By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
Once upon a time, I learned that there were two types of books–fiction and nonfiction. Fiction was imaginary, and nonfiction was true. And then I became a children’s book editor and occasionally found myself working on some very fiction-y nonfiction. Or is it nonfiction-y fiction?
Why do authors have to go and write books that don’t fall squarely into the fiction category or the nonfiction category? As it turns out, there’s not just one answer to this question. I reached out to the authors of four books we’ve published that blend elements of fiction and nonfiction to find out more.
The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
The Book Itch tells about a real person–Lewis Michaux, owner of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. So why is it fiction? It’s told in first person from the perspective of Lewis’s son, Lewis, Jr.
In the words of author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: “When I spoke with Lewis Jr. about his experiences at his father’s bookstore, I recorded our conversations. Later, as I listened to his voice and considered the picture book, I couldn’t imagine a better way of sharing the story with young readers than from Lewis Jr.’s perspective. In third person, I could have kept The Book Itch nonfiction, but I felt young readers would be more drawn in to a story told “by Lewis Jr.” I knew this would mean expanding on his words and crossing the line between nonfiction and fiction. So be it. What matters most is what works best for the storytelling. However, I think it’s important to inform readers about what’s been done with the nonfiction content, to let them know what they are being served.”
Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer
Love, Agnes: Postcards from an Octopus by Irene Latham
Love, Agnes is not about a real person–in fact, it’s not even about a real octopus! The main character is Agnes, a giant Pacific octopus, which IS a real species of octopus. In this book, Agnes exchanges postcards with a variety of other sea creatures as well as a human boy. So where does nonfiction come in? In the course of the story, readers learn about the octopus life cycle.
Irene Latham says, “When I was working on Love, Agnes, I was inspired by all the amazing facts about octopuses, and I knew I wanted to include those. And I also wanted to become an octopus: what would an octopus say about its life, or to its eggs, or to the other (younger) octopus who steals its home? The magic for me as a writer and a reader of children’s literature is that intersection where information and imagination meet.”
Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate by Sara Levine
Flower Talk explains to young readers how the color of flowers helps plants to communicate with their pollinators. So where does the fiction come in? The entire book is narrated by a rather cantankerous cactus.
Sara Levine explains, “Why a fictional plant narrator? Because learning should be fun and engaging, and having a cranky narrator who addresses the reader directly adds to the joy of it all. It allows for humor and silliness. And kids love that. Everyone does, right? Play as part of learning is so essential, I think.”
So why blend fiction and nonfiction? Because:
- What matters most is what works best for the storytelling.
- The humor and voice help make the book more fun and more engaging.
- The magic is that intersection where information and imagination meet.
- Play as part of learning is essential.
And as an editor, I often think about the different types of readers out there. No single book is going to speak to all readers. We need both excellent fiction and excellent nonfiction. And sometimes the way into a nonfiction topic may come in the form of a book that incorporates elements of fiction.
But I don’t think the books on this list need to stand entirely on their own. One of the wonderful things about picture books is that it’s okay–and even preferable–for more than one book to exist on a given topic. The Book Itch would pair beautifully with other books about Harlem, entrepreneurs, and key figures in black history. Noah Webster’s Fighting Words would be perfect with this year’s An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution. Love, Agnes works nicely alongside either fiction or nonfiction picture books about octopuses. And Flower Talk would be great paired with picture books or photo book about pollinators and pollination.
For more on this topic, check out Betsy Bird’s recent blog post on her favorite fictionalized nonfiction of 2018. Happy reading to all–whether you’re reading fiction, nonfiction, or something in-between!