I’m Teaching a NF Picture Book Class! Join Me!

Children’s nonfiction is increasingly popular these days, especially in the picture book form. Yet, it’s difficult to find relevant instruction in writing books, workshops, or classes. With ever-changing styles and creative approaches, it is important to seek out up-to-date expertise on the subject.

I’m thrilled to be teaching a six-week class about nonfiction picture books and picture book biographies at The Writing Barn in Austin this summer. In addition to authoring the recently-released (and, thankfully, acclaimed) STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS (Lee and Low, 2016), and the forthcoming ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS (Peachtree, 2018), and KING OF THE TIGHTROPE (Peachtree, 2019), I completed my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I researched the heck out of picture book biographies for my in-depth, fifty-two-page critical thesis. See, I am smitten!  Oh, did I mention that I’ve also written books for the education market? Or that I have other p.b. bios. and nonfiction p.b.s in various stages of revision and submission?

Enough about me.

I am planning our class syllabus around a primary goal: to lead you to creative breakthroughs about your own current and future nonfiction projects. We will do this by analyzing published nonfiction picture books as mentor texts. During class times, we will explore decisions about:

Choosing a viable topic
Narrative vs. expository styles
Scope & Angle—finding the kid-friendly story
Intended audience (length and sentence complexity are a clue)
Word count and page length
Structure—linear and nonlinear options
Creative options in nonfiction and how they affect the nonfiction classification
Word choice / Tone
How to leave room for the illustrator
Research (where to start, when to stop, how to organize)
Back matter
I will share relevant process information about my own books, too.

Students will:

  • Revise current projects and begin new projects
  • Receive feedback me and fellow student
  • Join in collaborative discussions with classmates (in class and on a private Facebook page)
  • Read many nonfiction picture books—assigned and student choice–with an analytical eye
  • Maintain an informal bibliography with low-stress annotations.
  • Have fun, be inspired, and develop priceless friendships with fellow writers

Class begins June 11, 2017. Last class is July 30, 2017.
We skip June 18 (Father’s Day) and July 2 (for July 4th travelers).

Learn more about the class and how to register here.

Contact me with questions here

NEW SALE! King of the Tighrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

The announcement made by my agent Erin Murphy, of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

I am so honored that illustrator Adam Gustavson will be working his artistic magic to bring this story to visual life.

The announcement made through Publisher’s Weekly.

Kids books ROCK!

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.

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Welcome to Part Three of my latest blog thread focused on craft considerations in nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. Basically, this is my private classroom where I peel back the layers and disassemble successful books to learn creative approaches to truth telling. The more I nose my way into the intracacies of these books, the more my pre-conceived notions about “the right way” to pen a marketable picture book biography goes by the wayside. I hope my observations inspired conversations about this genre.

Picture books are most often told with a very simplistic approach; single point of view character; single story line; consistent tense. But, there are exceptions.

Alternating Point of View A single subject seen through many eyes

 LADY LIBERTY: A BIOGRAPHY by Doreen Rappaport. illustrated by Matt Tavares   (Candlewick, 2008)
Ten POV characters narrate (in first person pov) this clever biography of the Statue of Liberty, beginning with the author’s introduction. Liberty’s story begins in 1865, France, when Edouard De Laboulaye made the original suggestion of a birthday gift for America. In progressive spreads, we hear from the sculptor, the sculptor’s assistant, the structural engineer (Eiffel,) poet Emma Lazarus, the construction supervisor, newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer, an everyday child, and a journalist. Through these multiple points of view, we watch Liberty evolve from sketch to completion, until she becomes America’s most famous symbol of freedom. Each of those ten points of view are told through first person, present tense. Though the dialog is not lifted from autobiographies, the invented voices are based on solid research.

Excerpt from De Laboulaye’s spread: “I share my dream of a birthday gift. Auguste Bartholdi listens intently when I suggest a monument from our people to theirs to celebrate their one hundred years of independence and ot honor one hundred years of friendship between our two countries.”

