Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

An interesting question was posed during a recent critique group meeting. Do all picture book biographies need a story arc? Put another way, does every NF PB need dramatic highs and lows in physical and/or emotional elements? Opinions vary on the subject.

First, let’s clarify that picture book biographies, as opposed to adult biographies, don’t typically cover a subject’s entire life. There simply isn’t space. Rather, these shorter approaches introduce a subject through a specific event, accomplishment, or period of time in his/her life. In other words, the author’s lens is zoomed pretty tightly.

Biographies for young readers are a different animal, and writers can’t always rely on dramatic fiction structure to bring them to life. Forget The Hero’s Journey, Nigel Watts’ eight points to a story arc, or even the standard rule of three.  For one thing, we’re talking about nonfiction and not every worthy subject fits into a tidy, predictable story structure. Nonfiction authors must create a structure to fit the story.

I tend to analyze such questions by studying models, so let’s look at a few worthy nonfiction biographies that work well.

FOOTWORK: THE STORY OF FRED AND ADELE ASTAIRE by Roxane Orgill (Candlewick, 2007)
summary: In 1905, four-and-a-half-year-old Fred Astaire put on his first pair of dancing shoes — and from that moment, his life was filled with singing, dancing, and fancy footwork. Fred’s older sister, Adele, was the real dancer, but Fred worked hard to get all the steps just right, and it wasn’t long before he was the one capturing headlines and stealing the show.

The 2762-word story is rich in details. This is a great example of a story that follows a traditional structure with defined low points and two small climaxes leading up to the ending. It’s a fun and worthy read. Nowadays, as publishers are looking more and more for curriculum tie-ins, I’m happy to see interest in iconic figures as well.

BALLET FOR MARTHA: MAKING APPALACHIAN SPRING by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (Roaring Brook Press, 2010)
summary: Award-winning authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan tell the story behind the scenes of the collaboration that created APPALACHIAN SPRING, from its inception through the score’s composition to Martha’s intense rehearsal process. The authors’ collaborator is two-time Sibert Honor winner Brian Floca, whose vivid watercolors bring both the process and the performance to life.

I love stories that spotlight pre-successes. Here, the story’s climax is subtle, revealing itself after the preparations for the first of what is now a famous ballet are complete. It comes with a simple question,
“As opening night grows near, the suspense mounts.
Will the world understand what they have done? October 30, 1944. The audience gathers.”
It is here the suspense mounts for the reader as well.


THE WATCHER: JANE GOODALL’S LIFE WITH THE CHIMPS by Jeanette Winter (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011)
Summary: Follow Jane from her childhood in London watching a robin on her windowsill, to her years in the African forests of Gombe, Tanzania, invited by brilliant scientist Louis Leakey to observe chimps, to her worldwide crusade to save these primates who are now in danger of extinction, and their habitat. Young animal lovers and Winter’s many fans will welcome this fascinating and moving portrait of an extraordinary person and the animals to whom she has dedicated her life.

In 972 words, the author offers a welcomed look at Jane Goodall, beginning with a wonderful peak at her childhood. The story’s climax is again very subtle, coming as Jane leaves Africa after living with the chimps she was studying.
“Jane’s beloved chimpanzees were in danger of becoming extinct.
They needed Jane to speak for them.”
This climactic statement comes in the last 1/3 of the book.


Summary: This unusual biography of Lincoln touches on the highlights of his life and presidency, focusing on what made his sense of humor so distinctive–and so necessary to surviving his tough life and times. 

I love that this book introduces a little known side to one of the most written about men in history. We get a snapshot of the important stages of Lincoln’s life and how he approached with wit. But, there is no real climax to the story. It is a youth to death biographical introduction with a slant toward his humor.  But, the linear approach still works.

DAVE THE POTTER: ARTIST, POET, SLAVE by Laban Carrick Hill (Little Brown & Co, 2010)
Summary: Dave was an extraordinary artist, poet, and potter living in South Carolina in the 1800s. He combined his superb artistry with deeply observant poetry, carved onto his pots, transcending the limitations he faced as a slave. In this inspiring and lyrical portrayal, National Book Award nominee Laban Carrick Hill’s elegantly simple text and award-winning artist Bryan Collier’s resplendent, earth-toned illustrations tell Dave’s story, a story rich in history, hope, and long-lasting beauty.

For the purposes of today’s post, DAVE THE POTTER, in 1736 poetic words, is probably the best example of a picture book biography that works without a defined climax or story arc. The story focuses on Dave’s process as he created pottery out of clay. Somewhat of a day in the life kind of snapshot with back matter that expands to include some of the poetry Dave inscribed into his pots. Yet, as a Caldecott Honor book, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner and numerous additional recognitions attest, the author’s linear approach works in this story.

So, back to my original question, do all picture book biographies need a story arc?

I suppose it all depends on the author’s focus and intention. And, in some cases, a story’s climax is subjective, determined by the reader.


2 Responses to “Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?”

  1. Jilanne Hoffmann

    I think that Dave the Potter's story arc is the pot's story, the transformation from clay to completed pot. Yes, it's linear, but to me, it's still an arc. And I think the words written on the pot(s) provide an additional shiver of satisfaction.

  2. Patricia Toht

    I'm currently struggling with this, Donna, and so grateful for your post. I'm going to check these out and give them a study.