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More Than Just the Facts: A Hundred Years of Children’s Nonfiction

by James Cross Giblin

There are now in Europe about ten thousand public and private vehicles that are self-moving. They are usually called “automobiles.”. . . It is thought that there are now about three hundred such vehicles in this country. The automobile is the coming vehicle. We shall see it in all our cities and along our country roads. They are safe, fast, comfortable, and to use and ride in one is a pleasure we all want to enjoy. . . . We may imagine the child of the twentieth century saying: “Good-by, Mr. Horse! . . . We thank you for all you have done for us. Go back to your farm and live in peace and comfort. Do the work you can do, and please don’t feel offended if we prefer to go to ride without you.”

Those prophetic remarks are from an article titled “The Automobile: Its Present and Its Future” by a writer named Charles Barnard. It appeared in the March 1900 issue of St. Nicholas magazine, the best-known and most respected children’s periodical at the turn of the century.

St. Nicholas was directed toward children ages six and up, but its articles and stories made few concessions to the slower reader. The type size used was small, and the vocabulary — like that in the above excerpt — was by no means limited to simple words. In this, it was typical of the books that were written and published for children in the early years of the twentieth century. Although a few big-city libraries had children’s rooms by this time, no book publisher as yet had established a separate children’s book department. If a manuscript for children came into the house, it was processed by an adult editor, and many books became children’s favorites almost by accident.

The Macmillan Company was the first to launch, in 1918, a department devoted exclusively to the publication of books for children. Heading the department was Louise Seaman, who had previously done publicity on adult books for Macmillan. Before that, Seaman had taught in a progressive school, so she knew how curious children were about the world around them and how things worked. From the start, her list at Macmillan included a wide assortment of informational books. Among them were such titles as Buried Cities by Jennie Hall, Girls in Africa by Erick Berry, and Men at Work, written and illustrated by the eminent photographer Lewis Hine. Seaman’s list reflected her belief that “there is a poetry in jet planes and space ships and atoms.”

Recognizing a new market, many other publishers founded children’s book departments in the 1920s and 1930s. But none of these departments published the nonfiction book that won the first Newbery Medal in 1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. This title was issued by Horace Liveright, an adult book publisher.

One of the strongest supporters of van Loon’s book was the influential head of children’s services at the New York Public Library, Anne Carroll Moore. In fact, she had been actively involved in its development, for van Loon had shown her his manuscript chapter by chapter as he was writing it. Later Miss Moore commented, “No boy is likely to skip . . . a single chapter of a history which makes the world he lives in seem so spacious, so teeming with human interest.” (She probably singled out boys for special attention because — then, as now — they were often viewed as reluctant readers.)

Today, it’s hard to believe that any young person, male or female, would respond excitedly to van Loon’s five-hundred-page tome. The author’s enthusiasm for his subject can be infectious, and his line drawings — which appear on almost every page — are charming. But other aspects of the book strike a contemporary reader as old-fashioned, if not hopelessly dated. This excerpt from the foreword provides a good example of van Loon’s writing style:

History is the mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done.

In structuring the book, van Loon follows the standard historical route of his day. He begins the chronicle with Prehistoric Man, then moves on to Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages in Western Europe, and the Renaissance, and he concludes with the modern era. There is nothing in the book about the history of Africa, and the coverage of Asian civilizations is limited to just ten pages on Confucius and Buddha.

Most surprising of all, for a book of this scope, the original edition contains a “Historical Reading List” at the back, but no index. How did young readers of the 1920s, and later, use the book for research?

The Story of Mankind may have been awarded the first Newbery Medal, but it certainly didn’t start a trend. In the years since 1922, only five other informational books have won the Newbery. And none of them is a history; instead, all five are biographies. The winning titles are: Invincible Louisa, the life of Louisa May Alcott, by Cornelia Meigs (1934); Daniel Boone by James Daugherty (1940); Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates (1951); Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1956); and Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (1988). It’s interesting to note that the five subjects of these biographies were all Americans, and only one of them was a woman.

