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?