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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Photography and Fiction

Back in November I speculated as to whether or not a book containing photography, and just photography, could ever win a Caldecott Award.  Today my thoughts turn elsewhere.

Just yesterday I sat in on the Penguin Young Readers Group librarian preview for the May-August 2011 season (round-up to come).  The folks there had to go over a wide variety of books and in the course of the discussion we came upon an adorable picture book by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Yup.  John Berendt himself.  Normally I don’t truck with adult authors who try to weasel their way into the lucrative children’s market, but that’s usually because all their books sound the same.  Either they’re doing a younger version of what they usually write or they place a slight twist on Alice in Wonderland/The Wizard of Oz.  Nine times out of ten this is the case.  Berendt . . . he’s different.  First off, it’s hard to accuse him of the flaws of his fellows when the title of his book is something as innocuous as My Baby Blue Jays.

(By the way, during the last Simon & Schuster preview I took one look at Liz Scanlon’s Noodle & Lou and proclaimed that, “It is my personal opinion, as it has been for years, that blue jays are a seriously unappreciated species of bird.  Seriously, name me all the famous blue jay picture book characters you can.”  The universe, which has a twisted sense of humor, has now handed me a whole new blue jay product just to watch me squirm under my own words.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s topic of Photography & Fiction?  Well, outside Mr. Berendt’s window sat a nest of blue jays, so he figured he’d photograph them and add in his own, as the catalog calls it, “narrative skill”.  Skill aside, this book is considered nonfiction.  Staring at the book in the catalog got me to thinking.  Nonfiction.  Most photography in children’s books could be classified as nonfiction in a way.  We see a lot of them appear each season.  They do not lack.  But what about picture books that use photography and are fictional?  How common are they?  How often does one run across them?  Children love photos, after all.  So why are they so often relegated to the informative Tana Hoban / baby board book areas of the library?

This question doesn’t come entirely out of the blue.  Recently I met for lunch with an author/illustrator who told me that he was seeking out fictional picture books of this sort.  They are rare. Sometimes it seems as though Nina Crews is the only person who’ll touch the genre with so much as a ten foot pole these days.  Didn’t used to be that way.  Back in the day a person could find books like J.T. by Jane Wagner with photographs by Gordon Parks.  NOTE: Periodically professional photographers will try their hand at the format, but the results tend to be along the lines of Cindy Sherman’s Fitcher’s Bird.  Which is to say, originally for magazines like Vanity Fair, and then swiftly forgotten post-publication.

You might say there are lots of fictional books of photography out there, but these tend to have novelty elements.  Saxton Freymann, for example, has written fictional picture books (Gus and Button) with photographer Joost Elffers but the little worlds are entirely veggie and fruit-based.  Books like last year’s spectacular Here Comes the Garbage Barge or My Abuelita wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for the models conjured up by Red Nose Studio and Yuyi Morales respectively.  But Who Will Bell the Cats? by Cynthia von Buhler was a lush combination of photography and modeling/illustration, but which does one remember more?  Of course the mother of all photography of this sort would have to be The Lonely Doll.  And I will maintain that no matter how odd you find the storytelling, the photography itself is rather stunning.  Just the same, if you’re going to tell a fictional story with photos, you it is very rare to find live children in front of the lens.

Where does that put William Wegman?  He doesn’t do hand-crafted models per se, but he does do hand-crafted dog models.  They count, though he hasn’t produced many such books lately (his last was produced seven years ago).

In an era where photographs are practically ubiquitous on the cover of teen and many middle grade novels, it’s all the more interesting to me that storytelling for the picture book set eschews this medium.  Either few folks are attempting to produce quality books with real kids and storylines, or they’re simply too difficult to do well.  Thoughts?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. “He doesn’t do hand-crafted models per say…”

    You’re killing me. It’s PER SE.

  2. Growing up I adored Jill Krementz’s A Very young Dancer was a non-fictiony look at a real dancer’s daily life told through text and photos. (She went on to write and photograph many more in that series). I was drawn to the immediacy of the images and would linger on those images studying every detail.

