How Do You Solve a Problem like Nonfiction?

As we near the close of every issue of the Magazine, the editors look at all the books being reviewed, together as a group, to make sure they’re in the “right” part of the book review section. Where will the librarians, the booksellers, the teachers, the parents for whom each book would be most useful be most likely to look for it, or to stumble upon it? We keep this question in mind as we go, but sometimes it takes seeing everything together to notice a slip-up or question a decision. The Magazine’s book review section is divided quite broadly — Picture Books (fictional), Fiction (easy readers, chapter books, novels), Folklore, Poetry, Nonfiction — and most books are fairly straightforward to categorize (e.g., a made-up illustrated story about a child’s first day of school probably goes in Picture Books; a dystopian fantasy novel, however close to home it may hit, is Fiction). Inevitably, though, there are books that “break the rules.” One category that seems increasingly porous and difficult to define is Nonfiction. Here we offer some anecdotal observations; some common conundrums; recent examples; our conclusions; and other sides of the arguments.

Talking Animals, Yea or Nay?

While finalizing this year’s March/April book reviews section, we had this exchange about Henry Cole’s picture book Nesting. We’d categorized it as Nonfiction, and longtime, trusted reviewer Betty Carter asked: why not Picture Books? (As she indicated, the Library of Congress classifies it as Fiction; oftentimes we agree with them, sometimes no.) As she pointed out: “It is about a single bird (or bird family as the case may be) rather than a class.” This question is one we often face: What is animal nonfiction? It can be a fine line, for example, between a nonfiction picture book whose primary purpose is relating facts and information but from a narrative remove (e.g., Steve Jenkins and Robin Page’s The Frog Book, rev. 3/19) and one whose primary purpose is the same but done through personified characters or nonspecific species. After some further thought about Nesting, we concluded that the informational aspect of the book was primary to the storytelling piece of it — though both together undoubtedly enhance readers’ enjoyment. We came to a similar conclusion about Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera (reviewed in that same issue), which buzzes in on a single bee as bee exemplar, but which the Library of Congress put in the Dewey 500s and classifies as Nonfiction (as did we).

Neither Nesting nor Honeybee includes talking animals — but many informational books do. The Nature Diary series (which includes My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis, rev. 5/17; and My Happy Year by E. Bluebird, rev. 5/19; narrated by, respectively, a praying mantis and a bluebird); titles in the Giggle and Learn series such as Ants Don’t Wear Pants!, rev. 1/20; and Maxwell Eaton III’s Truth About Your Favorite Animals series (beginning with The Truth About Bears, The Truth About Dolphins, and The Truth About Hippos, rev. 5/18) all went in Nonfiction. All of these books’ raisons d’être is the relation of facts, with the assumption that readers will not take literally their means of conveyance and that the books’ creatively conveyed humor is intended as high-interest and attention-grabbing.


The question we ask ourselves when trying to categorize a talking-animal informational picture book is: Where will people most likely look for this book at the library or bookstore? On the picture book shelves, hoping to find a story about a particular animal? Or on the nonfiction shelves, hoping to find information about a particular animal, entertainingly presented? So far we seem to be leaning toward the latter.

Picture Books, Poetry, or Nonfiction?


When nonfiction picture books convey information through verse poetry, it adds another wrinkle to our classification system. Topics such as the natural world lend themselves well to poetic description, and we’ve seen many fine picture books that overlap categories. Books by Joyce Sidman, including Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (rev. 11/14); David Elliott’s In the Woods (rev. 3/20), In the Past (rev. 3/18), and others use lyrical language to paint visual pictures of the world around us, with dynamic accompanying illustrations to clarify the details. As such, they could arguably be at home in the Nonfiction section, while their format could also point to Picture Books. We put them in Poetry — almost always our shortest book review section — because the verse is a major part of what elevates these books beyond the information being presented, which, if it had been delivered in straightforward prose, might not be enough to earn the books a spot in the Magazine. We’re evaluating them based on the quality of the individual poems, the quality of the pictures, and the way they work together.

In some cases we determine that verse — even intricate verse — is the medium of a story for some other purpose. April Pulley Sayre’s natural-world picture books, with vivid photographic illustrations (Warbler Wave, rev. 3/18, and others), are written as poetry; while ear-pleasingly lyrical, the texts are most effective — and the volumes unique — in the way they present early science for very young children, and so we put them in Nonfiction. Carole Boston Weatherford’s books, too, tend to fall into this category. For instance, Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom (rev. 3/20) is told in sixains, one line for each side of a box. These poems, with their carefully considered form, have a function beyond simply being poems: they tell the true story of Henry Brown, who ­self-emancipated from enslavement by shipping himself North in a wooden crate. We put it in Nonfiction, as we’d done with Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom (rev. 9/15), Schomburg (rev. 9/17), and By and By (rev. 1/20), because the lives of their subjects, and the contexts and details surrounding those lives, are what compel us throughout the stories. Memoirs that are written in verse, such as Soaring Earth (rev. 3/19), SHOUT (rev. 3/19), and Ordinary Hazards (rev. 9/19), have frequently gone in Nonfiction — but memoirs themselves often raise their own questions.

