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 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 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
*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
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

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)


Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

     Welcome to part one of my new thread on nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. Today, let’s take a look at some “biographies” told through first person
point-of-view (POV). I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t a first person
biography actually be an autobiography? Well, welcome to the world of
picture books where good storytelling often trumps general rules of nonfiction
literature. These are all well researched, compelling, lovely books worth paying attention to, but note that, by writing in first person, the author/narrator has stepped into the shoes and voice of their subject. An interesting approach, wouldn’t you say?                                       
     Note, also, that many such titles lack a disclaimer about fictionalized elements. I leave it to you to debate the fiction vs. historical fiction question amongst yourselves. The purpose of this thread is merely to share my observations about creative devices and approaches authors use to introduce history to young readers. I hope you’ll find it enlightening and empowering.
     You might be interested, especially in future posts, by the Library of Congress classifications which may not always align with our own definitions of fiction vs. nonfiction. Note that libraries make their shelving decisions based on that LOC catalog-in-publication classification.

First, a quick disclaimer: These particular titles have been selected merely as a sampling from my personal readings, often limited by library inventory availability. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum by Robert Andrew Parker (Schwarts & Wade, 2008)
Art Tatum was plagued by near-blindness from the time he was a child, yet he became a revered pianist who made his mark on the musical world.

Excerpt from an early page of text: “Still, bad eyes can’t keep me
from playing the piano. My hands get to know the keys, the short black
ones on top and long white ones below.”

*Shelved in the nonfiction section of my local library.
*The copyright page indicates this as Jazz musicians- Biography.
*First person POV- not autobiographical
*Present tense. Chronological from childhood to mid adulthood.
*Back Matter includes: Author’s note,  Bibliography.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer by Carole Boston Weatherford (Walker, 2008)
from the jacket flap: Matthew Henson was not meant to lead an ordinary life. His dreams had sails. They took him from the port of Baltimore, around the world, and north to the pole.
As a side note, the story is told in a couplet style, throughout.

Excerpt from a pivotal page: “I did not sail north with Peary again and again through the frozen sea, charting the ice cap, inching toward the Pole, where no man had stood, for frostbite to halt our mission. When ice took most of Peary’s toes, I carried him back alive-Kokoya on our heels, howling in the wind.”

*Shelved in the nonfiction section of my library
*Copyright page indicates African American explorers- Biography
*First person POV- not autobiographical
*Past tense- chronological from age thirteen until he planted a flag at the North Pole
*Back Matter includes: Author’s Note

Abe Lincoln Remembers by Ann Turner (Harper Collins, 2003)
Abe Lincoln recounts his own life story, beginning with his humble childhood, through the various jobs he held as an adult, and through his study of law that eventually led him to the presidency.

Excerpt from first page. “When I was little, the cabin we lived in was small with one room and one window. At first, I thought the sky was square like a piece of cut cloth. I could only see two birds in the sky and one squirrel in the tree.”

*Shelved in the nonfiction section of my library
*Copyright page classifies it as Biography
*First person POV- not autobiographical
*Past tense- chronological from childhood through the end of the Civil War, ending as the Lincolns prepare for a night at Ford’s Theatre.
*Back Matter includes brief author’s note. Author plainly states that, though based on historical facts, this is a work of fiction.

Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson (Abrams, 2010)
Told with first person point of view as the medicine man brings to life what it was like to be Native
American in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and early twentieth
century. The Native people found their land overrun by the
Wha-shi-choos, or White Man, the buffalo slaughtered for sport and to
purposely eliminate their main food source, and their people gathered
onto reservations. Through it all, Black Elk clung to his childhood
visions that planted the seeds to help his people—and all
people—understand their place in the circle of life.

Early excerpt:  “Stay close to the Tipi,” our mother warned. If you children wander away, the Wha-shi-choos will snatch you.” I had never seen a Wha-shi-choo. I feared them. They had white faces and had started terrible battles against our people. So we stayed close to home and played like nervous young rabbits. We knew enemy eyes could be watching from the tall grass.”

*Shelved in the nonfiction section of my library
*First person POV. Not autobiographical.
*Copyright page indicates this is Biography
*Past tense.
*Back Matter includes Author's Note, Select Timeline, Index
*Archival photos included

Brave Harriet: The First Woman to Fly the English Channel  by Marissa Moss
On a clear morning in 1912, Harriet Quimby had a vision--she would become the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. If she were to veer off course by even five miles, she could end up in the North Sea, never to be heard from again. But she took the risk, anyway.

