Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Give Picture Book Non-fiction a Chance?

Non-fictgive bees a chanceion books in a picture book format  can be a hard sell in a Newbery discussion. The Terms and Criteria state that the “distinguished contribution to American literature” is “defined as text.” And in the best picture book non-fiction, like the best picture books and graphic novels, text and illustrations are usually dependent on one another. But in just the past three years we’ve had four out of eleven Honor and Medal titles in which the pictures were essential. This year I like several excellent non-fiction picture books with multiple starred reviews, including GRAND CANYON by Jason Chen (5 stars), BALDERDASH by Michelle Markel (3), and THE SECRET PROJECT by Jonah and Jeanette Winter (5). But my favorite so far is GIVE BEES A CHANCE (good reviews, no stars), so I’ll try to make a case for it:

From the Terms and Criteria I’m mostly focused on:  “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” and “quality presentation for children.” In GIVE BEES A CHANCE the narrator addresses her “best buddy Edgar” and tries to convince him that bees are wonderful. This clever stylistic choice allows her to reach just the right balance of information and humor. There’s  enthusiasm within the text (“Once you learn how great they are, you’re bound to fall in love with them!”) and some interjections from Edgar, usually humorous. In one spread, the narrator presents a nine-step look at how honey is made, but Edgar focuses on just one word: “…did you say barf?”

Analogies fit the age level and make easy sense to the reader. Losing a stinger is “sort of like your hand disappearing if you pinch your sister.” A flower can’t pass on pollen because: “I don’t have arms.” When Edgar dons armor (“it was designed for dragons…I think it can handle bees”) it’s amusing and obviously won’t work, but it makes perfect set-up for a page on beekeepers and their gear.  

Statistics are used judiciously, at levels that work for younger readers. “Just one pound of honey takes two million flowers and thousands of bees to create…” That’s tangible and impactful, and because she doesn’t do too much of this, it’s a fact that will stick with a reader.    

The light touch and easy flow of narration, with jokes and interjections along the way. means you barely notice how carefully organized the information is. She starts with types of bees (“Didn’t I tell you that there are about 25,000 different kinds of bees to love?”), shifts to honeybees in particular, which leads to stingers and anatomy. Later, when Edgar says he’d rather give up honey and have no bees, the narration shifts from honey to the insects’ role in the ecosystem, and then the bee population crisis.

Here’s an example from a single brief page: First she offers a big fact that most young readers can comprehend: “A single bee can visit over 1,000 flowers a day, making bee pollination powers unparalleled!”  Then she jumps from numbers to impact: “Which means without bees, there’d be a lot less yummy stuff to eat.” And finally, builds upon that “without bees” phrase with a picture of a milk carton and the words “Have you seen this pollinator?” All of which sets up the next page-turn, where we learn more about disappearing bees.

So what about the illustrations? They certainly do support the text. The information is essentially within the words, though. So is the humorous tone, though that is definitely enhanced by the pictures. I only spot two cases where the humor really comes only from the visuals: the bee in a dog costume and the “Bee-Peration” drawing.

This book succeeds in all the ways it tries to, in my mind: Specific facts about bees. A cohesive understanding about bees and their importance. Organized with logic and creative flair. Presented at a level that will result in tangible new knowledge that the reader will retain. And it’s funny.

Share
Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for shifting the focus–at least for some of the time–on outstanding nonfiction text in picture books. It is certainly time to look at the quality of writing that engages young readers in nonfiction. The outstanding books deserve our attention as teachers and librarians. I hope to see more posts like this one.

  2. I’d like to see more picture books considered for the Newbery–both fiction and nonfiction. I’d also like to see more poetry books taken into consideration for this honor.

    This sounds like an excellent book. I’m going to get it for my granddaughters.

  3. Safranit Molly says:

    Thank you for bringing to this wonderful book to my attention. I’ve just added it to my list. Another illustrated nonfiction book that has risen to the top in my Newbery community is Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers. There is so much humor and voice in the writing. It’s readable and engaging nonfiction at its best. There are several other compelling illustrated nonfiction books this year as well. It seems to be a remarkable strong year on the nonfiction front.

  4. I KNOW my older granddaughter will LOVE this book. We have enjoyed reading Barton’s book I’M TRYING TO LOVE SPIDERS many times!

  5. Safranit Molly says:

    Thank you for bringing to this wonderful book to my attention. I’ve just added it to my list. Another illustrated nonfiction book that has risen to the top in my Newbery community is Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers. There is so much humor and voice in the writing. It’s readable and engaging nonfiction at its best. There are several other compelling illustrated nonfiction books this year as well. It seems to be a remarkably strong year on the nonfiction front.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    I haven’t read this one yet, but I agree with Elaine that Barton’s previous I’m Trying to Love Spiders was excellent, and this seems similar.

