Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books
Continuing my observations about unique storytelling techniques in nonfiction and historical fiction picture books, today I’m turning to dramatic point of view (pov.) Maybe you’ve heard this referred to as third person distant, Objective, or the fly-on-the wall pov. Whatever term you choose to use, I hope you’ll agree that this technique is clever, entertaining, and engaging in children’s literature. And it’s really difficult to master.
Unlike close third person pov, that allows readers to get inside the head of a character, dramatic point of view is more from the narrator’s vantage point, as if he/she is narrating a stage play. In fact, you can trace the roots of this pov back to theatre. More action-focused, rather than character-focused. It’s a clever approach when details about a true event are scarce, don’t you agree?
Here are my two favorite historical fiction picture books with dramatic point of view, both authored by Deborah Hopkinson:
ABE LINCOLN CROSSES A CREEK: A TALL, THIN TALE (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)
by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by John Hendrix
(Schwartz & Wade 2008)
Summary from author’s website: It’s a tale of two boys who get themselves into
more trouble than bear cubs in a candy store during the year 1816. Abe
is only seven years old, and his pal, Austin, is ten.
Abe and Austin decide to journey down to Knob Creek. The water looks
scary and deep, and Austin points out that they don’t know how to swim.
Nevertheless, they decide to traverse it. I won’t tell you what happens,
but let’s just say that our country wouldn’t be the same if Austin
hadn’t been there to help his friend.
This episode from Lincoln’s childhood is based on as much truth as Hopkinson could unearth. There really was an Austin Gollaher, and the episode at the creek really did happen, though literary license has been employed to fill gaps. But, it’s the unique storytelling that most stands out with this book. Listen as the narrator speaks directly to ‘you’, the reader, when the subject’s identity is revealed, “Look, now he’s stopping to watch a wagon rumble by. I daresay, you’ve guessed his name. Abraham Lincoln.”
I think its interesting that the narrator becomes a first-person participant in a third-person telling. It reminds me of the theatrical asides found in old radio detective shows.
From a safe distance, the narrator is taking ‘you’ along to witness events as they unfold. “Here’s Knob Creek, its waters rushing through the limestone rock into a dark, deep pool. I’d be scared to cross, wouldn’t you? But Abe points to the other side of the creek. “Let’s go, Austin! That’s where I saw the partridges.”
Within this dramatic point of view, the narrator speaks to the illustrator, too, “John, could you please stop painting that noisy water?” Interspersed throughout the text are exclamations, admitted presumptions that only a participating narrator could get away with, and even a rewind announcement, “HOLD ON ONE MINUTE! I want to be sure we get this right. Because maybe it didn’t happen like that. I mean, would Abe and Austin really have WALKED across a log over that whirlpool? They weren’t that foolish, were they? No, I’m almost sure those boys would have crawled! So let’s try again.”
What a compelling and entertaining way to draw young readers into an actual historical event. Don’t you agree?
A BOY CALLED DICKENS by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz & Wade 2012)
From jacket flap: Step back in time to the winding, crowded streets of old London….We are here to search for a boy called Charles Dickens.Who is he?A skinny, hungry child with patched sleeves? Yes.
A worker in Warren’s rat-infested blacking factory? That too.
But he’s also an imaginative boy who yearns for books, and who longs to create stories of his very own.
In this example of dramatic point of view, the tone is much heavier, to fit the grim setting. In present tense, the author/narrator invites the reader in, “This is old London, on a winter morning long ago. Come along, now. We are here to search for a boy called Dickens. Once again, the narrator is pointing the lens and directing us, the readers, to follow along.
He won’t be easy to find. The fog has crept in, silent as a ghost, to fold the city in cold, gray arms.” And the story continues, “Hurry! Let’s not lose him in the twisting, turning alleys. There he is, running to that run-down, rickety house by the river. Are we brave enough to follow him?
How could a reader not follow such an intriguing hook? From here, the narrator directs attention back to the unfolding day-in-the life story which reveals the sad and little known childhood of Charles Dickens.
By the story’s end, the gloominess gives way and we glimpse the future of the boy, full of imaginings and hope. The narrator beckons the reader again, “Now, once again, let us follow the boy. It’s a clear, sunny morning. He is walking briskly; his eyes are bright. And what’s that he’s carrying?” It would spoil the story if I gave too much more away here. Suffice it to say, the story wraps on a hopeful note.
So there ya go, two apparent outliers among historical fiction and nonfiction picture books. Two more examples to prove that there is no formula, template, or single “right” way to write a picture book or to reveal history.
If you know of other such picture books written with the dramatic point of view, please add them to the comments. Even if you don’t have a title to add, please join the conversation.