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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Illustrating Nonfiction — Knowledge in the Round

On Saturday Betsy Partridge hosted a panel on Illustrating Nonfiction at the Vermont College MFA for Children’s and YA Literature, and Marina and I drive up (5 hours each way) to join her. The panel and discussions went very well — sparking ideas for us, and I hope for the students. Betsy began with a clear and helpful 101 — using many Dorothea Lange photos, and quotations from the great photographer, Betsy talked about how to select images, how to “read” them, and how to go about obtaining rights and clearing permission to use the images in a book. I spoke about how images are used — making the case that we do not in fact “illustrate” just as in a picture book we don’t simply face the letter “A” with a shiny red apple and consider our work done. Illustration, I claimed, is narration (as, for example, the way the photos shift from black and white to color in Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts when women take flight); illustration is immersion (as, for example, the way Jim Murphy used pages from the 1793 Philadelphia city directory and daily newspapers as chapter openers in An American Plague); illustration is evidence (more on this in future posts); and illustration can go beyond words in image sequences (as Marina and I did in Sugar). Marina that spoke about how, as a writer, she goes in the reverse direction: in order to add depth, texture, and detail to people she writes about she often pores over photos, looking ever more closely at how a similar person dressed, or carried his body, or juxtaposed with others — the kind of close reading of images that Betsy described in selecting Lange images Marina uses as her writing research.

As you can see, it was a rich, engaging panel. After it was over, as we sat out on the lawn and spoke with the other faculty (M.T. Anderson no longer teaches at VC but was there for a visit, Tim Wynn-Jones does and keep everyone in high spirits) I realized something else: the wrong way to illustrate NF, or to see NF itself, is as two-dimensional — a flat poster that announces something. Beavers build dams. Photo of Beaver. What nonfiction can and should aim to do is to be like a play — when you sit down on your seat (take out the book) and the curtain rises (open the book) you should enter a new world (the sets, lighting, costumes), the book should surround you exactly in the way a play can. A play can be just out there — the cute kids doing their class musicale. But theater is at is best when you fully enter the world, the stage is no longer a stage, it is life, and you are part of it. That is what really good NF can do, and the best NF illustration, then, is selected, placed, designed, used to surround you and suspend your disbelief in the same way as stage sets do. Everyone knows the sets are painted, the colored lights come from gels, the props purchased at the Salvation Army. But if the designer is good, you are willing to forget — “the play’s the thing.” And that is exactly what great NF illustration should do — surround you, take you into the world the author is describing.

This imagery comes to me, of course, because my parents were set designers. But I had never realized the link between what I grew up seeing them do (they worked at home) and what I try to do in books. And this realization also helped me to understand what is wrong with reviews (and books) that treat NF as merely a matter of subject and school assignment (“good for reports”). That assumes that the book is entirely two-dimensional, a vehichle for transmitting information. Millions upon millions of website are that — flat poster boards from which you can cut and paste bits of data (or, worse, that is how we treat them, when, there is a POV of lurking in there that we skim over). A NF book is something else — it is an experience, it is a pageant, a show, a journey into the past, or out to scientific discovery — it is knowledge in the round, just the same way as theaters with thrust stages where the audience surrounds the actors are theater in the round. Yes ebooks and apps have great potential to add to the immersive experience — with animation, sound, film, gaming driven by the reader — but for now, NF books are the closest thing we have to NF history plays — and that is something to celebrate.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    What we teachers need is help using nonfiction illustrations to provoke thoughful consideration and analysis among our students. I have come across several helpful sources. The Library of Congress has a site for teachers and they produce a journal called TEACHING WITH PRIMARY SOURCES. The fall 2010 issue, in particular, has wonderful ideas for using historical photographs with elementary school students. They also provide useful “tools for analysis,” which are worksheets to help students analyze primary sources. Finally, they have Primary Source Sets on a number of historical topics. I think this is an excellent place to start. The skills they focus on can be applied directly to reading nonfiction.

    But…, nonfiction authors can help too. Be more transparent about how you think about illustrations. Where do you find them? How do they influence your writing? What insights have illustrations provided you? One interesting new source is a series from Compass Point Books called “Captured History.” Each book in the series focuses on a single photograph that made a major impact. For example, the title I am currently using with my students is entitled MIGRANT MOTHER: HOW A PHOTOGRAPH DEFINED THE GREAT DEPRESSION. This series is a major step in the right direction.

    If authors would model how they use illustration, it would be a major contribution for us teachers. After reading that Jim Murphy uses a magnifying glass to examine photographs, I had children do the same thing. They loved the activity. And…they were good at it!
    The topic of illustration is fascinating. Like you, I am sick and tired of reviews that discuss nonfiction as a source for report writing. Honestly, if students were doing so much report writing, their writing would be better than it is.

  2. Terrific post. I love the idea of NF illustration surrounding the reader like a stage set. Yes, good NF should immerse the reader in another “world,” another time. That’s the real magic of good NF.

  3. I love the idea of using a magnifying glass to read photos.