    It would be great to see a fictional picture book use photographs of real kids (rather than, say, photos of clay/food models). I’m wondering if the lack of this pairing is because this sort of project would have to be delivered to the editor/agent as a complete packag. When a writer/illustrator subs text with illustrations there is always room to edit both text and illustrations. This would be less so for a project delivered with already shot photos. Just wondering, here. But I do love this idea and think I may just explore it myself!

  3. Two thoughts:

    1. I’m not sure how widely known it is, but fiction picture book Lost in the Woods by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick is pretty much a school library staple here in Michigan. The pair have collaborated on other titles as well – they call them “photographic fantasies”. My students love them.

    2. Have you checked out the Spring list from Feiwel & Friends? Princess Zelda and the Frog by Carol Gardner and Shane Young uses photographs with illustrated backgrounds.

  4. I’d have to agree, there really aren’t that many fictional picture books/early readers that use photography. I do have one set that uses photography (Real Kids Readers by Marcia Leonard), but I’ve noticed that when the kids look at these they tend to assume the book is nonfiction.

  5. Phil Rink says

    Jonathon Livingston Seagull.

    I would think that books including photographs of people would be too specific for fiction, especially if faces are shown. You can generalize a watercolor or cartoon to “stand-in” for your friends and family, but a photo only represents the person in the photo. That’s why we see animal stand-in in the first place, they can be very specific characters but still apply broadly.

    Usually, I don’t like illustrations in word books. The details in the pictures are almost always wrong for me, and the dissonance is distracting. The pictures remove a level of intimacy.

  6. Oh my goodness, Betsy. My 45-year-old original copy of EDITH AND MR. BEAR (A Lonely Doll Story) still sits on my shelf. The photography enchanted me then as it does still today.

  7. Susan J Steward says

    I was so interested to see this post, just when I was thinking about this topic. I’ve been trying to convince my lovely artist/photographer sister ( to pursue illustration–and then I realized I was probably setting her up to do the impossible. Or at least the Pretty Darn Near.

    My daughter, age 10, is the kind of kid who will always take photography over illustration. I was never like that, so it fascinates me to watch her choose books. I think she’d love fiction with artistic photo illustrations as much as she loves those “I Spy” books and wildlife field guides she reads.

  8. Mia Cabana says

    I have been following this conversation with great interest because my talented photographer boyfriend and I have been collaborating on book-photography art projects ( we are dying to take it one step further and write/illustrate a children’s book. Know anyone who wants to give us a book deal? 😉 I’m sure I’m biased because of my involvement with the field, but I really believe that photography and video will be coming to the forefront of the illustrating world in the 21st century as technology keeps expanding. (Don’t get me wrong, I love all illustration!) At any rate, thanks for keeping this topic fresh in people’s minds!

  9. Wiggle Giggle Tickle Train by Nora Hilb and Sharon Jennings is a combination of photography and illustration. The photographs are by Marcela Cabezas Hilb with a few from iStockphoto. We have a few preschool children that are absolutely fascinated by it.

  10. Just thought of another one – The Handiest Things in the World by Andrew Clements (of Frindle fame, of course). It is all photographs (by Raquel Jaramillo), lots of real children (and a dog and a snowman). Its an honest-to-goodness picture book – and it rhymes!

  11. My students and I really enjoy John Burningham’s “Cloudland”
    which uses photographs as the background for cartooned characters. Maybe too mixed media for the purposes of this discussion?

  12. John Berendt wrote some great pieces for The New YOrker as well. He is a talented writer. I had no idea he had created a PB.

  13. You must take a look at Jane Wattenberg’s Henny-Penny, which is filled with photography and one of my favorite versions of this story. William Wegman’s work also uses his doctored dog photos. And even people like Yuyi Morales uses photography in her work. If you consider poetry, Walter Dean Meyer’s Brown Angels has gorgeous photography. Recently, Tonya Bolden used old antique photographs as actual characters in her middle grade novel, FINDING FAMILY.


  14. Oops, I got carried away before finishing! Forgive the Wegman mention.

  15. And Yuyi! Wow! So glad it is Friday! I wish there were an “erase post” button.