Children’s nonfiction fared better when it came to the selection of Newbery Honor Books. There have been thirty of those over the years, eighteen of them biographies (including two of George Washington). But the scope of subject matter treated in the Honor Books has gradually broadened. In 1951, Jeanette Eaton’s Gandhi: Fighter without a Sword became the first biography of a non- Western figure to be awarded a Newbery Honor. Science writing received overdue recognition when Katherine Shippen’s Men, Microscopes, and Living Things made the Honors list in 1956. And a book of African-American history entered the winners’ circle for the first time in 1969 when the Newbery committee awarded an Honor to Julius Lester’s groundbreaking work, To Be a Slave.

Looking back at the biographies that have won Newbery Medals or Honors brings up a question that has often been raised but never entirely resolved. Should biographies include fictionalized scenes and dialogue in order to interest young readers, or should they hew strictly to the facts?

Author Jean Lee Latham made no bones about where she stood on the matter. In her Newbery acceptance speech for Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, she frankly described her winning book as “fictionized biography.” And as late as 1981, when the sixth edition of Children and Books by Zena Sutherland and May Hill Arbuthnot appeared, that Bible of children’s literature endorsed Latham’s approach: “Perhaps fictionalized biography is the best pattern of biography for young people,” the authors wrote. “There is no doubt that dialogue based on facts, written by a scholar and an artist, brings history to life and re-creates living, breathing heroes, who make a deep impression on children.”

A series of juvenile biographies launched in 1932 had helped to create a climate of acceptance for the fictionalized approach. The Childhood of Famous Americans series enjoyed great popularity in the thirties and for many decades after that. A typical biography in the series was Ethel Barrymore: Girl Actress by Shirlee P. Newman, published in 1966. The copy on the jacket flap calls the book a story, not a biography, and the text bears out that description. It is written almost entirely in dialogue, in short, fastmoving paragraphs. Here’s a sample passage:

Tumbling off the bed, Lionel and Ethel threw their arms about their grandmother’s knees. “Is it time to go, Mummum?” Ethel cried, using her grandmother’s pet name. “Is it time to go and see Mama and Papa on the stage?” “It will soon be time.” Mummum leaned down and hugged them close. Then she pushed them away gently, and smoothed her long skirts. “Are you going to the theater like that, Ethel? What would the newspaper say?” Mrs. Drew held a make-believe newspaper in the air. “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” she pretended to read. “Ethel Barrymore, daughter of actors Maurice Barrymore and Georgia Drew Barrymore, went to the theater last night in a long, pink nightie.”

In accordance with the series title, the majority of the book focuses on the subject’s childhood. One hundred and seventy-six of the book’s two hundred pages take the reader up only to Ethel’s stage debut at age fourteen in a play with her grandmother. The rest of the actress’s life is crammed into the next fifteen pages, and the book ends with Ethel’s seventieth birthday celebration, ten years before her death at eighty in 1959.

Stopping before the end of the subject’s life was common in children’s biographies of an earlier time. For example, in Abraham Lincoln, the picture-book biography by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire that won the Caldecott Medal in 1940, there is no mention of Lincoln’s assassination. On the book’s last page, the president simply sits down to rest in his rocking chair following the end of the Civil War. Such endings were an attempt — which many today would call misguided — to shield young readers from the harsher realities of life and give them a happy ending, no matter what the truth.

Attitudes toward fictionalization had changed dramatically by the late 1980s. Jean Fritz, noted for her lively young biographies of the Founding Fathers, has written: “Once a biographer has collected the facts, it is not a matter of coaxing up a story; it is a question of perceiving the story line that is already there. . . . I need as much evidence as I can get, for I do not invent.”

Russell Freedman, in his Newbery acceptance speech for Lincoln, took an even stronger stand in favor of sticking to the facts and avoiding any sort of dramatization. “Many current biographies for children adhere as closely to documented evidence as any scholarly work,” he said. “And the best of them manage to do so without becoming tedious or abstract or any less exciting than the most imaginative fictionalization.”

Later, referring specifically to Lincoln, Freedman added, “It certainly wasn’t necessary to embellish the events of his life with imaginary scenes and dialogue. Lincoln didn’t need a speech writer in his own time, and he doesn’t need one now.”

