Friday, November 20, 2009

Non-Fiction Books and Children’s Literature

It is a great year for non-fiction children’s books. Two of the finalists and the winner of the National Book Awards (Young People’s Literature category) are non-fiction books. This is the first time a non-fiction young adult book has won this award.

I just finished reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, the award winning book. It is well written, interesting, and tells such an important and incredible story. I love the way Hoose includes so many of Claudette’s own words from interviews that he had with her. It is an incredible book.

This weekend NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has their annual convention. On Saturday, November 21st, Shelley Tanaka receives the Orbis Pictus Award for Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator.

Both Claudette Colvin and Amelia Earhart are interesting to read, are meticulously researched, and both tell the story in a way that creates additional meaning. Both use sidebars and photos to add information to the text.

What makes a great non-fiction book?

I’ve been thinking about this because one of the books I’m working on this semester with Shelley Tanaka is a non-fiction picture book. This book is unique. I can’t find any books on the subject, but it is one that will fascinate kids and I think it will fascinate adults.

I’ve had to choose the best way to approach my topic, find the voice for my book, figure out the structure, and decide what will most interest the child reader. My book is for children in lower grades. Because of this my book will be shorter (32 pages) and my main text will be simpler with fewer words. That way a child can read just the main text and look at the pictures. An older child can also read the sidebars and floating blocks that contain more information.

One of the fun things that a writer can do when writing a non-fiction picture book is design the book so it will appeal to several ages of readers. This way the book can be read on many levels. Two examples of picture books that do well this are An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís.

Not all great non-fiction picture books for children use sidebars. A wonderful example of one without sidebars is Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert.

So, back to my question. What makes a great non-fiction book for kids?
The Orbis Pictus Award says a book needs to have accuracy, organization, design, and style. You can find their definition of these criteria here. Great illustrations or photos, an engaging authorial voice, and a topic that is made interesting to children and teens are also important. I'm looking forward to my next residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. A discussion about several young adult non-fiction books, which we will all pre-read, is on the schedule.