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.

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Nonfiction picture books are written with great intention. By that, I mean that everything from the illustration to word choice paints a picture that truthfully depicts something about the subject.

A life fully lived is fraught with a roller coaster of human experiences. It makes sense that the particular focus or angle a writer chooses, and the age of the intended reader, somewhat dictates the tone he/she will aim for when penning the story.

If we can liken Focus and Angle to the zooming in of a lens, surely language, like background music, sets an intentional tone.

Let’s examine a few titles that demonstrate the language-tone paradox.

Mack Made Movies, written and illustrated by Don Brown (Roaring Brook, 2003) 1205 words.
One of my all-time favorite first-lines immediately sets the tone for this charming biography. “In 1900, twenty-year old Mack Sennett was a horse’s rear end.” The first illustration humorously reveals Sennett on stage, literally playing a horse’s rear end. Immediately, the reader assumes the story will reveal a fun and silly side to this man. Certainly, Brown doesn’t ignore Sennett’s inevitable disappointments as he pursued a show-biz career, but the language is infused with a lighthearted tone. “He learned slapstick, a kick-in-the-pants, slip-on-a-banana-peel kind of physical humor.”
Mack Sennett went on to become a director of silent movies, creator of Keystone Kops, and is credited with first hiring Charlie Chaplin.
“In the end, the horse’s rear end had gotten all the applause.”
Would Mack Sennett be memorable to kids without this comedic approach?

Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly, by Anne Bustard, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005) 948 words.
Another great example of language that sets a tone. “A time or two ago, out West Texas way, where tumbleweeds rolled down flat, dusty streets and the sunny sun and the starry stars shined brighter than bright, a good-hearted family howdied their newest young’un into this ol’ world.” The southern drawl in the text vividly paints Buddy Holly as a southern boy, but there is a musical quality to the words that fit his character to a tee. “Buddy stuck to that guitar like white on rice. He played and played and played some more.” “Whoo-de-doo. That guitar set Buddy’s spirits a-soarin’. Soarin’ on the windy wind.”

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Scholastic Press, 2007) 1260 words
A radical departure from previous examples, the opening page sets a different tone, with the image of an unsmiling child. “Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.”
Right away, the reader knows this isn’t a lighthearted story. This is a heavier view of the human experience as shown through Henry’s eyes. The language is simple, and intentionally stark, as when Henry watches his family being sold, leaving him alone, “Henry watched his children disappear down the road. Where was Nancy? He saw her the same moment she saw him. When he wiped away his tears, Nancy, too, was gone.”
As all books for young readers should, the story ends with hope. Hope for Henry and hope for the goodness in mankind, as when two white men, opposed to slavery, helped Henry with the wild idea to mail himself in a box to a slave-free friend. “He awoke to loud knocking. ‘Henry, are you all right in there?” “All right!” he answered. “Four men smiled at him. “Welcome to Philadelphia!”
“At last Henry had a birthday- March 30, 1849, his first day of freedom!”

Fartiste, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
Perhaps the most daring and creative example of tone and language, this picture book biography is sure to make adults blush and children cackle out loud. And, to set it apart even more, it is in rhyme! From this simple stanza, introducing the subject as a child, can you identify how Krull chose to focus on this artist’s…ahem…talents?
“High or low, soft or loud, and sweet, even tart—
He was honing his skill: the art of the fart.
Noise from his backside—wow, what a gift!
His fartistic training was amazingly swift.”
Of course, Joseph Pujol grows throughout the story, perfecting his unique art and performing around the world. The language stays true throughout.
“One day a baker with butter and yeast,
And the next-voila!-he was Joe, the Fartiste.”
Krull has utilized a clever, kid-friendly way of introducing this oh-so-unconventional artist.
“Nurses were stationed in the aisles to scout
For those laughing so hard they completely passed out.”

Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker & Co, 2005) 2179 words
Houdini was a man of mystery and breathtaking risks. Krull intentionally chose to paint the word pictures with just such a tone. Listen to the drama in the very first scene.
“His assistants pour twenty pails of water into the can. They handcuff him, then help him inside. He shrinks, he curls, he takes a big gulp of air. The assistants fill the can to the top, then latch it. Click, click, click- six padlocks in all.” Pure, in-the-moment drama. There is another unique aspect to this particular book. The structure alternates between biographical progression and thematic scenes from Houdini’s performances, which add immediacy and climactic interest.

As you see by these select few examples, carefully crafted language can create rhythm, emotion, drama, and kid appeal to any nonfiction topic.