Non-Fiction Picture Books.

Non-Fiction Picture Books.

Today we’re going to look at non-fiction picture books for older picture book aged children, generally aged 4-8 years.

List books, alphabet books, and counting books can also be non-fiction, but these are for younger children’s and we’ll be looking at early childhood books next week.

It’s possible to say that at least 30 per cent of all picture books are non-fiction.

They can fall into the following categories:

Biographies of living or dead people, either famous, obscure, or even completely unknown, such as a family member. Perhaps you could write about your grandfather.

Events (historical, current, or ongoing), such as building the Great Wall of China, climbing mount Everest, or dog shows. 

Nature and science, such as dinosaurs or outer space.

Places, such as the Sahara Desert, Mantua (Italy) or Mantua (NJ).

Memoirs of your own childhood.

They can be straightforward non-fiction.

They can be personal essays,  in which you frame the subject within your own personal experience. For example you might frame your book on dinosaurs within an account of your first visit to the Natural History Museum.

I have a personal project about the Indanapolis 500 motor race, which I frame within the story of when my father took me to the motor show in London in the 1960s.

They can be braided essays, in which you weave two plot lines together, for example you might combine Mantua, Italy and Mantua, NJ for the purposes of comparison.

You want to try to bring something new to the field. For example there are a million picture books about dinosaurs, both fiction and non-fiction. What could you bring the subject that is new?

For example, you might make your book about fossilized dinosaur poop. The subject has been covered, although you could still take your own slant on it.

I’m serious. Fossilized poop is called Coprolite, and the study is Fossil Fecal Forensics.

You could write non-fiction about fiction. For example you could write a book about Dracula (a fictional character), but show ways in which he’s been portrayed in books and movies.

The problem with memoirs as picture books is that we have limited memories of when we were picture book age. If the events you want to write about are not your own memories, but they’re based on stories told to you by family members, then these could be called received memoirs. If you want to write a received memoir, then you should frame it as such. You could start with something like: My mother told me that I did this…

Be aware that memoirs are intended to explore the events in the narrative, and derive new meaning from them.

BTW: The most popular subject for student children’s writers is ‘the first day at kindergarden.’

They usually follow this format:

1: “Hurry up or you’ll be late for your first day of kindergarten!” says Emily’s mom from out side the door.

2: Emily doesn’t want to go. She says she’s sick, or can’t find the right clothes.

3: Eventually she goes down to breakfast where her mom is cooking pancakes, and father is reading the newspaper. Her father says, “You have to eat a good breakfast before school.”

4: Emily arrives at school. She’s terrified of all the big kids.

5: She makes a friend.

6: Back at home, she tells her mom that she’s really excited to go back to school the next day.

Can you bring something completely new to this narrative? Of course.

Truth and Fact.

I know that sometimes honesty can be really difficult, but I always keep in mind the idea that as soon as I stop being honest the reader will know.

But even if the reader does not know, then I will know.

In the current era readers have become intensely interested in what REALLY happened, and Non-fiction, memoirs, personal experience, and biography, are now more marketable than fiction.

It could be that after spending a lifetime watching TV and movies, we have become overstuffed with drama, and its predictable plot progressions. 

We know when to expect the turning points in Hollywood movies and prime time TV. We know to expect escalating conflicts leading to a climax.  We know that the guy in the white hat is usually going to win, and we know how to read the signals when he isn’t going to.

We’re also fed news and sport on the TV, 24 hours a day if we want.

In those fields we know who the good guys and who the bad guys are, but in sport and the news the good guys loose more often than not, and often there is no predictable plot line to help us predict.

How many election polls have been wrong? About half of them.

How many pre-match predictions have been wrong?

I have no idea. I like sport, but I seldom watch, even so I know that the good guys lose about as often as they win and when interviewed football (by which I mean ‘footy’) players often just shrug apologetically and say, “Aye. That’s fetball for ye.” (if they speak in a Scottish dialect, which they seem to do in my memory).

Anyway, it’s not always clear what is fact, and what is fiction, especially with a government that talks about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’ Hopefully most Americans realize this is just political rhetoric, and not a real attempt to undermine the free press––or perhaps it is a real attempt to undermine the free press. Time will tell.

The problem with facts is that they do tend to look different depending on your viewpoint.

Is the earth four billion years old?

Or is it 6,000 years old––as is implied from a scholarly reading of the Bible?

If everybody in your community believes that it’s 6,000 years old then that probably what you are going to believe.

On the other hand, absolutely nobody believes the earth is 7,000 years old.

The Difficulty of the Truth.

What exactly is a docudrama? Is it a documentary or a drama?

What exactly does ‘based on a true story’ mean? Just how solidly based on the truth is the story?

Can you turn seven conversations into one conversation, for the sake of the drama of the story?

We have to turn to Viktor Frankl: Meaning is not transferrable.

Only you will know if you have been a little slippery in your memoir–––but you WILL know.

At some point every author of creative non-fiction has to grapple with these questions. The good thing for us is that we are all working on early drafts and, even though we need to keep these considerations in the back of our minds, we don’t have to face them head on.

Besides, the mere act of putting something into words tends to change it. 

You will begin by writing about what seems a random event from your past, but as you write you will find that you remember more and more about the event, and as the words mount up, you will most likely realize that your choice was not so random after all. You instinctively chose something significant to you from the endless files in your memory. Perhaps that conversation is still relatively clear in your memory because it still irks you, even a decade later.

If it wasn’t important, you probably would have put it right out of your mind.

So, this is the main guideline: be as scrupulous as can about the facts as you write them, but what you are really after is the deeper truth behind the facts.

This is also a difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography tends to be a record of what happened. The memoir focuses more on why it happened, and what did it mean?

So, there is a distance between facts and essential truth.

What––and how much––is it fair to make up?

I have a friend who wears only clothes made before the 1950’s. His clothes are amazing, and it would be inaccurate to include him in a memoir piece without detailing his outfit at the precise moment that I want to write about.

I could ask him what he was wearing, but in all likelihood he would have forgotten too, yet, working against that is the fact that I would be missing a wonderful writing opportunity if I didn’t make some concrete statements about his clothing on that day. Was he wearing plus fours? a Panama hat? a silk tie? a pinstripe shirt with detachable collar? Did he have a mustache? and was it waxed?

In order to bring this friend to life in all his full-colored glory I would have to make some guesses and compromises. It wouldn’t be exactly true…but it would have the truth in its intent.

It would be less true to leave reader believing that this character is as dull as the rest of us.

Writers of fiction also sometimes need to grapple with fact––in their case for verisimilitude (authenticity). James Joyce apparently researched every Dublin bus route and ticket price for accuracy in ULYSSES.

On the other hand EL Doctorow invented the events in the lives of several real historical characters in RAGTIME.

What you need to ask yourself is: Am I attempting to deceive?

The fiction writer does not need to worry about this, but the memoirist must ask this the whole time, and if you have been working on memoirs you will be familiar with the question coming into your head.

Clearly in a classroom situation nobody will know if you make stuff up––but the big problem is that if you do stray too far beyond the bounds of fact, then you defeat the purpose of writing memoir. You will never reach the deep truth you are after.

On the other hand if you drift beyond the boundaries a little here and there, you will still reach the point of the exercise, and you can always bring yourself back within the confines in a later draft. Once you have reached the truth, you can take out whatever facts or non-facts that led you to the truth.

But you should definitely remove the non-facts.

Writing Exercise:

You are going to write a creative non-fiction text for older (3-7) picture book-aged children. Non-fiction can be a little longer than fiction, and these days the limit seems to be around 1000 words.

Print and bring two copies to class Monday, and we will do a partner edit.