, however, authors of nonfiction are opening doors to topics big and small. Looking for a book on the history of the alphabet? Check out Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet. Interested in learning about floating lighthouses? Look no further than Lightship. Are you both grossed out and fascinated by tapeworms and lice? Then you won't want to miss What’s Eating You?: Parasites–The Inside Story. I could go on with a list of quirky, engaging, intriguing and highly entertaining titles as there are many of them.

Not only are the topics covered today more interesting and varied, the thematic approaches taken by many authors are downright genius. How do animals use bubbles? The book Bubble Homes and Fish Farts has a wealth of answers. Have you ever thought about sibling relationships in nature? You can learn all about them in Sisters and Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World. If you've wondered about something, chances are an author has too, and if you know where to look there's probably a book out there waiting for you.

What Frustrates Me
While my love for nonfiction is very real, there are two things about nonfiction picture books that make me completely CRAZY! I don't generally fault authors for these missing features, as they seem to be design choices. If any editors, agents, or other publishing type folks are reading this, I'd love an insider's view on these nagging issues. To some readers, reviewers, and teachers using nonfiction picture books, these choices often don't make a whole lot of sense.

MISSING Page Numbers - I know that a lot of picture books don't have pages numbers. This makes sense since the standard is 32 pages, though some titles fall in the range of 24-48 pages. For fiction titles I don't see a reason to pinpoint specific pages, but for many nonfiction titles it's absolutely essential. Suppose I want to point readers to the pages on the Dark Zone in Jenkins' book Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. How exactly can I do that? Additionally, how can I connect the extensive back matter with the pages of text? The answer is, I can't. Why are so many nonfiction picture books lacking page numbers?

While this may not seem like a big deal to some folks, I find it extremely frustrating. Sometimes when I'm writing a review I want to point readers to a particular page where I've described the text in unusual detail or want them to view something specific about an illustration. In a recent review of Lita Judge's book Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World I wrote, "Kudos to Judge for making even ferocious meat-eating babies look appealing. Don't believe me? Check out the illustration of the Troodon hatchlings being fed by a parent (near the end of the book)." Imagine how much more precise this review would have been if I could have said something like "Look to the illustrations on pages 37 and 39 for examples."

Lack of page numbers also means that there can be no table of contents and no index. Now, lack of these things isn't a deal-breaker for me when I'm reviewing a nonfiction picture book as I don't often expect them, but for books chock-full of facts they are really useful tools. Let's take Nic Bishop's book Frogs as an example. This title comes in at 48 pages and while it has no table of contents, it does have an extensive index. If I'm a kid interested in dart poison frogs (1, 2, 24-25, 42, 43, 44, 47), frog tongues (15, 44), or how frogs breathe (8, 30, 32, 35, 36), I know EXACTLY where to go. For nonfiction picture books written in a more traditional narrative structure (think biographies like Wangari's Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter or historical accounts like Meghan McCarthy's Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account Of The 1938 War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast), page numbers are not really necessary nor are they particularly helpful. But for many kids reading nonfiction, half the fun in perusing these texts lies in their ability to jump around to different bits of interest. In fact, this "a la carte" style of reading is quite common. For those who want to read selectively (picking and choosing specific areas of text) instead of reading in order from front to back, the table of contents and index are essential tools.

**Here's another thought about page numbers. When young readers are learning about conventions of print they need to learn to find page numbers (are they always in the same location?), follow them, and use them to look for specific sections of a book, even a short one. Without page numbers they simply cannot do this. So, while page numbers may not be essential to understanding a story and finding your way around in it, they are vitally important to kids learning to read.**

MISSING Sources - Let's say you've just finished a terrifically interesting book and want to know more. Where did the author get his or her information? Is it accurate? Can it be trusted? Where can you go to learn more? Without a list of sources or acknowledgments, there is no way to know. I wouldn't say a bibliography or list of references is essential in a nonfiction picture book, but it sure would be nice. If you've written a book about sea turtle rescue, it would be nice to know you've consulted with the experts. Now you can argue that Nic Bishop doesn't have references in his books, but the man has a PhD and extensive experience. I trust him. (I know, it's a terrible double-standard, but there you go. Perhaps even a nod to the author's qualifications would help.)

