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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Illustration and NF: World Evocation

This business about reviewers and illustration is still bothering me. I wonder if it goes back to MLIS programs: not all of them have courses in NF, or spend more than one class session in a Materials for Children (or YA) on NF. And even if they do have a class or session, I wonder how many such courses linger to talk about the interplay of art, text, and design in NF — especially middle grade and YA?

By contrast I am certain that 100% of those same classes (and SCBWI retreats, and kids and YA MFA programs, etc., etc.) linger on the marriage of art and text in a picture book. They all pause to consider the page turn, the way art carries on the narrative rather than merely repeating it. And, doubtless, those very same classes bow at some point to the cannonical point that young people today are more oriented to the visual, more saturated with the visual. But when they get to NF, the visuals and the design disappear — as if they magically appeared in a book next to the text, placed their by fairies or other magical creatures — as if the author had no role in finding the images, selecting them, placing them — using them to narrate.

So if future reviewers (editors, publishers, librarians, teachers) do not study how a NF book is made, they do not appreciate the double and tripple work we do. And you know having been reading many fantasy and dystopian novels in my own YA Materials class, it is clear how much modern fiction owes to the visual. When Harry first burst on the scene Roger Sutton remarked on how cinematic it was — as if the writer were a movie already. So the visual has reshaped fiction writing. But when the real visual is — through archival research and careful, persistent attention to design — used to narrate NF — somehow that disappears, it is not factored into the weighing of the value of the book. We here much praise for “world building” in fantasy. Well what is brilliant NF illustration but a kind of immersion of its own — world evocation through surrounding text with apt and revealing images. O ye reviewers — come here and tell me if I’m wrong.


  1. Speaking from personal experience on the illustration side, it is a ton of work (especially if it is a biography) but any non-fiction really. Often it requires as an illustrator to get help from science teacher and professor friends to make sure certain aspects are depicted correctly.

    There is a lot of stress over little details that a lot of casual readers probably do not even notice.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    my point exactly — reviewers need to begin with that consciousness raising realization that illustration comes from somewhere, is half of the book, is a creation of its own, and deserves to be evaluated along with text and design in considering a NF book — which is, thus, at least 3 books in one.

  3. Sue Bartle says:

    I do agree. My library graduate studies did not provide any serious look at the construction of a NF book. I know it is true today because all I need to do is ask any of the librarians I work with.
    I gained my knowledge because I have an interest in NF and want to know every last detail about what I am reading – I start at the back of the book check out the bibliography, end notes, index, author notes, and then thumb through and look at the illustrations – then I am ready to read the text – I learn so much from all the notes that it sets my frame of reference as the reader to become more engaged.

    Alas, An Great Opportunity – Simmons Continuing Education program is offering a four week
    online course this August for anyone who wants to imporve their reviewing skills.
    You will find more info at
    The title of the program is: Getting Beyond It’s Good…Evaluating and Reviewing Books for Youth

  4. Myra Zarnowski says:

    As someone who has spent years on NF book award committees, I can tell you that NF illustration is talked about extensively. The problem, it seems, is that it is not talked about in colleges, libraries, and classrooms. The promise of talking about the author’s use illustration as a way of showing the world (past and present) has great merit. It focuses our attention of illustration as reflecting a point of view. I agree that illustration is a deliberate choice. It doesn’t appear by magic. We educators need to give our students the language to discuss illustration and the time to do it.