    Here is one issue I have with evaluating picture book non-fiction for the Newbery. I think a book could “have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it” under Criterion 1 and still lose an argument where Criterion 2 states, “each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature.” Earlier, I suggested THIS IS HOW WE DO IT as another non-fiction, informational picture book for consideration. Even if it is, in DaNae’s words, a “perfectly executed” “flawless concept book”, could it be considered for an award “for literary quality” and as “the most distinguished contribution to American literature”? In short, is it literature?

    If I had to build a case for THIS IS HOW WE DO IT, I think I’d have to go beyond showing it does well in the Criterion 1 elements (which it does), and argue that the text has literary status. For example, the fixed, repetitive structure goes beyond simple informational organization to act almost like a poetic form supporting Lamothe’s carefully attentive word choices, varied sentence structure and length, and sensitivity to aural qualities. Turning to a random page (I ended up on “This is where I live”), I find each sentence beginning with the same “I live in a” and having the same basic structure. But within that, Lamothe crafts statements that could come from a poem or novel: “I live in a house made of wood and mud” “I live in a house my father built.” There are nice touches of alliteration and poetic scansion: “fast-flowing Ganges River” “close to the Caspian Sea” and even a cute juxtaposition of words that look similar but sound and flow completely differently: “with a vineyard in my backyard.” I think I could take any page of this book and find abundant evidence that this text goes beyond mere excellence as a functional, informational picture book to something that is quite poetic and literary.

    Of the other titles mentioned in the post and the comments, I think Markel’s BALDERDASH has the strongest argument, being well-written but not quite Newbery-level in my opinion.

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The definition of “literary quality” is something that every Committee and member has to struggle with. The bullet points under the definition of “distinguished” are helpful. Kind of:

    – Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    – Marked by excellence in quality.
    – Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    – Individually distinct.

    Or, in my own words: “the book has to stand out above other books.” And to help me get my head around that, I add: “…other books of a similar type.” In GIVE BEES, I’m seeing conspicuous excellence in quality. I think it’s individually distinct. And superior to other books of its type (eminence). I haven’t seen an animal book or a science book this year that provides information for its intended audience in such an engaging, effective, and original way. It’s not the slightest bit poetic, but that’s okay. Poetic language can be an element of literary quality, but does it have to be? A person could write more eloquently about bees for young children, but that’s not the approach the author takes in this case.

    Though it’s not poetic, there are careful, important word choices throughout that help to elevate the book beyond most others. Individual sentences or phrases might not shine on their own, but they all contribute to a distinct tone in which the information resonates with the reader. The mixture of humor, facts, and story is managed subtly and, I would say, artfully. It’s a very different kind of artfulness than that used in BALDERDASH or THIS IS HOW WE DO IT, but I still think a book like this can reach a distinguished level of literary quality.

  8. Angela Moffett says:

    For a perspective on how Native people are depicted (and not) in The Secret Project, I recommend reviewing Debbie Reese’s comments on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2017/03/not-recommended-secret-project-by-jonah.html)

  9. I think it is extremely important to not equate “literary quality” with “poetic writing” or “beautiful prose.” And it is extremely important to consider writing in the most appropriate way (presentation) for its intended audience as one of the main measurements of its distinction and eminence. After all, we are discussing books written for children by a group of authors with the rare talent of being able to speak directly to young readers. (We all know that not everyone can write for children!)

    Steven: I often think of the Apples to Oranges analogy as an apt one. I consider each set of books within the same (similar) genre and see which titles rise to the top and hopefully then compare titles within this smaller, selected group to see which ones are more “worthy” to the others, after considering each title thoroughly. However, I think it is impossible to demand complete eradication of tastes and literary preferences. Is this the reason why so many realistic/historical fictions have won because Fantasy and Science Fiction are considered “less literary” and Poetry and Nonfiction seem to not be most people’s favorite genres?

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    Roxanne and Steven,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that “literary quality” = “poetic writing” or “eloquence.” I think in the specific case of THIS IS HOW WE DO IT, the text’s gratifyingly unnecessary (and unobtrusive) poetic qualities does make it stand out from a merely excellent concept book with competent, functional prose (of which there are many.) And to Roxanne’s point, I think the text’s attention to rhythmic qualities within a crystal clear presentation structure does enhance its quality of presentation to a child audience, particularly in a read-aloud context.

