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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Historical Accuracy in Illustration: Shifting Standards or Stubborn Certainties?

There’s been a lot of talk about accuracy in children’s nonfiction recently (which is just a fancy way of saying that there’s been a lot of talk on this particular blog).  Everything from invented dialogue to series that are nonfiction-ish.  One element we haven’t discussed in any way, shape, or form though is the notion of accuracy in illustration.  And not just in nonfiction works but historical fiction as well.

My thoughts on the matter only traipsed in this direction because of author Mara Rockliff, as it happens.  Recently she wrote me the following query:

“One thing I wonder is why invented dialogue is so often the thing that bothers people most, while other issues don’t seem to come up. For instance, how do you feel about illustrations? It always seems to me that a historical picture book can never be strictly nonfiction, because no matter what the writer does, the illustrations will be fictional. I’ve got a couple of historical picture books on the way this winter. One has very fanciful, cartoony illustrations and the other has meticulously researched illustrations–but both are made up. If an illustrator says, ‘Well, this is the TYPE of thing Ben Franklin wore (but there’s no way to know what he wore on this particular day), and these are the gestures he MIGHT have made and the facial expressions he MIGHT have worn, and here is what his visitors MIGHT have looked like, and this is MORE OR LESS what they might have been doing at that moment, or possibly they never did anything like this at all, and this is a typical style for houses at that time…’ does that seem different to you from a writer saying similar things about invented dialogue?”

It is, you have to admit, an excellent point.  Can illustration ever really and truly be factual, just shy of simply copying a photograph? Should we hold historical fiction and historical nonfiction to different standards from one another?  She goes on to say in relation to made up text vs. made up art:

I’ve been struggling to formulate my thoughts on this, but I have a vague feeling that
(1) historical picture books should not invent IMPORTANT details (the main events of the story, for instance–what someone would say if asked to summarize the book), no matter how they’re categorized or what’s explained in the author’s note
(2) there should be clues to what’s made up in the story itself, both in the text and the art. Like, if the illustration style is cartoony and the dialogue is humorously anachronistic (“Your majesty, those colonists think they can beat your redcoats! Ha ha ha ha ha.”), an adult reader at least would assume the dialogue had been made up. I think.

There’s lots of time to chew on the notion of art in children’s nonfiction and historical fiction.  Mara poses an excellent question about made up dialogue vs. illustrations.  Why should one bother a person more than another?  I think it comes down to the reality of a situation.  Illustration is, by its very definition, going to be made up.  The author might do more research than anyone else but you can never say for certain if an eyebrow was up at one moment or a person held a letter in that particular way another.  So all illustration is supposition.  Dialogue, however, when using quotation marks, is saying that a person definitely said one thing or another.  If a books says, “This person may have said this or that” then they’re in the clear but when they use quotation marks without any caveats then they are saying a person definitely said one thing or another.  Ex: “Put that peashooter down or I’ll kill you”, said Albert Einstein.  When you read that you assume he actually said it.  And, for whatever reason, that seems far worse than simply drawing him in one position or another.  I think people will always assume that an illustration is coming out of the head of an artist, but wordsmiths are held to a different standard.

Now obviously even when we “know” that someone said something we can almost never “know” if they said that exact thing.  But that’s where honesty comes in.  Books that say right from the start that they don’t know one thing or another are being honest.  Books that just lead you to assume that something happened the way they say it did are being dishonest.

Here in the library we always put “nonfictiony” books with fake elements in the picture book or fiction section.  It’s a bummer but we don’t have much of a choice.  I mean, compare a book like THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH which never ever includes any fake dialogue and makes a big deal about the fact that the illustration of the boy’s nanny is based on nothing because the artist couldn’t find a photograph of her (now THAT is honesty!) to a book which makes up fake people saying fake things for absolutely no good reason whatsoever.  I really love books like HE HAS SHOT THE PRESIDENT that don’t rely on fiction to make the nonfiction parts good.  Still, as long as there’s a caveat or explanation somewhere in there I’ll not raise any objections.  But what about the art in HE HAS SHOT THE PRESIDENT?  Why am I okay with illustrations that are suppositions and not text?

Naturally I decided that this had to be a Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL.  So as of right now we’ve a Lit Salon for March planned on this topic with Mara here as well as her HMH editor, Brian Floca, and Sophie Blackall.  Let it never be said I go halfsies on these things.  I’ll post a link to the event information a little closer to the date, no worries.

So what do you think?  Is it ridiculous to your mind to distinguish between “reality” in art vs. text? Or could we go even further in the matter?

