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.

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

My currrent work-in-progress has had me befuddled. That’s a good word, isn’t it? Befuddled. My Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as, “To confuse or stupefy.” Yep, that sums it up.

Said manuscript is complete and it’s not half bad. Yay!  I’ve got a compelling story with suspenseful scenes and historical significance. But, my inner-editor has been nagging that something’s not working. My basic dilemma is varying the action of multiple scenes to avoid redundancy. I can’t disclose the specific subject of this picture book biography, but suffice it to say that the man’s claims to fame were earned in a grand, but physically limiting setting. So, now that I’m in polish mode, I realize I have too many scenes depicting my character somewhat like a bendable Gumby. Ugh!

After a great deal of therapeutic chocolate consumption, it occurred to me that the real problem isn’t my character’s limited setting. The issue is my narrator’s limited lens. Currently, there’s too much looking AT, and telling ABOUT my character. That can be boring, especially for young readers. Maybe it’s okay that his physical locale doesn’t change drastically, if the text propels the story forward. It turns out the nagging voice is telling me to get closer to the character, to walk in his shoes, and get into his head. Instead of the text and illustrations looking AT him, I’ll reposition my narrator lens to look through him. After all, I want my readers to see what my character sees, and feel what he feels. And, though it’s tricky, I want to show my character as others of the day saw him, too.

I’m reminded of the reality TV show, Survivor Man. He’s presumably all alone in some frighteningly remote place, simply surviving day to day. Sometimes the camera is aimed at him. When he eats those nasty bugs, we see the wince on his face. When he builds the temporary shelter, we watch him struggle and sweat.

Other times, he activates the small camera attached to his hat so that we see what he sees, as if we’re laced right into his hiking boots. When he climbs the tree, we hear the branches snap. When he crosses the river on a rickety bridge, we feel the danger in the tremors of the ropes, and his own breath as it catches. His view is sometimes close and sometimes distant, but it always adds texture to the story.

So, here’s my new word. Eureka!  Webster’s defines the term as, “used to express triumphant achievement.” I think it’s the perfect word for my new sense of clarity.


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.