Except from first page:
“I hadn’t grown up wishing to be a pilot, because there were no planes when I was a girl, but once I saw one, I knew where I belonged- there, at the controls, with blue sky all around me. The day I saw my first plane was the same day I started flying lessons, eager for my chance to be alone in my own great bird.”
*Shelved in the nonfiction section of my library
*First person POV- not autobiographical
*Copyright page indicates: Women air pilots: Biography
* Back matter: Author's Note
*Archival photo

Here are a few more titles worth studying.
 I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen (Knopf, 2012) and
Sky High: The Story of Maggie Gee by Marissa Moss (Tricycle Press, 2009)
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Next time on the blog:
Invented point of view characters that introduce a nonfiction subject.

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

October 1, 2012

If it’s not already obvious from my past blog posts, I’ve always been a nonfiction purist. In fact, I’ve engaged in my share of debates in defense of the genre, most specifically in terms of picture book biographies.

If dialog, characters, or events are created, the book is fiction, I’ve demanded. Maybe brilliantly, beautifully, compellingly written, but made-up stuff is fiction. I’ve even shined a light on the shelving inconsistencies in public and school libraries. Some fictionalized treatments are given a Dewey decimal number while other pure nonfiction, expertly told as a narrative, is shelved in the fiction section. The creative line between fiction and nonfiction is often blurred, even for the amazing librarians who are the stewards of our work. My inner researcher has stomped her feet when the line is crossed.

To a certain extent, the stomping will continue. But, I feel myself changing a tad. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been too hard on the gatekeepers. Too rigid in my thinking. Too tied to scholarly interests. If the goal is to introduce young readers to fascinating people and events from our history, maybe it’s okay to use a dusting, or sprinkling or dousing of fiction, depending on the particular project. As long as we’re honest with our readers at the get-go. At the end of the day, it’s about illuminating a piece of our past through story. Story.  In the short form picture book genre, we can focus on a particular angle, a slice of a subject’s life in hopes that we compel young readers to want to learn more.

Truth is, as a reader, I’ve always loved, loved, loved historical fiction, with its creative portal to our past. But, as a writer, I’m such a thorough, obsessive researcher that I’ve always felt an obligation to stick to the facts and nothing but the facts. As if I’d offend my subjects by adding embellishments. That sounds a little hypocritical, doesn’t it? Hence, this recent self-revelation.

Changing old mindsets is difficult. It helped to take a step back and ask myself the most important questions any kid-lit author can ask herself.
Why am I writing for children?
Who’s my audience?
Who am I trying to please?

My reading log is filling up again, this time with some amazingly, stupendously, fascinatingly written historical fiction picture books. I fully appreciate the intense research that went into these books and I’m bowled over by the creative vehicle through which history is being presented.Yes, I think it’s time to give myself permission to expand beyond my purist leanings. As long as I’m honest with myself and my readers from the get-go.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t care where our books land on
library shelves, as long as they land. And are found. And read.

Revising like a Sculptor

It’s been a while since I posted something new here. Wrapping up summer, with travel, family, and myriad commitments took a grand total of six weeks. In the midst of all that fun and frivolity, I had revisions to do – the third round for an interested editor. I’m guardedly optimistic.

Deep into those revisions, the process as a whole struck me as that of a wood sculptor’s. We begin every new story with a giant chunk of words and ideas heaved onto the page or the screen, jagged edges and random lumps protruding from all sides, each blemish teasing the writer off track.

We tackle the blob with a butcher’s knife, hacking away chunks of scenes, beloved characters, phrases, and plot points. The extraneous wood falls away,  ready to be used as kindling in another story.

We add fresh chunks of maleable words, sometimes from different materials. We dig our hands in, molding this way and that until the first glimpse of a solidified story comes into focus, as if an ultrasound has revealed a book in the womb.

Eventually, we reach for the scalpel and tackle the finery with the eye of a surgeon. We shape paragraph hooks, nix the bulbous middle, add tension to the climax. We tie the characters to their kooky personalities and their wants, desires, and kryptonite. We dot the I’s, cross the T’s, check the grammar, spelling, format.

We reach for the heavy duty sand paper. You know, with a grit so rough it’ll skin your knuckles or beckon a case of wine bottles to your desk, if you’re not careful. We attack those rough edges until a recognizable mold sits before us and within us. A beginning, a middle, an end. A sculpture. A story.

We remove the splinters from our hands and our souls, and file down the random rough patches of our plot. It’s about finessing and fussing now, tinting the layers with a metaphor here, an alliteration there, hyperbole over yonder.  Then we set aside the chisel, the hatchet, the scalpel and reach, instead, for a magnifying glass and a manacurists’ watcha-ma-callit. Ultra fine sanding on one side. Polishing strip on the other. We wear both sides out.

Then we repeat every process until the final polishing rag seems to shimmy by itself.


And Again.

Until the ‘send’ key commands as a voice in our heads.

Then we wait.

And wait.

Until it’s time to revise. Again.