I’d venture to say that most writers of biographies for children today — as well as the majority of librarians and teachers who evaluate the books for purchase — would agree with Freedman’s position. As I’ve learned myself from writing biographies, the use of excerpts from a subject’s letters, diaries, speeches, and interviews can give young readers a much clearer impression of his or her personality than any invented dialogue possibly could.

Along with the move away from fictionalization in the 1980s, children’s book reviewers (most notably Hazel Rochman in a Booklist editorial) began to demand that nonfiction authors provide detailed notes on their sources — not just in biographies but in all types of informational books. Some authors resisted, claiming that long lists of sources would put off young readers. But by the 1990s most nonfiction titles included not just source notes but glossaries, tables of important dates, suggestions for further reading, and other kinds of supplementary material. And unlike The Story of Mankind, all informational books, even those for the picture-book age, were now expected to have an index.

The new emphasis on accuracy and completeness was only one of the trends that swept through the children’s nonfiction field in the latter part of the century. After the Soviet Union rocketed a satellite, Sputnik, into space in the fall of 1957, Congress responded by passing the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Among other things, the act provided funds for the purchase of science books by school libraries. This led publishers large and small to initiate new series of science books for all age levels. Among the most creative was the Let’s Read and Find Out series, launched by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1960.

Aimed at youngsters in kindergarten through second grade, this series was in many ways the nonfiction counterpart to Harper’s I Can Read series. It combined the work of such outstanding science writers as Franklyn Branley and Paul Showers with the illustrations of topflight artists such as Aliki, Ed Emberley, Nonny Hogrogian, and Paul Galdone. The result was a line of books that combined solid information with lively, colorful graphics, books that entertained young readers even as they educated them.

Before the Let’s Read and Find Out series came along, many nonfiction authors and editors thought the best way to interest youngsters in science was to surround the facts with a fictional framework. The result was the publication of countless books with titles like “Johnny and Janey Visit a Sewage Disposal Plant.” The Let’s Read and Find Out series and others like it put an end to this particular brand of nonfiction hybrid, which usually succeeded neither as fiction nor as nonfiction. But it surfaced again in a fresh and imaginative way with author Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus series, proving that even an outworn approach can be given new vitality by the right author.

Increased support for school libraries came as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” program of 1964. This new financing benefited all types of children’s books, but nonfiction — and not just science nonfiction — got a large slice of the pie. The Great Society coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. The latter movement, in turn, spawned a new interest in black history and the heroic men and women who had played active parts in it. Once again, Crowell led the way with a series of young biographies about prominent figures Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Paul Robeson, written by well-known black authors such as Alice Walker, June Jordan, and Eloise Greenfield.

As federal funds for libraries dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s, children’s book publishers shifted their focus to the bookstore market. To attract consumers, picture books became more colorful and juvenile nonfiction more visual. Some of the new nonfiction titles, like David Macaulay’s imaginative books about construction techniques, Cathedral, City, and Pyramid, were illustrated with detailed drawings. But most of the nonfiction books that caught people’s eyes in the 1970s were produced on heavy, high-grade paper and illustrated with top-quality black-and-white or full-color photographs. So many of these photo-illustrated books were published that they soon acquired a generic name: the photo-essay.

The name might be new, but photo-illustrated fact books had occupied a small but significant niche in children’s literature for many years. Florence Fitch’s One God: The Ways We Worship Him (1944) made effective use of photographs to portray the rituals of the major religions in America. Discovering Design by Marion Downer (1947) introduced children to the similar patterns found in nature and in art. What’s Inside? by May Garelick (1955) depicted the gradual emergence of a gosling from its egg.

The genre came into its own, though, with the publication of such photo-essays of the 1970s as Small Worlds Close Up by Lisa Grillone and Joseph Gennaro, The Hospital Book by James Howe, with photographs by Mal Warshaw, and Journey to the Planets by Patricia Lauber. Books such as these attracted readers with their inviting design layouts and dramatic photographs, then held the reader’s attention with tightly written and sharply focused texts, laced with carefully chosen anecdotes.

