Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Nonfiction in a visual world

I've been writing nonfiction for children for (gasp) 36 years, and how things have changed! My first book, for ages 8 to 12, had 95 pages, with black-and-white pencil drawings about every other spread. A full text page in that book had almost 400 words, and there were plenty of those pages.

Nonfiction books today are certainly beautiful, with entire pages swathed in beautiful photos or glorious art, barely sullied by the type that tells the stories we relate, the facts we want so passionately to convey. I've agonized over this problem often in recent years, but more important that agonizing is finding ways to deal with the problem. The photographer I usually work with, Bill Muñoz, has done what he can to help by trying to convey as much information in each photo as possible, taking some of the burden from me. But what about when I work with different visual artists?

A few years ago, I wanted to write about tigers, but my editor insisted that was too limited a topic. The book had to cover all big cats in just 32 pages, and not too many words, please. How to do that and include the kind of information kids need for reports? My critique group came to the rescue, suggesting a small box for each species with critical information such as scientific name, size, and weight, and a small map for each showing distribution. The art showed color and other aspects of appearance, so I didn't need to dwell on that either. In this way, I was free to discuss behavior, diet, and other aspects of how big cats live, in my limited text.

My most recent book, "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone" presented an even bigger challenge, even though I had 40 pages for this one. Each spread would feature a big photo covering most of the space, with a few smaller photos in a corner. My editor wanted two levels of text, a single sentence for each spread that would tell the outline of my story, for younger children, and a short paragraph or two in the corner expanding on that information for an older audience. I struggled with the challenge of condensing the history of Yellowstone and its wolves into 18 sentences, and I agonized about what information to include in and what to leave out of the expanded text.

I fussed to myself about these limitations, but when the book actually came out, I had to admit that this format was perfect for this subject. The text limitations prevented me from including the details that delighted me but might slow down a reader. Only the truly essential information made it into the book, creating a volume that can be understood by readers of any level.

In this visual age, we word people may feel we're swimming against the tide, but it can help if we remember that old phrase, "A picture is worth a thousand words."


Unknown said...

Hi Dorothy,
How nice to have you with us on the I.N.K. blog! I agree that one of the ongoing problems with writing nonfiction is the abundance of interesting facts that beg to be included. You just have to let them arm-wrestle it out.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

A nonfiction book in 18 sentences -- now there's a challenge! In my next life I want to be an an author-illustrator but until then, I struggle with too many words.