Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beautiful Back Matter

As children’s book writers we know that we are not writing only for children. We are also writing for the “gatekeepers”—the parents, teachers and librarians who help to put the right books in children’s hands. This is true less if we write for older kids. I think books for YA readers often, though not always, bypass the gatekeepers. But I would venture to say that with nonfiction we are almost always writing for more than one audience, as it is rare—not unheard of—but rare, that a teen will pick up a nonfiction book on his or her own.

In any case, this business of writing for multiple audiences is nowhere more important and challenging than in writing the back matter for nonfiction picture books. Especially, I think, picture book biographies. Because of the limited number of words, and the level, a picture book biography has to leave out all kinds of information not only about the person’s life but also about the world around that person. Often the writer has a lot she wanted to say and didn't.

So when we write back matter we seek to fill in some of the holes, to answer questions that kids might have. And also just to tell more because, as others have written about here on I.N.K., we research picture books about as much as any other book, and then do the hard work of paring down. It hurts to let go of so much good stuff!


I love back matter. Love reading it. I'm a nerd that way. (O.K., in other ways, too.)

Some picture book biographies are written at a second or third-grade level but then the back matter is written at a fourth or fifth grade level. This is because kids use them for reports—and although the main part of the book gives the story, the timeline or the author’s note gives them more—specific dates, or background information. Often, though, back matter is written for adults so that they have more information to share with their students and children.

Take, for example, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Hill's text is simple, beautiful: a poem. It is a paean to this wonderful artist. Young readers know all they need to know from Hill's poem. But there are no dates or place names in the main text. It's not that we miss these facts in the text at all, in this case, but I can imagine a child, perhaps an older child, asking questions. Hill wonderfully uses the back matter to give us, the grown-ups, as much of a picture of Dave's life as he can. The back matter is so rich and complements the front of the book so beautifully that we come away feeling as though we have read a much longer book.

Back matter also shows how you did your research—which is almost always for the gatekeepers. It gives an idea of where the reader can go if he wants to learn more. Usually that’s called a Bibliography, or Selected Sources. (Selected because we use so many sources—both books, articles, and web sites, you might need a whole other book—or really, really small type—to list them all.) When you say For Further Reading instead of Selected Sources or Bibliography, that means these books are (or should be) appropriate for kids. Some picture book biographies have both—Selected Sources and For Further reading, or designate which books are good for which ages. I like back matter that has both.

We authors live (not a typo) to put in the back matter the stuff from the Cutting Room Floor. Often an editor (or even sometimes the author herself, or a critiquer) will pull things out for flow, level, or space. But fortunately you can put at least some of those juicy tidbits in the back. If you’re lucky, your illustrator will put some of the stuff you had to leave out into the art. Look at, for example. A River of Words by Jennifer Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. There is so much in the art! I don't know if these are things that Jen left out, or things that Melissa found out on her own, but the bits of poems and other details in the art greatly deepen the book. And Jen and Melissa also give great back matter: A timeline of William Carlos Williams’ life, an Author’s Note and an Illustrator’s Note (which I adore!) and a For Further Reading.

In M.T. Anderson’s Handel Who Knew What he Liked, a book I love, Tobin includes a discography of Handel’s music. Roxanne Orgill's biography of Ella Fitzgerald, Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat (illustrated by Sean Qualls) also includes a "Listening" section, which I love. I also like in Roxanne's back matter that she includes documentaries a DVD of a concert of Ella's as well as two web sites. (I love this book, too. I also love Ella.)

I love fun stories about the writing of the book, and notes about the author’s and illustrator's personal connection to the subject or person.

Some back matter seeks to extend the experience of reading the book, by having readers go back and look at math in the art, such as in Blockhead by Joseph D'Agnese, others have activities for kids to do on their own or with help.

I like back matter that shows the biographical subject in context of his or her world. I love how in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving Laurie Halse Anderson, tells us, in her very deep back matter, what else was going on in America in 1863. (She calls this section Vintage America, 1863.)

As you might have guessed, I'm looking at back matter for a reason. I have a picture book biography of a mathematician coming out in 2012 and while the artist is doing the sketches, I'm pulling together back matter. I'm looking at many books, including the ones I've mentioned here. (I have, on purpose, not included other I.N.K. authors only because I'm trying expand the coverage here. Trust me, I have a pile of I.N.K.er's books right next to me!)