Invented Details

In her intimate verse memoir Ordinary Hazards, Nikki Grimes tells her life story, from childhood through adolescence, in as true a way as she can. But due to the passage of time and trauma suffered, she has difficulty remembering some details, a point she very openly acknowledges; indeed, an epigraph in big letters defines memoir as “a work of imperfect memory in which you meticulously capture all that you can recall, and use informed imagination to fill in what remains.” Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis (rev. 3/20), which we put in Nonfiction and which says “True Story” right in the subtitle, acknowledges that people’s recollections can be spotty, especially in a story that has been “forgotten” to history. The appeal of having a broader and more diverse range of experience represented in Nonfiction (and the authors’ open acknowledgment of factual fallibility) took precedence in these cases.

But then again, when the book says it’s Fiction, we usually believe it. When Stars Are Scattered (rev. 3/20) by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed tells the story of Mohamed’s early life as a Somali refugee and caretaker to his younger brother growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya. Jamieson adapted her co-author’s story in comic form, and this book would ordinarily go in Nonfiction, joining graphic memoirs such as Hey, Kiddo (rev. 9/18), Guts (rev. 9/19), They Called Us Enemy (rev. 9/19), and the March trilogy (March: Book One, rev. 1/14, and sequels). And yet, in her appended author’s note, Jamieson talks about inventing characters, as compilations of several people Mohamed described during their extensive conversations together. Without reading the note, readers likely would think the story was straight Nonfiction. How important to young readers is the distinction? Does Mohamed’s emotional life story — mostly true but for some of the narrative details — have the same impact in Fiction as it would in Nonfiction?

Picture-book Biographies

And what about for even younger readers — how fictionalized can a picture-book biography be and still be categorized as Nonfiction? The traditional picture-book biography is the story of a life, usually in the third person, with back matter that perhaps includes source notes and maybe a bibliography. But the definition seems to be stretching, as the lines between fact and fiction are blurring; we’ve seen a good number of first-person perspectives lately, along with a resurgence of invented dialogue and authorial speculation. It’s easy to see why: fictional elements can certainly liven up the texts, or make the subject more relatable to contemporary children, or provide a new lens through which to view an oft-covered topic.

For instance, A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Matt Tavares, reviewed in our most recent March/April issue. Ben looks at events in Ben Franklin’s childhood in order to answer questions about his adulthood—how he came to choose as his first occupation that of a printer, and, too, how eclectic were his interests and accomplishments as an adult. But the events in the picture book are based on tidbits of information Rosen gleaned from Franklin’s autobiography. So, for instance, a scene in which the boy Ben demonstrates swimming strokes for his father was invented by the author, who “worked to open out Franklin’s brief recollections in order to compose a realistic story you would enjoy.” This book contains a thorough and illuminating author’s note delineating fact from fiction in the book, as well as a bibliography. Still, we put it in Picture Book — we felt its invented, fictionalized elements tipped it out of Nonfiction.   

Pushing the envelope even further is a book like 16 Words: William Carlos Williams & “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by Lisa Rogers, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (rev. 11/19), which centers as the biography’s subject not a person but a poem. As the author imagines the circumstances in which that famous poem might have been created, the reader learns so much about Williams’s life and about his creative process. There are facts aplenty here. But the author’s interpretation of those facts (“Was Williams making a connection between himself and the wheelbarrow’s owner? That’s what I believed, and what inspired me to write this story. But Williams might not have meant that”) sent it out of Nonfiction and into historical fiction, and thus, for the Horn Book, into Picture Books. (We called it an “elegant rendition of what the birth of this poem might have been like.”)

And here we find ourselves with a dilemma. Because if we go by our general rule of Where would librarians and readers look for a book about, say, Ben Franklin or William Carlos Williams?, you’d have to say Nonfiction, not Picture Book. And yet…we found ourselves unable, going by a strict definition of what constitutes nonfiction, to categorize these books as such.

