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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Starting From…

Average or Heroic?

Jeanine Atkins’s post got me to thinking. She makes the interesting point that, to her, and perhaps as a useful starting point for picture book nonfiction, she tends to begin with the life, the experience, the outlook of the average person (the reader in effect) and leads from there to the inspiring, fascinating story of the person she is profiling. In effect she is starting out by reassuring the reader, connecting, then leading out to a new place. That reminds me of the larger educational strategy used by school across the country — where the younger kids are the more local and personal the focus of their studies: self, family, home, town, region, state before they go out to the wide world. I assume the idea is that kids already know something about themselves and their families, they are already curious, and it is easy for them to find out more (‘ask your parents about….’).

Kieran Egan, the Canadian educational theorist, suggests a different model. He points out that what children "know" is not just details about themselves and their world, but ways of thinking and knowing — which they can apply as easily to the lives of people they have never heard of as to their neighbors and grandparents. Indeed, he writes about how young people of elementary school age are drawn to the heroic, not the quotodian, the grand scale not the intimate. He comes to mind because reading Jeanine’s post made me realize that I do not begin by trying to establish a connection to the average reader, but, rather by interesting him/her in something new. The fall issue of The Horn Book is a special on the theme of Boys and Girls (a very good issue, I highly recommend — I have a piece in it, but that’s not why I am saying this). Bob Lipsyte talks about growing up reading Richard Halliburton — me too. 

I don’t write for picture book age, and that may be the key difference here. But I think this is worth exploring — the Halliburton hook (for those who don’t know, he wrote imagined trips, based on real facts, to the great sites of the world, ‘come with me to the Taj Mahal,’ his books said) — versus the ‘a kid just like you’ lead. Of course no author has to pick just one. Halliburton’s invented companions were kids, after all. But it is an interesting question — one side is, how do we weave context together with content. The other is, how do we begin the journey? And like everything else in nonfiction, this again links to the schools. If kids began schooling by studying myths, heroes, great adventures, we’d have many books echoing that approach. For now they begin in their own backyards. The Magic Tree House may go anywhere, but it can be found nearby. I wonder how kids might fare with other launching pads.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Take a look at Great Chicago Stories (google it since these comments do not accept web addresses)at the Chicago History Museum for a really interesting attempt to get more history into the schools using Egan’s ideas about storytelling.

  2. Barbara Kerley says:

    Nonfiction picture book biographies are a curious breed. They can’t hope to capture everything about their subject in 1000 words. Context is always an issue, as is engaging your reader as quickly as possible. The way I approach a subject is to look for the single story line, or the single theme, that best illustrates what I consider to be the core — understanding as I write that there won’t be room for a lot of biographical details or even a fully-rounded character. That helps limit what context to include: only what is necessary to support the single story line, the single theme. The rest gets left out (which is why I tend to have long end notes in itty bitty type!). However, when you consider the audience and the fact that your picture book is likely to be their introduction to someone, in many cases I think less really is more. I try to hone in on what I feel best illuminates my subject, knowing that I’ll have to leave a lot out, but hoping that, if I’ve engaged my readers, as they get older they will one day seek out the bigger picture (in bigger books!)