Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

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

Revising like a Sculptor


SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

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

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.

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.

Where to Begin a Story

It’s the toughest initial decision for me when I set out to write something new. Where should the story begin? And, truly, it’s a dilemma for all genres, fiction and nonfiction. The latter is my current focus.

As we all know, biography is the story of a person’s life. Some people suggest that picture book biographies should remain chronological, beginning with birth or childhood and ending before the subject’s death. Having studied hundreds of titles, I don’t believe in hard and fast “rules.” There are as many styles as there are authors.

As a writer of picture book biographies, my openings are very different. I’ve started in the middle of a scene, at birth, and at mid-childhood. I think each of them works.

Ultimately, we have to try on different openings until we find the one that fits our story and compels a young reader to keep turning the page. It’s an organic decision tied to the overall theme, voice, and focus.

Remember that not all picture book biographies are aimed at the same audience. There are books for ages 4-8 which tend to be simpler. And those aimed at ages 9-11 which are most often longer, include more context and subtext, and a more creative literary style. AND, not all biographies for young readers cover a full life. Sometimes, it’s a set chunk of someone’s life.

Let’s not forget that writing is art and the author can and should think outside the box when appropriate.