Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A beak for science


What makes a nonfiction picture book come to life?

I've been wondering about that for a while. One thing I do know (or think I know) is this: simplicity works.

Take, for instance, one of my favorite nonfiction picture books of all time.

"Birds have no teeth. No hands. No antlers, horns or spines. But birds have beaks. And beaks are enough." Thus begins Sneed B. Collard III's fascinating book "Beaks!" illustrated by Robin Brickman and published by Charlesbridge. It goes on to describe some of the fascinating uses of beaks, and shows why birds need no teeth, hands, antlers, horns or spines to do all that they need to.

Sneed has also written other books along the same lines – "teeth" and "wings". They are all "just" lists. But what wonderful lists they are.

Lists, which can so easily deteriorate into boring repetition in the hands of a less remarkable writer, are transformed into incredibly interesting work in his hands. You want to turn the pages and find out more, more, more.

Why? Because his prose is evocative, clear, and crisp.

Because each book is packed with wonderful information. They are like mini-encyclopedias in that they contain an amazing trove of knowledge; but the way the information is presented is anything but encyclopedic.

And because the illustrations are superb – scientifically accurate eye-candy.

Those are three reasons that I can think of that make the books as wonderful as they are. But surely, there are other reasons, too.

For those of you who might already be planning ahead for father's day in June, here's an idea for an special father's day gift: "Animal Dads" – another elegant book and a wonderful "list" by Sneed B. Collard III.

Sneed B. Collard is not the only successful nonfiction children's book author to use the "list" format successfully, of course. Visit any bookstore or library and look at nonfiction picture books on scientific topics, and you'll see that many of them are lists.

As an oceanographer-turned author, my "training" was in science and mathematics. In those fields, we were always taught of the importance of a good question. So I'd like to throw out a question that I hope will be good enough to spur discussion: What transforms a nonfiction picture book written using the "list" form into a special, creative, exceptional and exciting work?


Robin Brickman said...

As the illustrator for three of Sneed Collard's books, and a new member of this community of non-fiction blog, I would like to give an artist's response. First of all, it is gratifying to know that my work is appreciated. I envy artists who work in groups, such as animation artists in movie studios. When I am working on the paintings for books like these I do a lot of research before the book is sketched out. That research needs to be all the more exacting when the subject of the book is so clearly defined. Some reference is very difficult to locate. Other times there is so much material it is hard to control. That was the case with "One Night In the Coral Sea." My studio was overwhelmed with coral reef reference and I even had to redo one of the fish because I couldn't find the name of one I had painted, when it came time to furnish the scientific names.
I also enjoy creating something lovely when I am painting a creature that is not going to win a popularity contest! I am still loving the Turkey Vulture head, the bats, and the termites in "Wings."
So, the use of reference materials is important to my illustration work, but it is also the starting point for the programs I teach. In my natural science illustration classes, I teach students to begin their own art with reference. That means going to a library or looking at things first hand; not relying on the way they think something looks, or the way they have always drawn it, and not making it up.
I have found that children are hungry for realism. They want to know how to accurately portray something. I love being able to bring an author's words to life, and to show others how to do it as well.

Anonymous said...

Wow Robin that was really insightful and helped me (as a reader) appreciate it more. I think you are right about the hungry for realism thing and I often wish that jigsaw puzzle makers would pay attention to that, too.

Unknown said...

I love Beaks! so much I accidentally ended up with two copies!

Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu said...

Great post, Padma. I love to see how others connect the dots. I haven't read Beaks! so I can't comment specifically, but am interested to see how it ends!

Interesting comment, too, Robin. Here in Japan, My children's teachers have brought things from home for them to draw like a whole squid. A fire truck comes and parks on the playground for first graders to draw (after a tour first, of course.)

Robin Brickman said...

I just read Annie's comment about bringing things for students in Japan to draw! I am so jealous of those children being able to look at an octopus or a fire truck to draw, and in first grades!

Ana said...

Padma: your question, what makes 'list' nonfiction exciting, is something I ask myself in each writing project I work on. I think that among other things, nonfiction becomes fascinating when the facts are placed in a context in a way that now they begin to make sense. For example, looking at 'beaks'in the Galapagos Islands makes lost of sense when you learn that different beak shapes allow different finches to survive in the same area by just eating diferent things. They may all live close by, but since some of them eat (or 'beak'?) seeds, while others gobble worms, they do not compete with each other for food and manage to survive. So, plain facts take a life of their own when placed in a context that gives them a lot of sense. I also think that Sneed's playful words and sense of humor take nonfiction to a new level; and kids love it too!
Ana Maria Rodriguez