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. I am so glad Mara raised this as it is something I’ve long thought about and have wondered why it seems so rarely discussed. That note by the illustrator of The BOY WHO LOVED MATH is wonderful and I wish we saw more like that. I was fortunate to be able to give feedback to Robert Byrd for the illustrations for AFRICA IS MY HOME, but he did such a fabulous job with the research that there was little to give. One I recall was that in one of his preliminary sketches he showed Margu holding a doll when in Africa. I explained that she would not have had a doll as a toy, that these objects though sometimes called dolls in museums are actually ritual objects and not toys at all and he took out the doll.

  2. Accuracy of illustration is definitely something that I include in my reviews of books with Native content. I say “books with Native content” because a lot of what I review isn’t marked as being a Native American/American Indian/First Nations book.

    Consider the upcoming holiday, Thanksgiving. One book after another (even new ones!) show the Wampanoag people incorrectly. If everyone who reads your blog removed Thanksgiving books with Indians in headdresses, that would be AWESOME. And if they put one of those books in a big display saying THIS IS WRONG, that would be spectacular!

  3. Many excellent and important observations here but if I could add one more? Agriculture, rural life, and working animals are form the essential background of many historical works – fiction and non-fiction – yet very few have ever portrayed them correctly or well. The constant drudgery of an historical working farm or homestead is scarcely ever conveyed; instead a character seems to skip out to the barn occasionally to throw a little hay at the animals. Practices, equipment, and even correct breeds – mostly wrong. This doesn’t rise to the importance of how Native Americans are depicted, for sure, but collectively it adds to the “mis-knowledge.”

  4. Mara Rockliff says

    Wow, I really rambled! Just to clarify a little, the main point I meant to make about historical picture books was that I think there may be too much emphasis on categories (fiction vs. nonfiction) and author’s notes, and not enough on what kids actually walk away believing. In other words, while author’s notes are great, as writers we have a responsibility to ask ourselves if we are telling kids a “true” story that really isn’t true. (For instance, by changing a key detail to make it “more exciting.”)

    Also, I would argue that illustrations, no matter how historically accurate, are basically made up. So all historical picture books are by definition fictionalized, even if the text has no fictionalized elements such as invented dialogue.

    Can’t wait for the salon! Thanks, Betsy!

  5. I tried to be accurate but the history captured in my book’s illustrations (MERMAIDS ON PARADE/Putnam) changed after publication. Coney Island continues to morph and morph. And thanks for the heads up of your March listing for the NY Metro SCBWI newsletter .

  6. My Boaz's Ruth says

    ” I think people will always assume that an illustration is coming out of the head of an artist, but wordsmiths are held to a different standard.”

    OTOH, people tend to believe what the SEE more than what they hear. So those made up illustrations may have more effect on children than the made up text.

    • Joseph Miller says

      My Boaz’s Ruth makes an excellent point about seeing is believing. Also, visual images can last much longer in many people’s minds, than dialogue (barring iconic one liners).

      Also the audience for these books are children, who might not have the ability to make the distinction that an illustration “is coming out of the head of an artist” and not an accurate depiction of what happened. Sure, the may recognize the difference between a photo and an illustration, but can they grasp intuitively, without being told, that the illustrations in their biographies and non-fiction books are made up and not totally accurate depictions.

  7. Jarm Del Boccio says

    It never occurred to me that readers might be bothered by the imaginative illustrations. You raise some good points here!

  8. I thought about this more recently when I took Girls Who Rocked the World out of the library for my daughter. After some initial prodding to read it, she LOVED it. Then I discovered the note that says “In the profiles in this book, passages of literary narrative based on factual events were imagined by the authors in an attempt to draw the reader into the life and perspective of the profiled girl.” The note is in small print. Now I was torn. Would it be better if she hadn’t read it? Do I order it for her school library? I still lean toward it being better to read it than not, which is odd because I’m usually a literary purist. Why the exception here? I have no idea!

  9. Great points, Mara! I like true pb biographies in which the dialogue is real and not made up, but I never thought about the illustrations in that way! Thanks, Betsy, for this post. It would be wonderful if we could ALL hear the “debate” at the salon.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      If the planets align correctly I may actually get that one recorded. All things being equal the creek don’t rise.

  10. Very interesting post and great comments. Very much enjoy this thread.

  11. A question: do most publishers have someone (either on staff or under contract) to check for historical or cultural accuracy in illustrations? I did some illustrations several years ago for a nonfiction magazine whose focus was stories about different cultures, and I remember my illustrations being vetted by someone at the magazine with knowledge of the particular culture (in this case, the West African nation of Mali). I guess I just assumed book publishers would have the same resources–from Debbie’s comment, it seems not.