When authors have limited room to tell their stories, I can understand not wanting to devote space to this, but an author's note, end notes, additional sources, etc. often add a great deal to the reading experience. April Pulley Sayre's book Vulture View is 32 pages long. She devotes pages 30 and 31 to additional information about vultures and includes links to a helpful web site. While this section does not include references, readers will find on the copyright page that she thanks reviewers who include the Science Director of the Peregrine Fund, the Director of Conservation Science at the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a professor of wildlife science at Virginia Tech, and the Vice President for Policy at the American Bird Conservancy. Phew! This brief thank you tells me that the book has been looked at by the experts and that I can be confident with the accuracy of its contents.

In the grand scheme of things these are really minor complaints, but they do affect the way I read nonfiction picture books. How about you? Do you think I'm all wet or do you agree? What do you love or find frustrating about the nonfiction picture books you're seeing these days?


  1. So with you on the page numbers.

    I also am thrilled with the quality of nonfiction I can get for the library now compared with what was available even fifteen years ago. It's just a wealth of interesting things. I would have loved reading many of them had they been available when I was young.

  2. I'm right there with you on the page numbers and I wish someone somewhere could explain it to me. Why on earth leave them out? Would it be so hard to fit them in???

  3. I agree about the page numbering, and, as a special educator (in addition to writer), I'd like to see books w/ smaller size pp. No secondary school student, altho' one with a learning/reading disability, would love to read it, will carry around a 9 x 12 inch picture book but would carry around a smaller sized book. And younger kids could hold a book, say the size of an iPad (heh-heh) 7 x 9, easier. I realize teachers and librarians would need more Big Books to read to large groups, but if differentiated instruction is ever to truly work in inclusion classrooms, smaller-sized, user-friendly books must be available.

  4. Page numbers! Yes, that drives me crazy. I actually even want them in fiction pbs, but definitely in nf.

    I agree with Mary's comment, too. Publishers talk about pbs that appeal to older kids, but they design them with a young look even for ones they admit would appeal more to upper elementary. And on top of that, some of the trim sizes are so huge they can't fit on standard classroom or library shelves. Does it make the book stand out? Yes. Is it convenient for the person shelving books? I doubt it. And the person looking for books can't find it in the normal spot because it's been shelved elsewhere in the oversized book area.

    Despite my ranting, I do agree about all the wonderful things nf pbs have to offer:>)

  5. OK, I'll jump in on the references/sources question. It's simply impossible to list source materials in a 32 page book. Kids don't care: this is an instance where the "gatekeepers" to children's literature want to be satisfied, but kids - by and large - don't care.

    So, we compromise with acknowledgments to "experts," truncated resource lists and author's notes. Those things really make you "trust" the author more? Why? In most cases, after researching a project for an extended period of time, I find that the author is more of an expert than experts. This is because so many experts specialize so heavily that they can't see the overall picture. A smart author coming in can take a wide range of materials, extract the interesting/unusual, then present it in a fun way for kids.

    So, we're in a quandry. We want great nf for kids, but we don't trust authors to do proper research and understand complicated topics and communicate those topics well. But experts often lack the wider picture and are often poor communicators, especially for a younger audience.

    I have no answers. But I think the author's note,acknowledgments of experts, and limited resource list are less than satisfying on all sides.


  6. I agree, too. I hope your comments reach the right ears. These are beautiful books. I love reading them and writing them.
    Gwendolyn Hooks

  7. I agree also with the size. Often older ELLs (English Language Learners), who are already trying to fit in with peers, don't want to be seen with a larger book.

    One of the schools I worked at had a wonderful librarian who mixed in the "E" books with the rest of the collection so kids who needed them could browse with the rest of the class at library time.

    Page numbers - yes!

    ELL instructor and writer

  8. Darcy,

    Thanks for jumping in. I guess I have such mixed feelings about sources that I don't know what the answer is. I recently reviewed a fabulous book on measurement. It included a huge amount of history and interesting tidbits. The fact that it just ended left me wanting more. Perhaps most kids won't be bothered by this, but I do know some who will look for that back matter. I see a lot of kids read Jenkins' books and flip to the additional information in the back before reading the text. Now, this isn't reference information, but I hesitate to say that readers don't want or need more.

