Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Pictures + Story = Picture book. Sounds easy, right?

Writers hear it all the time.” Show don’t tell.” Paint images with your words so that the reader visualizes the characters, the setting, the detail. There’s nothing better than picking up a novel or chapter book with such vivid language that the reader feels he/she is walking in the character’s shoes. But, what about picture books?

My previous posts have spoken to the need for picture book texts to be very short, partly because the attention span of the intended audience is limited. But, even more importantly, picture books are, by nature, visual. One of the biggest challenges for picture book writers is to limit visual details in the text and allow illustrators to work their magic. It feels awkward not to “show” in our writing. Let’s face it, illustrations can offer much more detail about the settings than the limited word count will allow for the writer. And, when the subject is nonfiction, the duty of historical accuracy is shared by both parties. When done well, the marriage of art and text is fulfilling, and rich, and whole. And, the contextual depth of illustrations almost always add to what the reader learns.

I recommend studying ALA Caldecott titles. In fact, you’ll see that I’ve featured a few winners in previous posts. Today, though, I’ve chosen a few more excellent examples. You’ll notice that I’ve chosen titles with historical subjects, simply to show somewhat extreme relevance.

Study these and other nonfiction picture books, paying attention to how little visual information appears in the text. How many words would have been required to write the visual detail? Could words alone do justice? Remember, picture book audiences are drawn to the pictures.

14 COWS FOR AMERICA written by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (Peachtree, 2009)
In 1324 words, the author uses a poetic tone to introduce the Masaii people of Kenya and the touching gift they bestowed on America, following the World Trade Center tragedy of 9/11/2001. The story is powerful and telling. But, the illustrations bring context to the world so foreign to most readers. Would the story be the same without seeing the African landscape, tribal clothing, Maasai faces, the attachment to the revered cattle? Imagine how long the text would have been had the author written these visuals into the text. Would the words have been as powerful as the images? As fulfilling as the illustrations are, this book is a great example of how images add depth and contrast. In this case, the poor, humble people of Africa bestowed their most beloved symbol of life on the richest nation in the world. The story has to be seen to be truly felt.

GOLIATH: HERO OF THE GREAT BALTIMORE FIRE written by Claudia Friddell, illustrated by Troy Howell (Sleeping Bear Press, 2010) 1594 words
The author’s storytelling technique capitalizes on the drama of the 1904 inferno that threatened to destroy the city of Baltimore. The text is full of suspense and action as fire horse, Goliath, charges through the flames to deliver Hale Water Tower No. 1, then pulls his team to safety after becoming trapped between burning buildings.
Troy Howell likewise capitalizes on setting the scene and introducing readers to the visual phenomenon of fire horses, and the water wagons that preceded the modern fire truck by centuries. But the illustrations do more than snap a picture. Readers see the flames, feel the heat, and witness the facial expressions of the firefighters on the scene. As the illustrator “shows” the story, the reader feels the story, while learning something at the same time.

LEONARDO’S HORSE, written by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam & Sons, 2001) 2632 words
Perhaps my favorite title by Ms. Fritz, this book offers a fabulous peak into Leonardo da Vinci’s inspiration for and journey toward the completion of his famed bronze horse. With surprising twists and turns, the story is full of dramatic interruptions and a surprise outcome for da Vinci.
Hudson Talbott approached the illustration process as da Vinci would have commissioned it. With thoroughly researched detail. The first visual draw to the book is the unique shape of the very book. What is striking about the illustrations, is how much more the reader learns about this historical figure. The backgrounds are infused with, what appear to be da Vinci’s sketches, drawings, designs. By giving visuals to da Vinci’s thoughts, dreams, and fears, the illustrator has expanded on the author’s text to show da Vinci as the brilliant, complex, multi-talented, visual dreamer he was. One of the final spreads in the book offers a visual of the sheer size of the completed bronze horse, with a speck of a man adding final touches to the statue’s back.

POMPEII: LOST & FOUND, written by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Knopf, 2006) 1446 words
The author of the famed Magic Tree House series stretches her writing muscles with this great introduction to the lost city of Pompeii. The story takes readers from day-to-day life of Pomepeii residents, almost 2,000 years ago, to the devastating burial of the town as Mount Vesuvius blows. But the story doesn’t end until archaeologists put the historical pieces together. This is a classic case of a tragic story of yesteryear proving “cool” history for today’s young readers.
Bonnie Christensen approached the illustrations by first adopting an art style befitting the setting. Even non-artists like me can appreciate the ancient Italian feel of the frescoe art, which was popular thousands of years ago. The images feel old and worn, promising a peak into the past. A great way for young readers to get a feel for a story so distant in both time and geography.