The trend toward more visual nonfiction books grew and spread in the 1980s. No longer was it confined to books for younger children; now it extended to books for the elementary and middle school grades. Many of the books were illustrated with contemporary pictures; others, such as Russell Freedman’s Children of the Wild West, with archival photographs. In some cases, such as the popular Dorling Kindersley series on everything from ancient Rome to whales, the visual concepts came first and the texts of the books were often little more than captions.

Planning the illustration approach and researching the pictures became an important part of the nonfiction writer’s job, as I discovered when I was working on Charles A. Lindbergh: A Human Hero. The search for photos to illuminate the airman’s life took me from the Air and Space Museum in Washington to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul (repository of Lindbergh’s boyhood photo albums) to the backroom file cabinets of the Corbis-Bettman agency in New York City. Picture research can be an expensive proposition for the author. Most publishers build an illustration allowance into the contract for the book, but many authors exhaust it and end up digging into their own pockets in order to secure the best possible pictures for their books.

As children’s nonfiction was becoming more attractive, it was gathering more serious critical attention. Milton Meltzer’s article “Where Do All the Prizes Go?: The Case for Nonfiction” (February 1976 Horn Book) helped pave the way. In its wake, new awards were established to honor the creators of nonfiction: The Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction; The Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction, given by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; and the Orbis Pictus Award, presented by the National Council of Teachers of English. The Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Award, established in 1977, honors a nonfiction writer for his or her body of work.

Newbery Award committees also showed an increased interest in nonfiction — especially the new brand of illustrated nonfiction. After singling out only one nonfiction title as a Newbery Honor Book in the entire decade of the 1970s, the committees of the 1980s chose three in quick succession: Sugaring Time by Kathryn Lasky and Christopher Knight in 1983, Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg in 1986, and Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber in 1987. These were immediately followed by the 1988 Newbery Medal for Russell Freedman’s Lincoln. It was the first time a nonfiction book had won the coveted Newbery since 1956, thirty-two years earlier.

After two decades of innovation in the children’s nonfiction field, the 1990s were largely a time of consolidation. Publishers brought out a number of fine books, but there were no striking new departures in terms of content or form. Russell Freedman received Newbery Honors for two more biographies, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane in 1992 and Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery in 1994; and in 1996 Jim Murphy was given an Honor for The Great Fire, about the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871. But no informational book of the nineties was awarded the Newbery Medal itself.

All three nineties Honor winners reflected the high standards of design and illustration that had been established for children’s nonfiction in the previous decade. As more and more titles appeared in oversize formats with striking photographs or colorful paintings as illustrations, the traditional boundaries between age groups broke down. No longer did children in the upper elementary and middle school grades reject picture-book nonfiction as “babyish.” Heavily illustrated titles such as Diane Stanley’s biographies of Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, and Leonardo da Vinci; Seymour Simon’s spectacular books about the planets; and my own picture book biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson found as much acceptance from sixth graders as they did from third graders.

There are several possible explanations for this change in attitude. The most obvious is that young people today, accustomed to getting so much of their information from television and the Internet, want the same sort of emphasis on the visual in their books. A second theory is less positive. It suggests that the many youngsters who are not able to read at their own grade level may be drawn to the brief texts in nonfiction picture books, finding them easier to grasp. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that the trend toward nonfiction picture books for older children will extend into the new millennium.

Another trend that’s likely to endure is the willingness to discuss hitherto taboo topics in children’s informational books. In recent years, nonfiction writers have explored in a frank, thoroughgoing manner such subjects as child abuse, teenage sex and pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, and substance abuse — despite lingering opposition from groups of various stripes who believe that such books are unsuitable for children and young adults.

I was made vividly aware of this situation a few years ago when I was asked by a Texas school librarian what project I was currently working on. I told her about the book that eventually became When Plague Strikes, a comparative study of three deadly diseases, the Black Death, smallpox, and AIDS. “Oh, good,” the librarian said. “I’ll probably be able to purchase that book for my library because you put AIDS in the context of those other diseases. Given the strong feelings in my community, I couldn’t buy a book about AIDS alone.”