Interesting to note:
*Ten first- person point-of-view characters
*Present Tense throughout
*Time span: 1865-1886 (with a final spread reflecting today)
*LOC classification: (not posted in book. LOC site indicates classification as History, Buildings, etc)
*3100 words (per Renlearn.com) 40 pages
*Back Matter: quotes from contemporary immigrants
Statue dimensions
Important Events
Author’s Note – Illustrator’s Note
Selected Sources

TALKIN’ ABOUT BESSIE: THE STORY OF AVIATOR ELIZABETH COLEMAN by Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Orchard Books, 2002)
This is an older title but worth looking at as a dramatic example of multiple points-of-view. Twenty-two family members and acquaintances ranging from fellow field hands, teachers, laundry clients, reporters, classmates, flight instructors, etc, serve as point-of-view characters in this creative biography about Bessie Coleman. In alternating spreads, and with distinct invented voices, the pov characters speak as if interviewed post-funeral about their recollections of the pioneering aviatrix. And that, following a dramatic opening, which is set during Bessie Coleman’s wake. Yep, the story begins when Bessie’s life ended. I was surprised by this post-funeral setting where Bessie herself briefly serves as pov character. ‘Bessie eyes the gathering of family, friends, and acquaintances from her place in the photo on the mantel behind them.” This unique setting propels the twenty-two person flashback sequence that illuminates Bessie’s life.

Interesting to note:
*22 pov characters speaking in first person
*Present tense opening scene. Past tense throughout remainder
*Time span- Bessie’s death to flashback to childhood-through adulthood (she died at age 34)
*LOC classification: Bessie Coleman-anecdotes-Afro-American women air pilots.
LOC summary : A biography of the woman who became the first licensed Afro-America female pilot.
word count:  5020 (per Renlearn.com) 48 pages
*Back matter: Further biographical info. about Bessie Coleman
*Acknowledgements: author states that voice, style, speech, and characterizations are all imaginary.
*Source Material about Coleman and about Aviation

Alternating Tense Structure The ying and yang of time: the now and the then

 HOUDINI: WORLD’S GREATEST MYSTERY MAN AND ESCAPE KING by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker, 2005)
From the first page of this p.b. biography, we are drawn into a present tense scene told with a dramatic point-of-view, sometimes called the fly-on-the-wall point-of-view; As if we have walked into a theatre after the show has begun. A narrator is describing the actions on the stage. All the while the tension is mounting as we watch Houdini, handcuffed, lowered into a milk can filled with water. Six padlocks click. “Now, hold your breath! Can you hold it for as long as Houdini? Thirty seconds…One minute…Tick, tick, tick-lungs ready to burst.”
        The following pages take us back in time, with a traditional past-tense telling, introducing Houdini as a child, as a young man, as a budding-then famous illusionist. “He was born Erik Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874(we think).” But, interspersed between the past-tense spreads are additional present tense scenes of Houdini performing his most dangerous feats, told with that “you are there” dramatic point of view.

Interesting to note:
*Six spreads in present tense- Dramatic pov
*Six spreads in past tense-third person pov
*Time span- childhood through adulthood.
*LOC classification: Houdini-Biography
*Word count: 2179 (per Renlearn.com)
*Back Matter: Author’s note titled “Behind the Scenes”

DUEL: BURR AND HAMILTON’S DEADLY WAR OF WORDS by Dennis Brindell Fradin. Illustrated by Larry Day (Walker, 2008)
DUEL! opens with a dramatic scene, told in present tense. “As the sun rises on a July morning in 1804, two men stand ten paces apart on a New Jersey Cliffside. One is Alexander Hamilton, a signer of the Constitution. The other is Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States. They are risking arrest- and their lives- to fight an illegal pistol duel.” There is an immediate sense of urgency in this “now” telling. It acts as a tease-a hook. But we are swifly taken away from this dangerous scene, back in time far enough to meet the combatants and learn about the events that led to the deadly challenge. “The two enemies had much in common, starting with difficult childhoods.” By page 18-19, we’re back in the present tense again- the day of the duel-the day of Hamilton’s death.

