Thursday, June 24, 2010

Models for Nonfiction Voice

Nonfiction voice is my passion. Love experimenting with it. Love teaching about it. Love reading authors who slurp us in with compelling voice. Hester Bass does just that in her picture book, The Secret World of Walter Anderson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis and published by Candlewick.

Bass holds us with sweeping, lyrical language, and a touch of mystery.

"There once was an islander who lived in a cottage at the edge of Mississippi, where the sea meets the earth and the sky. His name was Walter Anderson. He may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of."

E.B. Lewis's art gives us the landscape from which Anderson's paintings rose.

"To see a green heron's nest, he would climb a tree. To draw a sphinx moth against a pattern of bullrushes, he would wade up to his shoulders.

Art was an adventure and Walter Anderson was an explorer, first class."

I admit a kinship with the subject. Anderson was happiest, as I am, deep in contemplation of nature. Yet I think a lot of kids will be drawn in by the curious physical details Bass brings. We learn about the mystery meals (unlabeled cans, bananas washed off ships) that Anderson ate on the island where he painted, all alone. We learn about his animal friends: the raccoons and the pigs. We imagine the discovery, after his death, of the fantastical art-covered walls in his locked room.

This is a man who chose solitude, his art, an island. It shows the beauty of nature and nature experiences, poignantly now, because his Mississippi Island is one of those being touched by the oil spill. (Although that need not enter its teaching; this book has richness and connections to many topics.)

For kids who have not had much nature contact, reading this book might be a great way to imagine this love, this world. The book would be a terrific pairing with many of the nature books by Jean Craighead George.

Another place to find some free-flowing, natural nonfiction voice is in the Read and Wonder series, also produced by Candlewick. (Most of these titles originate from Walker, the British end of their company.)

In Ice Bear, Nicola Davies folds expansive language and some culture in with her description of the polar bears' lives. Her language is expository yet the words she chooses, the lack of pronoun, and the capitalized POLAR BEAR make the creature seem like a character, as well.

"POLAR BEAR is a great hunter. It outweighs two lions and makes a tiger look small. A single paw would fill this page—and shred the paper with its claws."

I love her playfulness in another title, Big Blue Whale: "Take a look inside its mouth. Don't worry, the blue whale doesn't eat people. It doesn't even have any teeth." Her language, her perspective, is gentle and rich. It rolls along without being self conscious about form.

Although most of the titles are expository, a few dip into narrative. The Emperor's Egg, by Martin Jenkins, tells the story of the Emperor penguin father's long vigil over the egg and the hatching of the young.

Caterpillar, Caterpillar by Vivian French imparts caterpillar information through a family story about a grandfather sharing nature with his granddaughter.

Any of these books would be good models for teaching children about nonfiction nonfiction voice. Or, you could just read them for their enjoyable flow and information. (Hey, there's a concept!)

1 comment:

Gretchen Woelfle said...

April: Thanks for your shout-out for nf narrative voice.

Several years ago I was part of a group of children's authors who visited Ocean Springs, Mississippi to give several days of author talks at the local schools. The lovely town on the Gulf had been badly hit by Hurricane Katrina, but the Walter Anderson Museum remained unharmed. The highlight was his "hidden room" which has been reconstructed in the museum.