Wednesday, March 25, 2009

This and That: Fiction and Nonfiction

As I browsed through a few picture books just out this spring, I noticed that writers, illustrators, and book designers continue to defy that most obnoxious of platitudes we children’s authors hear too often – “Anyone can write picture books – they’re so short and simple.” The picture books below present multi-layered stories in words and pictures and the interplay between the two. Some of these books are clearly written as nonfiction. Some are fictional, but present as much information as a nonfiction account of the subject. And one I am hard-pressed to classify at all.

B is for Baseball: Running the Bases from A to Z doesn’t list an author on the cover. Small print on the copyright page lists “Book design by Sara Gillingham. Text by Lisa McGuinness.” This book promotes alphabet books from beginning readers to older kids. It is a history book and a sports book. All the photographs are from the last century and show us the game of baseball (pitcher, umpire, knuckleball) as well as the spectator sport (hot dogs, national anthem, and fans.) Drawings show us the parts of a baseball field. We read about Little League, the Hall of Fame, and the women’s league. Colorful design elements highlight old black and white photos. A “simple” book? I don’t think so.

Sandra Markle’s Animals Charles Darwin Saw (illustrated by Zina Saunders) was reviewed in this blog in the round-up of Darwin bicentennial books. I’d just like to point out the lively mix of biography, geography, and zoology the author and illustrator give to us.

A Tree for Emmy by Mary Ann Rodman (illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss) taught me all about mimosa trees and Emmy who, like her favorite tree, is “stubborn and strong and a little bit wild.” We see a mimosa’s strong branches, fuzzy pink blossoms, and percussive seedpods. We learn why mimosas aren’t sold in nurseries like fruit trees. But Emmy manages to get a mimosa tree for her birthday and we learn how she cares for it. Fiction masquerading as nonfiction? Nonfiction masquerading as fiction? Who cares – it’s a terrific story.

When Louis Armstrong Taught me Scat by Muriel Harris Weinstein (illustrated by R. Gregory Christie,) informs us about the subject, but with fewer facts and more experience. Momma and Sugar start to dance to “swingy music” that “jumps inside my body, rolls riffs on my tongue, and tootles to my toes.” Momma begins to sing scat and Sugar tries it too. That night Louis Armstrong visits her for a scat lesson that turns into a fourteen-page riff on bubble gum. Two author’s notes on Armstrong and scat give us useful history, but reading the scat aloud with wacky typeface and illustrations shows us what Louis was about.

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is the book I find hard to classify. Its 206 words are spoken by two unseen friends who argue about a creature shown on the pages – is it a duck or a rabbit? This is a book about perception – about expanding our perception as we see first a duck, then a rabbit (or visa versa,) as we look as its bill/ears. Then imagination kicks in as we “hear” a quack or a sniff, “see” it flying or hopping, getting a drink or cooling its ears. Finally the two friends wonder if maybe the other was right. I expect a librarian will put this with the fiction picture books, but there’s a lot here that we nonfiction authors can claim as our own.

Reading and writing for this blog has given me a broader understanding of fiction and nonfiction – what it contains and how it communicates. Have you gone looking for books that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction? What have you found?

1 comment:

Anna M. Lewis said...

Fantastic books!
Very interesting post!

(BTW I'm a big fan of my neighbor, Tom Lichtenheld. Went to his studio years ago and he was asking ME opinions about some drawings for a book! So cool to see you mention his new book.)