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.


A Fresh Angle – Bringing “Overdone” Subjects back to Life

In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of having a fresh angle when writing nonfiction picture books. You might think historical subjects like George Washington, Charles Darwin, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Frida Kahlo have been “overdone.” Here are a few titles that remind us of the remarkable and little known chapters in famous lives, still waiting to be explored.

Abraham Lincoln was funny? Who knew?
LINCOLN TELLS A JOKE by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Harcourt, 2010)
Synopsis: Poor Abraham Lincoln! His life was hardly fun at all. A country torn in two by war, citizens who didn’t like him as president, the loss of two young sons, a homely appearance–what could there possibly be to laugh about? And yet he did laugh. Lincoln wasn’t just one of our greatest presidents. He was a comic storyteller, a lover of jokes, someone who could lighten a grim situation with a clever quip. What better way to deal with a hard life than to find the humor in it?

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.

A true tale of the man so often portrayed in tall tales and legends

DANIEL BOONE’S GREAT ESCAPE by Michael Spradlin, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Walker, 2008)
Synopsis: While out hunting buffalo one day, the great Wild West explorer Daniel Boone was captured by powerful Shawnee warriors. Enraged by the settlers’ murder of one of their own, the Shawnee chief decided to take Boone hostage as revenge. Even though he was eventually adopted by the Shawnee and grew accustomed to their way of life, Boone was constantly concerned about the safety of his family and friends. So when he heard that the Shawnee were preparing to attack the settlers in an attempt to regain their land, Boone decided to escape. Over four long days, he navigated the cruel landscape—crossing wide rivers, hiding in tall grass or trees, covering his footsteps at every turn, and never looking back but all the while knowing that the angry warriors were in hot pursuit.

This little-known episode from the life of one of our most famous Western heroes provides a balanced look at a difficult time in our history, while presenting a stunning act of courage that will keep young readers on the edge of their seats.

Ah, Teddy’s inspiration behind the national parks system

CAMPING WITH THE PRESIDENT by Ginger Wadsworth, illustrated by Karen Dugan (Calkins Creek, 2009)
Synopsis: Imagine a U.S. president on a camping trip. It seems unlikely today, but in May 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt dismissed his Secret Service men and sent away reporters and dignitaries to go camping with John Muir, the world-famous naturalist. For three glorious nights and four days in California’s Yosemite National Park, the two men talked about birds, giant sequoia trees, glaciers, as well as the importance of preserving wilderness for future generations. Setting aside new national parks and monuments became one of the cornerstones of Roosevelt’s presidency and was a direct result of this camping trip. Check out the book trailer:

Want to know why Washington never smiled?
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S TEETH by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora, illustrated by Brock Cole (F,S,&G, 2003)
School Library Journal Summary: K-Gr 5-In 28 rhymed, four-line stanzas, Chandra and Comora tell the sad story of George Washington’s teeth. Beginning with the onset of the Revolutionary War, the countdown takes poor George from just about a mouthful of painful, rotten teeth to a state of complete “tooflessness”-and then to a pair of entirely successful dentures. Cole’s watercolor cartoon illustrations are just right, giving comic vent to George’s despair, hopelessness, fevered attempts at finding his teeth, and final triumphant, toothy strut at a ball. A beautifully illustrated four-page time line shows portraits of the dentally challenged first president and photos of his homegrown, incredibly uncomfortable-looking dentures, made of gold and hippopotamus ivory. (Contrary to legend, Washington never had wooden ones.) Given that his death was probably hastened by an untreated infection from old root fragments in his gums, this is not only a historical treatise, but also a great lesson in dental hygiene.

Through the eyes of Twain’s daughter…

THE EXTRAORDINARY MARK TWAIN (ACCORDING TO SUZY)by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Synopsis: Susy Clemens thought the world was wrong about her papa. They saw Mark Twain as “a humorist joking at everything.” But he was so much more, and Susy was determined to set the record straight. In a journal she kept under her pillow, Susy documented her world-famous father-from his habits (good and bad!) to his writing routine to their family’s colorful home life. Her frank, funny, tender biography (which came to be one of Twain’s most prized possessions) gives rare insight and an unforgettable perspective on an American icon. Inserts with excerpts from Susy’s actual journal give added appeal.

ONE BEETLE TOO MANY: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF CHARLES DARWIN by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman (Candlewick, 2009)

From Booklist: Darwin’s legendary five-year voyage to South America aboard the Beagle forms the centerpiece of this informative picture book for confident readers. Lasky begins with Darwin’s childhood as a poor but remarkably curious student; he landed his spot as the naturalist on the Beagle more due to his enthusiasm than any standing in the scientific field. With clarity and style, Lasky recounts the puzzling things that he found on the trip, explores the questions he began asking, and hints at the conclusions he would arrive at, both in terms of biology and geology. Trueman’s skillful blend of inks, watercolors, pencils, gouache, and collage nicely capture Darwin’s fascination with the natural world, with fanciful scenes of Darwin peering through ferns, exploring islands, and even riding a giant turtle. With only a quick rundown of the hullabaloo surrounding the publication of The Origin of Species, the focus here is clearly on Darwin’s travels, and this accessible jaunt will easily situate the man as a natural adventurer in kids’ minds before he becomes just another stuffy old scientist. Grades 3-5

Now, here’s a fresh look at Mexico’s famous female painter
ME, FRIDA by Amy Novesky, illustrated by David Diaz (Abrams, 2010)

Synopsis: Like a tiny bird in a big city, Frida Kahlo feels lost and lonely when she arrives in San Francisco with her husband, the famous artist Diego Rivera. It is the first time she has left her home in Mexico. And Frida wants to be a painter too.

But as Frida begins to explore San Francisco on her own, she discovers more than the beauty, diversity, and exuberance of America. She finds the inspiration she needs to become one of the most celebrated artists of all time.

Me, Frida is an exhilarating true story that encourages children to believe in themselves so they can make their own dreams soar.