One final point: sometimes the decision to place a book into one or the other category in the Magazine may seem quixotic. But sometimes it matters. A few years ago we reviewed a picture-book biography of Louis Braille told in the first person. In a note, the author said that she thought herself into the psyche of young Louis, imagining his feelings. Although the framework of the story is nonfiction, with the outward events of his childhood described factually, the addition of his perceived emotions pushed it out of the Nonfiction category for us. Why? Because the author thought like a sighted person, and imposed her sighted perceptions onto the blind preschooler, such that the text created a false picture. The text states, for instance, that after two years of gradually losing his sight, now-blind young Louis considered his world “dark and dangerous.” In fact, preschooler Louis would probably have barely remembered seeing. His world would have felt ordinary to him, not “dark and dangerous.” The text then has him searching without success for the sun, and decrying its loss. A blind person can often find the sun by its warmth; it doesn’t disappear just because you can’t see it. Labeling this book Nonfiction would have meant endorsing a flawed portrait of both a person and an entire disability.

Who Lives, Who Dies…?

We are coming up against the placement-of-picture-book-biographies dilemma more and more, as more and more of them are seeming to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it. Should we widen the definition of Nonfiction? Or continue to make a distinction between fiction and fact?

Not to lean too hard on our musical theater references, but, to quote Hamilton, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” If we were to stick so closely to the traditional definition of Nonfiction, insisting on primary and secondary sources, supporting documents, a time-tested historical record — then whose stories would we continue to overlook, question, erase, and invalidate? There’s no shortage of historical data about Ben Franklin — and easily available information can mean overrepresentation in children’s books. Heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, whose lives were lived in the public eye and under scrutiny, are frequent picture-book-biography subjects (and sometimes victims of dimensional-flattening).

We’ve recently reviewed, in Nonfiction, books about people whose life stories may not be as well-known or as fact-checkable but whose accomplishments deserve recognition and whose stories make for a much richer and more diverse understanding of history: The Oldest Student (rev. 1/20) about Mary Walker, who learned to read at age 116; Buzzing with Questions (rev. 11/19) about renowned African American entomologist Charles Henry Turner; Dancing Hands (rev. 9/19), winner of the 2020 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award, about Teresa Carreño, who played piano for Abraham Lincoln.

The 2020 Sibert Award

And speaking of awards — the Robert F. Sibert Medal is given each year to “the most distinguished informational book for children,” further defined as: “those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material.” This year’s Sibert Medal went to Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (rev. 11/19) by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. We’d felt confident putting Fry Bread in Picture Books: “This affectionate picture book depicts an intergenerational group of Native American family members and friends as they make fry bread together.” Fry Bread provides a remarkable amount of information about Native peoples, traditions, and cultures, most obviously in the extensive back matter by Maillard (a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey Band) and powerful endpapers (which list the names of Indigenous communities and nations currently within the U.S., some federally recognized, others not). But without the back matter, the book presents itself more as a story, as a grandmother gathers children around her to make the bread and tell them, in spare, poetic verse, about its origins and meaning. It’s great that those who pick up Fry Bread looking for a good picture book will learn so much about a diverse and varied group of cultures who historically and systematically experience erasure; and it’s gratifying that those who look to the Sibert list for excellence in informational books will find this warmhearted storybook there.

*    *    *

The evolution of our industry’s approach to nonfiction is a complex and fascinating one, and opinions undoubtedly vary and change. In the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” accusations, it is imperative to keep an eye toward objective accuracy, whenever possible; but perhaps most important is fostering, guiding, and encouraging young people’s critical thinking skills about and engagement with the world around them.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.

Horn Book
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Stephanie Calmenson

Thanks for this good article in which you make connecting readers with books the priority:"Where will the librarians, the booksellers, the teachers, the parents for whom each book would be most useful be most likely to look for it, or to stumble upon it?" "The question we ask ourselves when trying to categorize a talking-animal informational picture book is: Where will people most likely look for this book at the library or bookstore? On the picture book shelves, hoping to find a story about a particular animal? Or on the nonfiction shelves, hoping to find information about a particular animal, entertainingly presented? So far we seem to be leaning toward the latter."In 2007, Horn Book classified my Fanfare book MAY I PET YOUR DOG? The How-To Guide for KIDS Meeting DOGS (and DOGS Meeting Kids) as nonfiction, which is how I was classifying it as well. The Library of Congress, though, put it in the fiction category and, when queried, a representative wrote, "After consulting the subject specialist responsible for cataloging materials about animals, we both concluded that, while the book does contain some factual information, because of the overall presentation the book is best classed as fiction." It was then brought to my attention that librarians can choose to disregard the LOC classification and put a book wherever they think readers are most likely to look for it, reflecting your same priorities.

Posted : Jun 25, 2020 03:18


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