What I Learned From Seeing My Earliest Childhood Friend
Roy is the first friend I can recall having. While he lives in Switzerland and grew up in Santa Barbara, his parents and mine were old friends, and when I was about 5 they lived in New York and both families rented summer homes in Connecticut. The Art Students League is having a small show of Roy’s father’s work, so we met up there. You all know Don Freeman www.donfreeman.info/ for his Corduroy books (see the name link to his son). But I have always loved his adult New York sketches — which are featured in the show. Don, like Al Hirschfeld, drew Broadway opening nights for New York newspapers. He loved the theater — both the front and backstage of actual shows, and the theater of city life in the 1930s and early 40s. His warm, human, drawings of Depression-era New York, from Harlem, to Times Square, to the Automats, are a real treat. As I looked at those sketches I wondered why Don went from his affinity for the theater to being such a good creator of picture books, and then I got it.
As so many of you surely know, a picture book is actually most like a play. It generally unfolds in a three act structure. Page turns are scenes. And it is simultanteously visual and verbal — it is experienced both ways at once. Of course the very best picture book of all, Where the Wild Things Are, makes this analogy to theater explicit. As Don knew theater, he had a sense of the rhythm and voice of the picture book.
So, I wondered, if the picture book is a play, what is middle grade and YA nonfiction? And then I realized a fundamental problem with our genre: we are looking in the wrong place for our analogy. We aim to be similar to adult NF, but we shouldn’t. Adult NF comes, these days, in two basic flavors (leaving the academic world out of it). "Narrative" NF aims to be most like a novel — it is primarily an engaging reading experience. As a result there are few if any images. We rely on the writer’s skill to call forth images in our minds. Coffee table books are replete with art, but they are most like magazines, or even shop windows — the images are an endless display, they are not narrative. The real analogy for our work is the documentary — nonfiction that tells its story in words and images at the same time. But the problem is that middle grade and YA NF generally does not sell that well. Publishers are reluctant to spend too much — on color, on high quality paper that yields sharp images, even on innovative design. Too often design is a standard flow of sidebars and rectangular images. So we make books that fall uncomfortably between genres — not picture books, not adult books, not reference books, not the fully imagined book-as-documentary.
There are exceptions. But I think we all should think about this analogy — if our medium is most like a documentary, how should that be expressed on the page? How can we narrate in words and images together, so that we create our own new classics, our own form of documentary theater?