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31 Days, 31 Lists: Day Twenty-Two – 2017 Fictionalized Nonfiction for Kids


Okay. Fun with defining terms.

So what exactly do I mean when I say that something is a work of “fictionalized nonfiction”? Well, let’s look at what makes a book a work of fiction or nonfiction. When writing for children, I personally believe that it is possible to write something fun and fabulous without relying on false situations, fake dialogue, or any other shortcuts. But is that always the best way to tell a story? Not necessarily. Some books with factual subjects benefit greatly from adding imaginative elements. So what’s a poor librarian (to say nothing of the catalogers) to do? You don’t want to shelve the false with the true, but at the same time, you’re not sure that any of this fictionalized nonfiction will find its audience in the fiction section.

I don’t really know the answer to that predicament. What I do know is that I have the advantage of celebrating those works of fiction + nonfiction today on this list. The books that I am highlighting today do a marvelous job of mixing together creative ingenuity with factual matter. That said, I do feel compelled to warn you that you’ll probably take issue with one or two of the books that show up on this list here today. I’ll try to explain why they’re here each time, but you’ll definitely wonder at my reasoning from time to time. I mean aren’t all illustrations essentially fictional anyway? That’s a debate for another day. Today, enjoy the list:

2017 Fictionalized Nonfiction for Kids

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard


First off, we begin with a book that uses first-person text. There’s no rule that says this shouldn’t be done when discussing biographical subjects, but it does mean that you can’t strictly call the book 100% factual. This particular book was one of my favorites this year, which surprised me considerably considering the subject matter. I’ve nothing against Bach but I’d never had anything for him either. Leonard pulls out all the stops (so does Bach – literally!) to bring his subject to life. It sounds crazy, but after reading this book I think it’s fair to say that a kid would actually want to listen to the man’s music.

Ben’s Revolution: Benjamin Russell and the Battle of Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick, ill. Wendell Minor


It took my current job as a Collection Development Manager of adult titles to realize that Nathaniel Philbrick is kind of a big deal. You’d be forgiven if you read the title and not the subtitle and assumed that this book was about Ben Franklin. Clocking in at 64 pages Philbrick pulls the most important moments from his book (for adults) and reframes it all through the eyes of a boy named Benjamin Russell. In this book Philbrick allows himself to speculate what might have happened to Ben in and around Boston from 1773 to 1775. It’s a clever conceit made all the more attractive by Wendell Minor’s art. Though, to be fair, everything everywhere is improved by Wendell Minor’s art.

Betty’s Burgled Bakery: An Alliteration Adventure by Travis Nichols


A book told entirely in alliteration? Sounds like a dare, not the premise for a story. Plus, I’d read the previous book by Nichols called Fowl Play which took figurative speech to another level and was a little meh on it. I MUCH preferred this book. Certainly the very concept must have posed a challenge for the author/illustrator, but it’s also a really good mystery on top of that. For those kids studying alliteration, I can’t think of a better or simpler book out there that gets the point across. Helloooo, curricular tie-ins!

The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca, ill. Daniel Rieley


Oh ho! This book from Innovation Press came dangerously close to escaping my notice, but at the very last minute (lunchtime yesterday) I was able to give it a thorough going over. What I found was a story about a living, breathing, African-American doctor heroine. One time I had a kid come up to my reference desk and ask me for picture book biographies of black women who were still alive. Yeah. I hate to say it, but that is NOT easy. Now we have this book, which tells (in rhyme with fake dialogue) the story of how Dr. Bath had to fight and fight and fight to get the job done. A keeper.

The Elephant Keeper: Caring for Orphaned Elephants in Zambia by Margriet Ruurs, ill. Pedro Covo


The Citizen Kid series from Kids Can Press doesn’t always do the job for me. This book, however, was different. It takes a real situation (people who work to care for orphaned elephants and return them to the wild) and personalizes it with a fictional character. Even though Aaron, the teen boy in this book, isn’t real, his situation is based on that of real people. The resources in the back are excellent and there’s an interesting p.o.v. on the part of the villagers that view elephants as little more than pests.

I Am Gandhi by Brad Meltzer,  ill. Christopher Eliopoulos


I hated this series when I had to catalog it back at NYPL. But now that I’ve a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, I’m an instant convert. The Lucille Ball book is still, as far as I can ascertain, the best that Meltzer and Eliopoulos ever did, but I’ve a great deal of affection for this Gandhi title as well. It’s not as if we lack for Gadhi biographies for kids in general, but this gives a pretty clear overview of his life from start to finish. Obviously if you dislike the series, this book isn’t going to change your mind. But if you like a little comic strip-style art with your factual information, this may be the book for you.

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, ill. Karla Gudeon


Though Rich Michelson definitely changes parts of the historical record regarding Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was determined to revive Hebrew as a living and not dead language. This book actually would pair exceptionally well with Noah Webster’s Fighting Words (featured down below) since both titles show how the very words and language that we speak can be altered and changed in an instant. Michelson uses a fair amount of invented dialogue in this book, but the bones of the story are factual and the tale a really interesting one.

Melvin the Mouth: Young Mel Blanc… Before He Was the Man of 1,000 Voices by Katherine Blanc, ill. Jeffrey Ebbeler


I’m happy to include this fictionalized picture book of young Mel Blanc here, but with the clear understanding that Blanc and Ebbeler should branch out above and beyond her immediate relatives. Why not turn this into a series? Young Lon Chaney! Young Josephine Baker! I could go on.

Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament by Anne Renaud, ill. Felicita Sala


While I admittedly would also love to someday see a formal picture book bio of George Crum himself (described in the publisher’s description as “a trapper of mixed Native American and African American descent, who supplied restaurants with fresh game, then became a chef and successful restauranteur himself”) I like this legendary telling of how he invented the potato chip very well indeed. Renaud clearly has had a lot of fun with the original tale, taking it from urban legend to myth. It will, however, make you hungry for potato chips. Very hungry.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, ill. Evan Turk


I absolutely adore this tale. Maybe it really does have a shot at the Caldecott this year? Only time will tell. You may be surprised to find it on this list, but alas the book has invented dialogue in it from time to time. Nothing wrong with that as it will find a safe home on today’s list. Come for the subject matter. Stay for Turk’s mind-blowing art.

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch, ill. Marjorie Priceman

MusicLifeThe invention of the piano has never been this much fun to read! Of all the books on today’s list, perhaps this is the one that the most people would take issue with were I to describe it as “fictionalized nonfiction” (and I do). After all, it was meticulously researched with enough backmatter to choke a cow and gorgeous art by Priceman besides. For my part, I’m happy to be corrected if anyone can corroborate the thoughts that emanate from Cristofori’s head on one issue or another. It reads as though there are fictionalized elements. Please tell me if this is in error.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, ill. Sally Wern Comport


Now that I cast my mind back a bit, I do remember back in NYC when I worked the children’s reference desk getting a question, regularly, about picture books about everyday Ancient Egyptian life. At the time there wasn’t much to recommend aside from maybe Egyptian Diary: The Journal of Nakht by Richard Platt. Consider this a much younger companion book to Platt’s classic. This is, in many ways, one of the most original first-day-of-school books you’ll encounter in quite a while.

Nina, Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Briere-Haquet, ill. Bruno Llance


In retrospect, maybe it would have made sense to include this book on my CaldeNott list. Bruno Liance is French, else this beauty would be up for some serious conversations. The premise is the fictionalized part of this book. Nina is singing a lullaby to her daughter and the story of her life filters through.

Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, ill. Mircea Catusanu


A cute idea. Noah Webster is allowed to edit his own picture book biography, which gives Maurer’s text just the right kick in the pants. After all, how interesting would kids find a picture book about a guy who wrote a dictionary? With Noah’s snarky interjections, the story of how Americanized English came into its own (a fascinating history I knew nothing about) takes on a new life.

Robinson by Peter Sis


Ah! We’ve yet to encounter a fictionalized personal memoir today. I think this Sis book fits the bill. In a way, the picture book itself is helped a great deal by the factual Author’s Note that Sis places at the end. In this telling, a boy (Peter) is humiliated in school for coming as Robinson Crusoe when he was “supposed” to be a pirate. His subsequent illness and dreams help him reach the final resolution with his friends. Be sure to flip to the back to see the absolutely killer Crusoe costume Sis’s mom made for him back in the day.

Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day by Jennifer George, ill. Ed Steckley


About two years ago Barnes & Noble sold Rube Goldberg calendars. My kids loved them. I was compelled by them to explain every step of those ridiculously complicated contraptions. This book is very much in the same vein as the original Goldberg art, but with a contemporary twist. As you might expect some “solutions” are more plausible than others, but I love the idea that they have STEM curricular tie-ins.

Sticks n’ Stones n’ Dinosaur Bones by Ted Enik, ill. G.F. Newlan


I think that this is the second book on this list today to employ rhyme (the first being The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes). It is strange, don’t you agree, that the dinosaur bone wars have never been properly celebrated in film, television, and children’s books? This book takes some liberties with the story, using the bone wars more as a point to leap off from than anything else. Fun to read aloud, that’s for sure.


Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:

December 1 – Board Books

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Wordless Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Alphabet Books

December 7 – Funny Picture Books

December 8 – CaldeNotts

December 9 – Picture Book Reprints

December 10 – Math Picture Books

December 11 – Bilingual Books

December 12 – Translated Picture Books

December 13 – Books with a Message

December 14 – Fabulous Photography

December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales

December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year

December 17 – Poetry Books

December 18 – Easy Books

December 19 – Early Chapter Books

December 20 – Comics for Kids

December 21 – Older Funny Books

December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books

December 29 – Fiction Reprints

December 30 – Middle Grade Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

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. Why is Betty’s Burgled Bakery nonfiction at all?

  2. Nathan Spofford says:

    Red and Lulu, by Matt Tavares, is the “fictionalized nonfiction” story of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, as seen from the point of view of two cardinals. Brilliantly rendered illustrations tell much of the story and add extraordinary perspectives (double page spreads of the George Washington Bridge and the Chrysler Building as seen by a high-flying cardinal.) Fascinating facts from the afterword include: The tree is often 8 stories tall, the star at the top weighs 550 pounds, wood from the tree is given to Habitat for Humanity for use in building housing for people in need. An all-around completely fictionalized treasure trove of accurate information!

  3. Betsy, great list! I am curious to know how you would compare the new George Crum title you list with “George Crum and the Saratoga Chop” (2011)… both fictionalized, both picture books…

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I like them both! But I found the use of language in the new George Crum just the coolest thing. Definitely would pair them together in the future, though.