Interesting to note:
*Eight present tense spreads
*Seven past tense spreads
*word count: 1225 (per Renlearn.com)
Back Matter: Bibliography (pg. 32)
     The end of dueling

So, there you go. Alternating point-of-view and alternating tense. Both approaches prove that there is no single right way to write a nonfiction or historical fiction picture book.

Next up:
Dramatic point of view- The fly on the wall narrator.

Have you run across other nonfiction or historical fiction picture books with alternating point-of-view, or alternating tense structures? If so, please mention them in the comments section below. Don’t be shy. Let’s start a conversation.

Fictional POV Characters to Introduce a True Story

This post published in 2012

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m that grown up kid who disassembles gizmos to figure out how they work-all because I want to learn how to build my own. But, in my case, the gizmos are books. This blog thread is about sharing my observations as I dissect nonfiction and historical fiction picture books that work well.

Last week, I blogged about a few fictionalized first person picture book biographies where the authors utilized thorough research to step into the shoes and the voices of their subjects. The post created a slew of discussions about whether invented dialog or monolog qualify as fiction or nonfiction. Though that’s a fascinating debate, I’d like to stay on track with my observations about the creative, clever, unique approaches authors employ. If you’re a writer,  I hope you find something of value here.

This week, I’m zeroing in on a few titles with fictionalized point-of-view characters. There are a number of reasons why authors choose to add a fictional character to an otherwise true story. Sometimes, it’s because of a lack of available research sources. Sometimes, it’s just a creative storytelling decision. When done well, as the following are, the stories are both entertaining and informative.

by Robert Burleigh. Illustrated by Barry Blitt (Atheneum, 2012)
The fictional Huckleberry Finn narrates this clever biographical introduction to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Told as only Huck Finn would, and with a strong nod to Clemens’ most famous literary work, the character-narrator point of view is heavy on folksy, backwood twang that lends itself to a fun read-aloud. Huck remains an active participant in this childhood-to-death account, grounded by solid research.

Excerpt from jacket flap:  “I’m Huck Finn, and maybe you know me, or maybe you ain’t never heard of me. No matter. Mr. Mark Twain put pen to paper to tell my story, so it seemed only right fair that I return the favor. Now, I ain’t no scholar boy, but I know some things, most not worth knowin’ at all, except this: the life of Mark Twain.” 

Interesting to note:
*A double page spread “Warning to the Reader” acts as an intro and mini-glossary to the unconventional backwoods dialect ahead. It is an entertaining prelude to the story.
*Character-Narrator point of view
*Present tense (with generous flashback through Clemens’ life)
*Library of Congress (LOC) classification: Biography
*Back Matter: “Editor’s Note” provides a factual timeline.

 MINETTE’S FEAST: THE DELICIOUS STORY OF JULIA CHILD AND HER CAT by Susanna Reich. Illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams, 2012)
Julia Child’s cat, Minette, is our hostess in this whimsical slice of life story of Childs’ time in Paris, though the story is not narrated by the cat. Through Minette’s finicky ways and general catness, we are introduced to Childs’ passion for cooking which led to her enrollment at Le Cordon Bleu. The storytelling is enhanced with fun alliteration, clever refrains, and French terms that heighten the sense of setting.

Excerpt: Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child was a very lucky cat, perhaps the luckiest cat in all of Paris.
     She lived upstairs in an old gray house, one block from the River Seine.
     Day and night she could hear the bells of Sainte-Clotilde tolling the hour.
     And day and night she could smell the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese souffles, and duck pates wafting from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child.     
     Bon appetit, Minette!

