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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Tightrope

What Do You Know?

Monica’s post about the muddle of information her students have before she begins a unit came just as I was talking about YA nonfiction with a family friend who has been a social worker dealing with teenagers for much of his life. I was explaining the central challenge all of us face: context (I wrote about this a few times in Consider the Source, my SLJ column). As an author, I always feel I am walking a tightrope — I have to hold the reader’s attention, but I have to supply enough background for him or her to make sense of the people, events, the world I am describing. I’m facing exactly this challenge in a book I am packaging with a team including an author, designer, and managing editor. The publisher asked for a new voice in the book, a quriky, friendly observing scholar (kind of like that animated paper clip in Microsoft Word) to explain new concepts. We said no, and decided instead to include a mini-encyclopedia at the back, sort of a glossary plus. Whether or not our solution is best, the problem is the same — how do you keep readers turning pages while making sure they have a fighting chance of understanding the world you are showing them?

So why don’t we discuss that here? Starting with picture books, what’s the best way of handling context in NF you all have seen? What is the worst? What can we learn from each other? What are musts to avoid? All of us are walking the same tightrope, here we can try to envision some better safety nets.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    An excellent question –okay, questions — but I’ll stick to good ways of handling context in informational picture books. As someone who’s written a few picture book biographies, I’ll think about words, though, of course, the hope is the illustrations will be a key enticement. (and wouldn’t it be great to be, say, Molly Bang, who can both write about and illustrate science with extraordinay intelligence and grace).

    My favorite biographical picture books offer a layered story, so we may hear about why someone is remembered, but also depicts a conflict any child might have. There’s an issue around family or town that an ordinary, never-to-be-famous chid might experience, and feel the hook: this could be me.

    One marvelous example would be The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat called Fish by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illus by Beth Krommes. And maybe not everyone is going to think they might grow up to be a composer, but I love M.T.Anderson’s tone in Handel:Who Knew What He Liked. It’s so fluent, everyday-ish, and musical all at once; that voice just loops me in.