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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Reviewing a Fraction of a Book — My 900th Blog

This is my 900th blog and I’m going to use it — I hope — to change one crucial way in which people judge middle grade and YA NF. There is one defining characteristic for NF K-12. The books we craft for each and every one of our readers, from concept and board books through the most complext and serious YA effort, are illustrated. Indeed that is the wrong word. “Illustrated” suggests that whenever the author writes “apple” someone — could be the author, a staff person, a hired hand, an intern, has hunted down some clip art of an “apple” to match it — eye candy. While that indeed may be the case in some packaged or series books, it is not true at all in the individual author books we write.

First, we have to find the images — that is a whole second job of research above and beyond researching the text. It would be nice if reviewers credited us with that extra effort, but perhaps they don’t pay attention to the credit lines or source notes, so the labor is not evident. Or perhaps they think — we don’t review effort, we evaluate results. Fair enough. But for us finding the images is only step one. Publishers ask us to place them — in effect to design the book. This may begin as noting in the margin of the manuscript “image 1 goes here” but that is just the start. Because of course while the picture of a tall redwood might look very nice in margin near where you talk about redwoods in the text, once the book goes from manuscript to galley, page turns enter the picture. The word “redwood” may be the last on one page or the first on the next, or just before or after a subheading. Now the author really becomes a designer, figuring out how to juggle text and image in the most effective ways — and doing that over and over as new passes create new design challenges. I never see reviewers crediting authors for their part not merely in finding images but placing them.

Why do we use images? Because we want our books to be immersive experiences, they are not just text. And that is third facet of our books reviewers seldom notice: the ways our use of images, or captions with images, train readers in visual literacy, what we give readers the opportunity to notice, to see, in the images: the slant, the propaganda in the image, the second stories the image tells.

We write many books: researched text that needs to engage readers; researched images appropriate to the text; designed text and images crafted to create immersive experiences; opportunities for readers to use their eyes to see inside images. And yet, overwhelmingly, reviewers review our books as if they were novels — or novels that do or do not have splashy color images. I sometimes think we do the work of all the the artists involved in a picture book: author, illustrator, editor, designer, and get credit only for writing. Why?


  1. Interesting that you posted this. I’m not a book reviewer and I’ve never reviewed a book on my blog before, but yesterday I wrote a short review of Wheels of Change by Sue Macy. It’s a nonfiction book for young adults. Since the design of that book was not ordinary (think photo blocks), it was worth noting. I broke down my comments into design and text. Take a peek.

  2. So true. What some reviewers may not realize is that those of us who publishe NF with smaller houses not only have to research all the images for the book, but pay for them as well!

  3. Oh darn it–that typo is going to drive me crazy. Yes the word should be the “publish” without the “e.” Sorry.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    that is an example of a NF book where the art and design play a key role

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    even in large houses we have a photo budget and most often we go over it and have to pay the difference — I always feel that getting the right images matters much more than the cost. In face the contrast between my (and others’) insistence on getting the right images no matter the cost and the reviewers’ silence is particularly galling.

  6. It’s funny the way I grasp information. When I’m sewing, I look at the images to figure out the text. But, give me a book to read and I will ignore the pictures. Was I trained somehow to do that?
    I do think, heck I know, that when I review a nonfiction book, the majority of my review will be about the text and the source notes. However, I do look for images that will engage young readers. They’re essential in nonfiction.
    After just reading They Call Themselves the KKK, I did wonder how the wonderful images were found and placed in that book. Had the author had found them in her research? Now I know she did and I’m that much more impressed and will be certain to pay more attention.
    I appreciate the work you do here and the information you’re providing to educate us all about NF. As the common core standards increase the presence of NF throughout the curriculum, what I learn here is invaluable!

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    I’ll ask Susan if she wants to comment — but I do know that she found and placed all of those images one by one, as Marina and I did in Sugar, as Jim Murphy did in An American Plague. There is an entire labor, and art, in finding and placing images in NF which goes almost entirely unnoticed.