Interesting to note
*Third person pov. Past tense
*Time span: a few months while Julia and Paul Child lived in Paris.
*LOC classification: Fiction
*Back matter: Afterword, offers fuller biographical info. about Julia Child
Notes: citations for book’s dialog, all drawn from primary sources.
List of Sources
Glossary of french terms
Author’s Note

THE SECRET OF THE GREAT HOUDINI by Robert Burleigh. illustrated by Leonid Gore (Atheneum, 2002)
Two fictional characters, young Sam and his Uncle Ezra, watch the handcuffed Great Houdini be lowered into a trunk that is then locked and plummeted into the icy river.  With a tension filled present tense approach, covering approx three minutes, dialog between Sam and his uncle reveal the factual events of Houdini’s life leading up to this feat. Sam learns that Houdini’s secret goes far beyond his illusion, to something all people can attain-if only they believe they can.
Interspersed throughout the pages are a hand full of first person sentiments, ostensibly the voice of Houdini.

Excerpt from early page: 
“Is he afraid? Going-in there-in a locked trunk?”
“Everyone’s afraid sometimes,” Uncle Ezra answers.
“The Great Houdini goes where he has to go.”
Behind his uncle, Sam sees people arriving. Then suddenly, every head turns. The crowd opens a narrow pathway. A bubble of voices rises up and pops into words: 
“He’s coming!” “There he is!” “Look, look! Houdini! Houdini! The Great Houdini!

Interesting to note:

*Third person primary story with interspersed first person (I)sentiments from Houdini (presumably all fictionalized)
*Present tense
*Includes invented point-of-view characters
*L.O.C. classification: Fiction
*Back matter: Afterword-one page biographical info. about Houdini
*No bibliography (not necessary in historical fiction)

THE HALLELUJAH FLIGHT by Phil Bildner. Illustrated by John Holyfield  (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2010)
From jacket flap: “In 1932, James Banning had a dream: to fly across the country and inspire people brought low by the Great Depression. But for an African-American pilot-even an ace like Banning-this was no easy feat!”
Told through the eyes of Banning’s mechanic, Thomas Allen, we are taken on a transcontinental flight, the first such flight by an African American. To finance the journey, which would require repairs and fuel for the plane, plus food, supplies, and lodging at various stops, Banning banked on an unusual idea that paid off. But, their greatest obstacle may have been racial prejudice.
*Note: Thomas Allen is not a fictional character. He really was Banning’s mechanic. As Bildner’s Author’s Note indicates, research sources were limited and the strongest source included personal recollections of Thomas Allen. Introducing Banning and his historic flight through Allen’s eyes is both a logical and a creative decision.

Excerpt: The day I first met James Banning, he said, “Mr. Allen, my dream is to fly a plane from sea to shining sea, and this here OXX6 Eagle Rock is our plane. But first I’ll need you to overhaul the engine.”
     I just about coughed up my coffee. “Replace the entire engine? How will we pay for that?” Times were hard, and most folks didn’t have a nickel to spare.
     “I’ve got an idea,” Banning replied. “Whenever people give us food, fuel and supplies along the way, they can write their names on the tip of the wing. They’ll fly into history books right along with us!”

Interesting to note:
*First person POV- with invented dialog
*Past tense
*Time span: About a month
*Author’s Note includes mention of specific sources
Author specifically states that, while based on actual events, the story is fiction.
*LOC classification: Fiction

There are oodles of picture books utilizing fictional POV characters to introduce a slice of history. Here are just a few more worth looking at:

LOOKING AT LINCOLN by Maira Kalman (Penguin, 2012)- I would have featured this book but I returned my library copy before making all of my notes. It was quickly snagged.
THE LEGEND OF THE CURSE OF THE BAMBINO by Dan Shaughnessy. Illustrated by C.F. Payne (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
ABRAHAM LINCOLN COMES HOME by Robert Burleigh. Illustrated by Wendell Minor (Henry Holt, 2008)