The Nonfiction Picture Book Debate

Writing a picture book is no easy task.  It requires skill and art.  It is the world’s trickiest balancing act.

To make it further complicated, nonfiction picture books have begun to mutate.  No longer are they books full of facts, but they are beginning to flourish with stories.  HOW can nonfiction have stories?  Well, it’s called “creative nonfiction” based on real information (where most of the “fact” is put into the back matter). 

Andrea Davis Pinkney said last fall in an on-line picture book conference that nonfiction picture books MUST be interesting.  The kids at one of her school visits were talking about how boring nonfiction picture books were, but her books were not like that (and indeed they are not!).  Her books are full of jazz (Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington) and big stomping feet (Sojourner Truth).  They tell biographies in such a way that they have been turned into poetry.  The question that keeps floating through the picture book writing world is this: can that truly be considered nonfiction.

I have written several creative nonfiction picture book stories.  I am a teacher with a big imagination.  I love to tell stories and I love to teach.  For me, there is no debate.  Especially because I know that when I have a group of students in front of me, I better be entertaining!  Or their attention is elsewhere and trouble is brewing!

Plenty of others have weighed in on this debate:

http://www.kidlitfrenzy.com/kid-lit-frenzy/2016/2/16/nonfiction-picture-book-wednesday-fiction-in-childrens-nonfiction

https://nancyisanders.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/the-debate-continues-nonfiction-or-fiction/

But to me, I don’t see the fine lines being drawn in the sand.  I was talking with a coworker about this the other day.  On the one hand, boring facts won’t sell any more these days.  Not with wonderful books like “Locomotive,” “Over and Under the Snow” and “A Dance Like Starlight” becoming more and more prominent.  And on the otherhand, if you write creative nonfiction picture books, the question remains how do you pitch or sell them?

I have written a creative nonfiction picture book based on what we Alaskans call the Great Earthquake of ’64.  It was a day that rocked the world and changed it forever.  There are NO picture books about this day.  And yet, we have earthquakes all the time here in Alaska and the kids are constantly buzzing with fear and excitment about them (like the one we had last fall that scared us all half to death thinking it WAS the next “big one” we’re always being told to look out for).  BUT my story is not just the facts.  My story is told from the fictional point of view of a child who is experiencing the events of that day.  Is it fiction?  Or nonfiction?  It is the facts (I did a TON of research) told from a fictional character’s point of view.  Just like a survivor’s tale.  Just like the stories I heard from my mom and aunt as I was growing up.  Those stories made me aware of that quake of ’64 and taught me how to be smart in such a dangerous time.  Not facts.  It is the stories the kids want to hear.

About jenabenton

I'm an elementary school teacher, writer, illustrator and storyteller.

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