    Because there is no standard, it sometimes makes these books hard to evaluate. Some contain author's notes. I like them. Perhaps it's because I like knowing about the process. I also think that the lines often get blurred because the standard is so different for middle grade nonfiction. More nonfiction picture books these days seem to target the 9-12 age range, putting them at the low end of the middle grade range. I feel like these longer books need sources more than the standard 32 page books.

    Sorry for rambling. I too wish I had an answer!

  9. I couldn't agree more that the variety of topics is what makes nonfiction picture books so awesome right now. Technology allows for short runs, so a book doesn't need super-wide mass appeal to be printed.

    Thanks for the great break-down of titles and authors!

  10. I loved reading this thoughtful blog.

    Regards quoting references, one issue can be that not all nonfiction books are not created in the same way. Quite a bit of the information in my books comes from prior knowledge (as Tricia kindly mentions), or else what I learn first hand during the months I spend photographing and observing my animal subjects at close quarters in the field (or hand raised at home). Similarly, in the Scientist in the Field Series, I know that much of the information comes from interviewing the featured scientist rather than researching other books.

    When I do research other books I like to stick to university books and primary literature which are not immediately available in public libraries and not accessible to young readers. Other writers may do the same. So it can be a quandary. Space in a children's book is so precious. Yet I realize that educators and librarians may like to know about these reference sources even if they are not useful to children. One solution is to put these sources on a website and refer readers to that. But that begs another question.

    Does it make readers crazy to be forwarded to a website for this type of extra material?


  11. While I agree with Darcy that most authors of nonfiction (for both children and adults) become experts in the process, they don't all. I'm currently researching a nonfiction biography of a historical figure and I've been amazed at the blatant errors I've found in some existing books for children. In some cases, the authors made invalid assumptions that led to misinformation, and that misinformation was then repeated in other books for children. For example, one author assumed that a historical person was a woman based on the person's name, when it was actually a man. In this case, it makes a huge difference, as women weren't allowed to study the subjects this "woman" was supposed to have taught.
    So, unfortunately, I don't think we can assume that all authors get it right. Will including sources in the backmatter change that? Probably not. But it's still something I'd like to see. If there's not room in the book, I'd at least like a link to a website that does provide that information.

  12. Just commenting to say that I've been to your blog a few times, and just today, in the 5th grade class I subbed in, I stumbled upon the book "Miss Rumphius." i read it to the class and we all enjoyed it.

    Now I get your blog title. :)

    ...make the world more beautiful...

  13. As a school librarian who teaches information literacy skills, page numbers are an issue. We use the Big 6 model and start as early as gr. 1 & 2 with the idea of producing a poster, a picture, or different kinds of products--not just "reports." During the information gathering/note-taking process, we direct kids to capture facts that pertain to their topic and ask them to record the page number from the reference where they found the information. I do hear, "Mrs. P, this page doesn't have a number. What should I put down?"

    Also,we require a resource page or 'works cited' list with all projects. In an age where "" is the norm for students, I appreciate books that model giving credit to the sources that were consulted. I actually see this in most of the nonfiction picture books I read these days.

  14. Lack of page numbers drives me bonkers. Not having an appendix with further information makes me crazy as well. Camille's comment is spot on about siting sources. I stopped Ralph Fletcher in his slide presentation to point out how his image of a newspaper clipping sited the source in his handwriting.

  15. Hi Tricia,
    Thanks for for this - I picked it up from a fried on Facebook. I'd just add two things, perhaps for older readers than the selection you've placed here. (Almost) anything published by Dorling Kindersley - they have a great balance of super illustrations and images, bite-sized topical text and biographical snapshots! Anything from the natural world to religion and philosophy. And the second - the Smithsonian 3-volume 'Story of Science' - in the same vein - conceptual side-bars, great images, biographical snapshots. As close as printed text can get to multimedia, I'd reckon. And then I've GOT to spin into DVD's. The BBC's latest is Voyage to the Planets, building in NASA commentary and research, but nicely segmented, information rich sections taking a tour from at least Mars to Neptune.