Despite such hurdles, I’m convinced that nonfiction writers will continue to explore controversial subject matter in the twenty-first century. Sensitively handled, these explorations can be an effective counterbalance to all the exploitative programming that is readily available to young people today via television and the Internet. If the opponents of so-called “unsuitable” books could be made to realize this, they might end up embracing the very books they’re now trying so hard to ban.

Another issue under discussion as the new century begins is the long-range impact the Internet will have on book publishing generally, and children’s nonfiction in particular. There are those who claim that the book as we know it cannot survive, and that young people in the future will receive all the information they need from one form of electronic transmission or another, including electronic books. I find this hard to believe, remembering when, not so long ago, various experts predicted that television would soon replace the book.

In fact, television in many instances has whetted the public’s appetite for informational books. One librarian after another has told me that when a television program focuses on a particular subject — say a National Geographic special on elephants — libraries experience a run on books about elephants in the weeks that follow. I have a hunch that something similar may happen in the case of the Internet. After obtaining a summary of the desired information on a screen, the young person will turn to a book for a more in-depth treatment of the subject — a book that does not require an electrical outlet or battery to operate, and that can be transported easily to any place the young person wants to sit and read it.

I began this essay with an excerpt from an article about the automobile that appeared in a 1900 issue of St. Nicholas; I’ll end with an excerpt from another article about the automobile, “A Hundred Years of Wheels and Wings” by Jim Murphy. (The latter appears in my recently published anthology of pieces by various authors, The Century That Was: Reflections on the Last One Hundred Years [Atheneum]).

Like its predecessor, Murphy’s article is filled with intriguing facts and is written in the sort of clear, lively style that has always marked the best informational writing for children. The piece is framed with an account of the doings of an actual Connecticut farmer. Here is how it begins:

In the spring of 1901, Connecticut farmer Abel Hendron hitched his team of horses to the wagon and began the 7.5 mile journey to town to pick up a plow ordered in February. Ordinarily, it could take him anywhere from two to four hours to reach town and come home, not counting stops he mightmake along the way to chat with neighbors . . . .

And here is how the piece ends, some sixteen pages later:

If Abel Hendron took a ride to town today, he would probably drive a pickup truck or an off-road four-wheel-drive vehicle. Few things would slow his drive, certainly not mud or roads so rutted as to be impassable. In all, his travel time for the round trip journey of fourteen miles might be a half hour to forty minutes. . . .

He would probably be startled to learn that the auto had replaced the horse in the lives and hearts of most Americans and that only a tiny handful of determined farmers still used them for work. . . . He might even blink in disbelief if someone told him that tests were being done on cars that moved over roads without wheels. . . . But Abel Hendron considered himself a modern farmer. So he would have driven quite happily into the twentyfirst century, ready for whatever new forms of transportation the future might hold.

Just as we will move into the future, ready for whatever new forms the transmission of information will take. Among them, I’m convinced, will be an old familiar form — the children’s nonfiction book. The best of these books will embody the same qualities that the finest children’s nonfiction titles of the past have possessed: a topic of interest to young people, explored in depth, and presented with verve and imagination.

And it looks as if nonfiction will be accorded more recognition in the twenty-first century than in the one just ended. Starting in 2001, a major new award, the ALSC/Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, will be presented annually to “the most distinguished American informational book for children published during the preceding year.” Named for Robert Sibert, founder of the Bound-to-Stay-Bound prebindery which is funding the award, the Sibert joins the other major children’s book awards administered by ALSC, including the Newbery and the Caldecott.

It may take a while for the Sibert to achieve the name recognition and prestige that surround the Newbery (whose criteria, incidentally, remain open to works of nonfiction). But even now, in its infancy, the new award is an encouraging indication of the support that exists in America for the writing and publishing of quality children’s nonfiction.

James Cross Giblin is the author of twenty nonfiction books for young readers, the most recent being The Amazing Life of Benjamin Franklin (Scholastic). His article is adapted from a talk given in a Children’s Literature Assembly workshop at the 1999 National Council of Teachers of English conference in Denver, Colorado. From the July/August 2000 Horn Book Magazine.



  1. Virginia Rinkel says:

    This was a very good article. Thank you for all your expertise and views on quality children’s nonfiction.

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