Picture book non-fiction was in the spotlight at a recent panel moderated by children's literature expert extraordinaire Leonard Marcus. Organized by the folks at Politics & Prose Bookstore, the panel included such non-fiction luminaries as author/artist Brian Floca, winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal for his book Locomotive (Atheneum, $17.99, ages 7-10), Richard "Dick" Jackson, the legendary editor who brought us such authors as Judy Blume and such books as Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (as well as Flocca and his "Locomotive"), and artist Susan Roth, who won the 2014 Sibert Medal for her book, Parrots Over Puerto Rico (Lee & Low, $19.95, ages 8-12).
Children's non-fiction "has had its ups and downs," noted Marcus, who is renowned for his knowledge of children's book history and is the author of such books as Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of Children's Literature. In the 1950's, worried that the Russians were beating us in the science, technology and space war, non-fiction was "a very hot thing," Marcus said.
The interest in non-fiction for kids, however, waned in the 1960's and 1970's. Fiction was king in children's literature, and that was reflected in the children's books which won the top literary awards. Milton Meltzer, a critically-acclaimed author of non-fiction for kids, decried the trend in the 1970's in an article titled "Where Do All the Prizes Go? The Case for Non-Fiction."
Now the pendulum has swung back to non-fiction, Marcus said, pointing to the "mania" that seems to have developed around the Common Core. Meanwhile, non-fiction has become more of a "literary form," he said, adding: "It's not 'Just the facts, m'am.'" Instead, authors and illustrators are "actually shaping the facts into a story."
Awards like the Sibert Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the most distinguished informational book for children, also have helped raise the bar, convincing publishers that kids deserve not only a good and true story but also need such things as source notes, bibliographies, etc.
I served on the 2012 Sibert Medal committee and got to see what great non-fiction is out there for kids; I'm especially proud of our winner, Balloons Over Broadway, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet and the first picture book winner of the Sibert Medal, which was established in 2001.
Writing and illustrating great non-fiction for kids isn't necessarily easy, as the Politics & Prose panelists noted. For example, Floca said that he had planned to construct Locomotive around the journey of one crew and one locomotive along the Transcontinental Railway, and had actually done quite a bit of work based on that idea when he found out that the engines and crew were changed along the way. That meant that Floca's structure for the book was "blown to pieces" and he had to do some major re-writing.
Roth noted: "You have to tell the truth" as an author and/or illustrator of children's non-fiction. But just how much of the truth to tell is another question that can be vexing for writers of children's non-fiction picture books. Another question is just how much information you can include in the picture book format. Author/artist Duncan Tonatiuh said he had to make some difficult decisions about what facts were most important in his newest book, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, $18.94, ages 7-10).
The beautifully-illustrated book tells the compelling story of a girl whose family challenged segregated schools 10 years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. It's a key moment in American civil rights, yet Tonatiuh noted that he had to decide "how much to cover when I only had 40 pages to work with." He added that he wanted to "give readers enough information without overwhelming them."
Figuring out how to shape a non-fiction story also is a challenge. Jen Bryant, author of A Splash of Red, a biography about a man named Horace Pippin who persisted in his art despite losing much of the use of his right arm in Word War I, said that each book "is a new adventure." Bryant added that she doesn't really have a method for creating her books except for "sloshing around in a person's life" until "the materials tell you where to focus." (Note: A Splash of Red is illustrated by Melissa Sweet).
While the facts are crucial to good children's non-fiction books, the illustrations also have an important role to play, Jackson said, adding: "From my point of view, non-fiction is particularly interesting because it inspires terrific art."
R. Gregory Christie has illustrated a number of children's non-fiction books, including the recently-published Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood (written by Carole Boston Weatherford) (Whitman, $16.99, ages 7-10). While photographs can be important in giving an artist a "foundation," Christie said during the Politics & Prose panel discussion, "your talent as an artist and your interpretation is what brings that person to life."