Blending Nonfiction and Fiction: 4 Recent Picture Books

fiction and nonfiction books

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

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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

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Noah Webster is, of course, another real person. And Noah Webster’s Fighting Words is told in third person . . . mostly. The fiction comes in the form of comments on the text and illustrations by none other than Noah’s ghost.
Author Tracy Nelson Maurer explains, “As I worked on the umpteenth revision of this manuscript, I wondered what Noah would say about his biography—he was a ruthless editor and such an opinionated guy. He also had a sense of humor toward the end of his life. Boom! Inspiration: a ghost editor! But to be true to Noah and create an authentic voice, I based this fictional editor on some serious research, including interviewing Joshua Kendall, the author of the biography, The Forgotten Founding Father, which offered a rich psychological analysis of Noah’s personality.
“I feel that in children’s literature, the element of fiction in a nonfiction work must be clearly obvious. A young reader should be able to easily discern what is information and what is imagined. The commentary from Noah the fictional character is appears in a different typeface and color to help distinguish it from the main text (and because Noah used a red pencil when he edited!). Noah’s commentary is also positioned on the page away from the primary narrative. Its voice is all Noah’s, not the straightforward narrator’s.
“The humor and voice the fictional element brings to this nonfiction book help make it more fun and more engaging; it also reveals more about Noah than the more traditional narrative would have accomplished. I’m grateful that Carol and Lerner took a risk on the combination.”

Love, Agnes: Postcards from an Octopus by Irene Latham

Love, Agnes: Postcards from an Octopus, a life cycle book

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

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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.”

In Conclusion

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!

More posts by Carol.

11 thoughts on “Blending Nonfiction and Fiction: 4 Recent Picture Books

    1. carolhinz

      Thanks so much for chiming in, Laura! Flower Talk comes out at the beginning of March 2019–I look forward to hearing what you think of it!

  1. Donna Janell Bowman

    Terrific post! I am always intrigued by unique storytelling approaches available to information-sharers. Sometimes, the Library of Congress still considers such hybrid approaches to be nonfiction—IF the focus is still on the facts. Which is why Magic Tree House is considered NF. Thanks for shining the light, Carol!

    1. carolhinz

      Thank you, Donna! It’s definitely tricky to know whether to categorize these books as fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes I think it would be helpful to have a distinct category for “informational fiction.”

  2. Liz Tracy

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. Most of what I have been writing falls in this “informational fiction” range, and I have been struggling to figure out how to describe it in synopses or query letters.(I have been alternating between calling it historical fiction and informational fiction.) I, too, would love to see the creation of a distinct category for this blended form. 🙂

  3. Teresa Robeson

    I’ve been writing pure NF up until now though have occasionally thought about making something NF more fanciful and this post has inspired me to give it a try in the new year. Thanks for piquing my excitement with this post, Carol!

    1. carolhinz

      You’re so welcome, Teresa. The fun thing about picture books is that they’re short enough that you can try lots of different approaches to a given topic. Happy writing in 2019!

  4. Pingback: Picture Books: Nonfiction, Fiction or Both? – Nonfiction Monday

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