Dear Gatekeepers: Would you please suggest other books that have back matter I shouldn't miss? And also please tell me: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE IN BACK MATTER? Also what level would you like it to be: the same as the text in the book, slightly older, much older, or a mix? As always if you don't want to comment here, feel free to email me through my web site, or my name at gmail.

Now, I'm going back to The Cutting Room Floor.


Joseph D'Agnese said...

I can't believe you wrote about this today. It's something that I've been struggling with this week as well. I also turned to "Dave the Potter" for help. Another good one was "Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow." He gives sources he used to research, AND THEN written, web and other sources for kids. Both artist and writer give their notes as well, just as in "Dave the Potter." It's a backmatter-extravaganza!
--Joe D'Agnese

Bruce Frost said...

Wonderful post! I totally agree about the importance of end matter. I feel that a lot of critics of picture book biographies forget to look at these books as a whole (meaning the end matter is a separate entity). Instead, I think they read only the core of the book and say that this doesn't qualify as a picture book bio. They're wrong in a lot of cases there. But I won't go into that. However, if you look at a successful picture book bio as a whole, you must look at the end matter. There, many holes are filled in and the child is directed to a wealth of other wonderful sources, opening gates to a new worlds. But without the end matter, I think a pb bio may fall flat and deflated. And authors: don't forget the bibliography!

Bruce Frost

Barbara Kerley said...

For an illustrated picture book biography, I always love seeing a photograph of the subject, in the back matter (if photos are available.) Helps reinforce the idea that this story REALLY happened -- a REAL person did this.

Cannot wait to see your new book!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I’m right there with you as a backmatter groupie. I like to see a number of things in backmatter, some of which have already been mentioned:

- a few photos, preferably ones never or rarely published
- a few biographical anecdotes beyond the major life beats (birth, marriage, kids, death, immortality)—again, ones never or rarely published
- dialogue attribution (though I realize there’s not always space to do this line by line)
- a bit about the author’s (and illustrator’s!) relationship to the subject; why did s/he choose to write this book? anything quirky happen during the process? etc.
- humor! always welcome, and sometimes more organic in the author’s note than in the story proper

A nonfiction all-ages book I love is “Ain’t Nothing But a Man” written by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The whole thing is backmatter! The author is a character in the “story” to discover the truth behind American folk icon John Henry. I devoted a blog post to it in June 2010. More and more, we are seeing nonfiction picture books that boast some mighty cool original research (a la “The Day-Glo Brothers” and “Strong Man.”)

In “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman,” I used the author’s note in a structural way. I ended the story proper in 1940—only two years after Superman debuted, when he was top of the world. I “finished” the story in the author’s note, at a higher reading level. I did this because people who have even vague familiarity with comics history before reading the book know that Jerry and Joe’s story doesn’t have a happy ending: prior to publication, the Boys sold all rights to Superman…for $130. That fateful decision sets the downbeat tone that almost always permeates the telling of their story. For much of their adult life, the Boys fought against The Man for a greater (fairer) share of the profits Superman generates; they eventually got something, but most feel it was too little, far too late (it took 35+ years!). It’s bleak stuff. And kids can handle it…but I didn’t want that to be the thrust of the book.

I felt the Boys deserved a telling that, for once, ended on a high note. After all, they created the ultimate American symbol of hope…

Susan E. Goodman said...

Let me add myself to the backmatter groupies. And I'm often bummed that once I do the obligatory selected resources and bibliography for kids, there's not much room for more. One thing I always try to do in the bib--is to have nonfiction books kids can read and good fiction too, thinking there are many ways to learn about a subject or time period.

For picture books I love seeing notes by the author and artist, a sense of what important part of the story didn't make it in there. For some books I've put in some note about where some specific info on a subject was "iffy" and how I made the decision to go with my particular choice--wanting to show kids that what they read in books is not always gospel.

One thing I often wonder about as a waste of precious room is the glossary. Yes it's good to be able to look up a word's meaning, but kids usually don't. I'd rather do something else.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Yeah, put me down as a back matter fan too. I used to think of myself as a history nerd, but now I prefer to say "story detective." And that's why I love good back matter - it's full of clues, hints, glimpses, starting points. Well, I guess that does sound pretty nerdy...

Donna said...

Me, too! When recommending nonfiction picture books, I often find myself directing adults to the back matter.

Nerdy? I don't think so. Inquisitive? Absolutely.