The Element of Surprise in Nonfiction Picture Books

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press

What makes a kid (or an adult) pick up a nonfiction picture book? What compels them to keep reading? I can think of a few different answers to these questions, but today I’d like to focus on the element of surprise. Why? Because surprises help make books fun!

From the moment we pick up a book, we start to form opinions about it.

“Book people,” a group that includes librarians, teachers, reviewers, booksellers, and those in the publishing business, are likely forming opinions as soon as they hear a book’s title or see the cover. Questions that come to mind might be: What is this book going to tell me about? What do I already know about the topic? What do I wish I knew about it? Who else do I know who might find this book interesting?

Of course, the expectations formed when we see a book’s cover aren’t always completely on target. That’s where the element of surprise comes in! I’ll share a few recent and upcoming Millbrook Press nonfiction picture books to help explain what I mean.

Surprising Nonfiction Picture Books

Dazzle Ships nonfiction picture book by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai

The very topic of Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illus. by Victo Ngai, is a surprise to many people. A great way to start a book talk on this one would be: Did you know that 100 years ago during World War I, more than four thousand ships were painted with wacky patterns and colors to help keep them safe from German torpedoes? The idea seems preposterous. But it’s true!

Dazzle Ships nonfiction picture book spread

Feeling surprised helps us more fully engage with a book.

And once we’ve been surprised, we’re motivated to continue reading–we want to know what other new and exciting information might be lurking in the coming pages.

Noah Webster's Fighting Words nonfiction picture book by Tracy Nelson Maurer and Mircea Catusanu

The element of surprise can also work in other ways. For example, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illus. by Mircea Catusanu, is a picture book biography. When I first read the manuscript as a submission, the thing that delighted me was the fact that it upended my expectations about how a picture book biography works.

Noah Webster's Fighting Words nonfiction picture book spread

How so? The main text is told in third person, as you’d expect, but additional first-person commentary is provided by Noah Webster’s ghost!

Bone by Bone nonfiction picture book by Sara Levine and T.S Spookytooth

Finally, a book on a familiar topic can include surprising facts. In Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine, illus. by T.S Spookytooth, readers encounter a series of questions. Initially, they’re not too tricky: “Can you imagine how you’d look if we added some bones to your spine? What if your vertebrae didn’t stop at your rear end? What if they kept going?”

But I love one of the questions that comes later in the book: “What kind of animal would you be if your finger bones grew so long that they reached your feet?” The answer? A bat! I had never thought about a bat in this way until I read Sara’s manuscript. The surprising new information I learned helped keep me engaged–and gave new insight into vertebrate skeletal structure.

Bone by Bone nonfiction picture book spread

That last phrase is key. In a good nonfiction picture book, the element of surprise isn’t included only for fun. And it’s not there just because it helps readers engaged.

The best surprises also deepen a reader’s understanding of the book’s topic.

Easy to pull off? No. Awesome? Always!

As you’re reading nonfiction picture books, be on the lookout for surprises. And for those of you who are writing nonfiction picture books, I challenge you to find ways to incorporate the element of surprise!

Read about what else makes for a great nonfiction book for kids in my “Elements of Excellence in Science Books” post. And for more about writing picture books, check out my “Greetings from PictureBookLand” post.

What nonfiction books have surprised you recently? I’d love to hear about them!

5 thoughts on “The Element of Surprise in Nonfiction Picture Books

  1. Olga Christie

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it and thinking about the role of surprise in NF. I like how you consider new perspective, rather than sheer wow factor, as a more subtle point on the surprise spectrum. Very much like “Bone by Bone”, Steve Jenkins’ “Eye to Eye” is an intriguing and focused study of different animals’ eyes.

    1. carolhinz

      Olga, thank you so much for your comment! I love the idea of a “surprise spectrum” because not every book can–or should–surprise the reader in the same way. Yes, Eye to Eye is a good one, isn’t it?

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  3. Gwendolyn Hooks

    It’s exciting to find a book that features “I never knew that!” content. I will send it to my grown up Marine son who loves history as much as I do.

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