    But I am definitely with you both in agreeing there are many paths to literary quality. I like Steven’s use of the word “artfulness” here. Roxanne, I love fantasy, science fiction, and non-fiction, but I think all three genres can be effective and enjoyable without necessarily being literary. Perhaps it’s because they traffic in ideas and concepts, and if these are imaginative enough, its fans are willing to forgive clunky plots, wooden characters, and merely functional prose. But I think to rise to the level of art and literature (and all three genres have such examples), these things can’t be sacrificed. Steven emphasizes “careful, important word choices”, “a distinct tone,” and the subtle management of humor, facts, and story in his argument for GIVE BEES A CHANCE. I think any book, in any genre, has to make that extra effort for Newbery consideration, even though an informational non-fiction picture book could be perfectly effective and appealing without them. In the end, I keep coming back to the idea of “contribution to American literature” as the central idea of the Newbery award, even more than the Criteria themselves.

    • Leonard — I am with you re that “extra mile” a Newbery winning book must possess. And no, I will not simply consider imagination/concepts without demanding great execution in plot and outstanding style when it comes to fantasy/sci-fi. Actually, I am very picky about what makes for great Fantasy/SciFi as to what is merely serviceable, even though I consider myself a SciFi/Fantasy junky.

  11. I’m delighted to see two expository nonfiction books being discussed here. This writing style is often overlooked by award committees (Stewart, 2015), even though research shows that many children enjoy reading expository writing as much as or more than narrative writing (Repanskey, Schumm, & Johnson, 2017; Correia, 2011; Mohr, 2006; Ray, 2003), and for some students, it’s the gateway to literacy (Hynes, 2000; Caswell & Duke, 1998).

    I enjoyed your descriptions of the rich language, stellar word choice, and patterning (which appeals strongly to expository-loving kids) in THIS IS HOW WE DO IT and the superbly-executed humorous voice and narration/point of view in GIVE BEES A CHANCE. I also really appreciated the text format and the text structure of both books. Text structure is often the most challenging part of writing expository nonfiction.

    I notice that the Library of Congress classifies GIVE BEES A CHANCE as follows: “Bees — Juvenile literature. Honeybee — Juvenile literature. Bees — Juvenile fiction. Honeybee — Juvenile fiction.” What do you make of this? To me, it seems like the author did careful research and all the information is true. Maybe it has something to do with the narration style? I imagine this designation may influence the Sibert committee. Do you think it’s something that might influence the Newbery committee’s discussion?

    • I didn’t notice the subject assignment in the library of congress catalog — I felt that the book lands squarely in the Nonfiction box, with some creative narrative choices. Interesting. I have never been on the Sibert so not sure whether they examine the subject headings for eligibility or rely on their own expertise/analysis of the books. Sharon — and anyone else — would you please shed some light on this?

  12. steven engelfried says:

    I’m not sure about the Sibert and subject headings either. The closest comparison I see on the Sibert list of Medal and Honor books is LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. Lots of information, but it’s framed by the story of a fictional family on the train. LC headings aren’t shown in my copy, though.

    • Here’s the LOC subject headings for LOCOMOTIVE: “Locomotives — United States — History — 19th century — Juvenile literature. Railroads — United States — History — 19th century — Juvenile literature.” It’s interesting that there’s no fiction designation for a book that, as you say, includes a fictional element–the made up family. To me, there’s nothing made up in GIVE BEES A CHANCE. There’s just a fun, clever narration technique used to present accurate, documentable information about honeybees.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Looks like Jason Chin’s GRAND CANYON also gets “juvenile literature” from LC, instead of “juvenile fiction,” even though the child hiking in the canyon is fictional and kind of time travels. An earlier book, REDWOODS, does get “juvenile fiction,” though if I remember right, the child narrative is more prominent in that one. As far as I’m concerned, using fictional elements in picture book non-fiction is fine, as long as it’s clear. I still think Cole and Degen’s “Magic School Bus” books are excellent informational books, even with (and partly because of) the child characters, Ms. Frizzle, and the bus’ magical powers….

  13. Very good discussions here. Thank you all.

  14. Heather L. Montgomery says:

    I appreciate this discussion of the literary quality of these excellent nonfiction texts as well as the specifics of the LC labeling. There is a great need for this kind of dialog about the craft and analysis of nonfiction. Every discussion us forward by bringing awareness to, articulating terms for and improving nonfiction for young readers.

  15. I would say that the Magic School Bus series crosses the line into informational fiction, but GRAND CANYON is trickier to classify. I’ll be very interested to see if the Sibert committee selects it.

  16. Hello there! First of all– thank you so much for this in-depth review and discussion of my book! I’m flattered, excited, and oh-so thankful. Big hugs & high fives to you!

    My mother was a 5th grade teacher & my father a newspaper journalist, so I grew up with a love of learning, and of the written word. My parents were masters of making the-language-of-learning fun. I set out to do the same thing with bees; distilling well-researched facts into a tone and energy I thought would “stick” in young readers minds, and get them excited about bees. So far I have been thrilled to watch young readers engage with the book, and be inspired by what they learn. I’ve even seen kids overcome fears of bees and spiders through learning more about them. Best job ever, eh? Haha

Speak Your Mind

*