  12. Emma Otheguy says

    Betsy, I’m glad you’re raising some of these questions about non-fiction picture books, since it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In illustration, it seems like a lot of these accuracy issues can be resolved by research into material culture. As Debbie has said, in may cases we (as a society) know quite a bit about clothing, structures, tools, etc., but that knowledge doesn’t make it into picture books–and that’s frustrating.

    But I think your insistence on accuracy becomes a little more complicated where dialogue is concerned. I’m a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America, and in the time period I study, there was of course no audiovisual recording. Our knowledge of what was said is therefore filtered through sources like court records, ship logs, and letters. In all of these instances, there’s an inherent bias both in whose words are recorded, and how those words are recorded. Generally, that means that historians can safely verify what a male member of the European nobility said, either because it was recorded in his own words or because we assume the notaries who recorded his words in legal documents both understood his language/dialect and had little motivation to skew his words. But when it comes to the voices of women, peasants, indigenous people, enslaved Africans–in short, 99.9% of people–it’s pretty difficult to know what was said. In some cases, that’s because of linguistic differences between the person speaking and the person recording: this problem occurred both when Europeans from minority language groups were recorded, and when Europeans attempted to record conversations with indigenous people whose language they couldn’t possibly yet speak. In other cases, the biases and prejudices of the person recording led him to simply transcribe things inaccurately. But the real problem is that there just is no record of what was said by most of the population. You can read through the lines of Europeans’ records of what was said by indigenous people, and that’s been done by academic historians in brilliant ways. In some cases, those historians invent dialogue, or try to re-create what might have actually been said from some seriously flawed and biased European records. Doing so is an imaginative process that departs from what is strictly non-fiction, but it’s been key to our understanding both of what’s in the documents we have–and what’s not in those documents.

    I think for authors of children’s non-fiction, this imaginative process might be even more important. Dialogue lends such an immediacy to a child’s experience with a character. If authors and historians can only verify what was said by a very narrow sector of the population, and therefore a child only hears dialogue from a very specific type of historical figure, that doesn’t seem right to me; it seems limiting. Then again, I have lots of favorite non-fiction picture books that don’t use dialogue, like BRAVE GIRL or THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH. So clearly these things can be done without the dialogue. But, dialogue lends something to a text, otherwise authors would never use it–and if we’re insisting on strictly verifiable dialogue, those quotation marks are going to be limited to a very narrow sector of the historical population.

  13. Wonderful topic and discussion. As a writer and illustrator who loves certain periods of history, I want to bring them to life for children and infuse them with as much of my creativity as I can while still being true to all primary sources, whether they be texts or artifacts.

    I’m so grateful that there are some excellent examples of this balance out there, by some of the commentators no less. And, the point about the visual being remembered longer I agree with. So it’s important to always do excellent research. Look forward to the Salon in March.

  14. Deborah Heiligman says

    Thank you once again for your love of THE BOY. As you already know, LeUyen went to Budapest so she could capture Paul’s life accurately. She also looked at photographs of mathematicians. We both vetted everything with people who knew Paul and people who themselves are in the book. Mara, I think that in this case, really, the only thing that is “fictionalized” is the nanny. Though of course I know what you mean–Paul talking to his mother’s friend–we are not sure exactly where that happened. Maybe it happened under a table. But I think we all know–and kids do, too, with proper guidance, that if it’s not photographs it can’t be 100% accurate, though I think it can be TRUE. (Of course then we could also get into the whole question of photographs from history and how sometimes they weren’t actually true, either…) For those of you who are interested: although I knew from Paul Erdos himself in a videotaped interview many things he said, e.g., when he asked his mother’s friend when she was born, etc, we didn’t put it in quotes because we didn’t know if he used exactly those words.
    I’m rambling now, too, but I just had to say thank you for having this wonderful conversation. I always think of things like this when people say making books for kids must be fun. Yes it is. But we take it very very seriously.

    • Oh, I agree. My point wasn’t that historical picture book illustrations aren’t accurate enough (although certainly sometimes they aren’t) or that we shouldn’t try to illustrate history (which would be ridiculous!). My point was that, with all the recent talk about historical picture books and strict standards of nonfiction, I believe that NO historical picture book can meet those standards, because the pictures HAVE TO add an element of imaginative reconstruction.

      So when we talk about other issues such as invented dialogue, we need to acknowledge that a picture book speaks through both text and art. And I very much agree that kids believe what they SEE (the pictures) at least as much as what they HEAR (the text).

      That doesn’t mean we should give up on historical picture books. It just means that, in my opinion, we need a more nuanced way to look at their overall truthfulness than just “this book has fictional elements in the text, and that one doesn’t.”