A Closer Look: What’s the Deal with Back Matter?

by Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

Last summer as we were making the final tweaks to our Spring 2021 picture books before they went off to the printer, I was struck by the fascinating range of back matter found in these six books. But what exactly is back matter and why does it, well, matter?

In the broadest sense, the back matter comes after the rest of a book’s text and elaborates upon or gives additional detail about a key part of the main text. In a picture book, the back matter often delves into ideas that are too complex to fully address in the main text. You might find a timeline, an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, photographs, a glossary, suggested further reading, or all kinds of other components.

So which elements are right for a given book? Well, it depends on the book. The back matter is not the place for an author to include everything they couldn’t fit in the main text, and I do not believe that the best back matter is necessarily the longest back matter. Instead, the right elements are those that enhance the reading experience and add to our understanding of whatever it is the book is about.

And with that, I’d like to highlight some of the elements found in the back matter of our Spring 2021 picture books.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustratrated by Floyd Cooper

An author’s note or illustrator’s note can be a great place to include a creator’s personal connection to a book’s subject matter. These connections are one of the most memorable elements in the back matter for Unspeakable, which also includes further information about Tulsa’s history, the massacre itself, other so-called race riots, present-day efforts to locate graves of the victims, and both historical and current photos.

Editor’s Note: The Educator’s Guide for Unspeakable includes ways to incorporate these notes into lesson plans for that book!

Rissy No Kissies

by Katey Howes, illustrated by Jess Engle

What’s back matter doing in a fictional, rhyming picture book?! I’ve noticed over the past few years that the right back matter can enhance fictional picture books just as it enhances nonfiction. The main character in Rissy No Kissies is a young lovebird who does not like to be kissed and has to find a way to communicate this to family and friends. The back matter includes a page for kids and a page for adults, both of which touch on boundaries, body autonomy, and consent.

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer

by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan

This picture book biography has multifaceted back matter, including a detailed timeline, photos of Mary Golda Ross, an author’s note, and a selected bibliography. It also includes Cherokee translations of four values that guided Ross’s life and are an integral part of the text. What’s more, audio recordings of these values are available on Traci Sorell’s website.

Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space

by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Sija Hong

The universe is vast. But how can a book convey this vastness to kids? The back matter in Beyond includes a list of places featured in the main text (the Oort cloud, Proxima b, the Orion Nebula, and more) and how long a letter sent from Earth and traveling at the speed of light would take to arrive. (It’s a whopping 1,300 years to the Orion Nebula!) In addition, the book includes an author’s note and illustrator’s note; suggestions for related books, websites, and videos; and a substantial bibliography.

The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field

by Scott Riley, illustrated by Ngyuen Quang and Kim Lien

This nonfiction picture book tells the story of Prasit Hemmin who, along with a group of boys on the island of Koh Panyee, built a floating soccer field in 1986. Along with an author’s note and several photos of the island, Prasit himself contributed a brief note sharing his perspective. Plus, there’s a list of Thai soccer terms with pronunciations, suggested further reading, and a bibliography.

How to Build an Insect

by Roberta Gibson, illustrated by Anne Lambelet

This book features an awesome, full-spread diagram of a larger-than-life fly with further information about all the various body parts mentioned in the text. (Do YOU know how spiracles work?) It also includes a glossary and a suggested activity in which kids can build their own insect using common craft supplies.

In Conclusion

And there you have it! I hope that much like a reader might feel smarter and better informed after finishing the back matter in a picture book, you now feel smarter and better informed about back matter after reading this blog post.

And if you’ve come across picture books you think have particularly fabulous back matter, please mention them in the comments!

20 thoughts on “A Closer Look: What’s the Deal with Back Matter?

  1. sandranickel

    I really appreciate this conversation about back matter, Carol. I’m a big fan of it. I’m always learning and finding inspiration–as I did with your discussion. In fact, I think I’ll go read some back matter right now.

    1. carolhinz

      Thank you so much, Sandra! I always get excited when I find a book with a back matter element I haven’t seen before–or which has been tweaked in some way to highlight the concepts in the main text.

    1. carolhinz

      Thank you so much, Linda! This season of books has a particularly great range of back matter, which makes it perfect for delving into which elements work well for different books.

  2. Carrie A. Pearson

    Thanks for the peeks at these books. I’ve heard from teachers and parents that they turn to the backmatter first to decide whether to purchase the book. So, in many ways, it matters!

  3. cindyargentine

    Thanks for the peek into these new books! It’s so interesting to see the creative ways information is displayed, from tables and lists to photos and diagrams.

    One additional example I like is You Nest Here With Me by Yolen, Stemple, and Sweet. The back matter is one spread with an author’s note and more information about each of the birds mentioned. For each bird, there are four bullet points plus a silhouette and an illustration of its eggs and a feather.

  4. NC Karuzis

    I’m happy to see a discussion about back matter. I’ve been taking notes on the type and style of back matter in the picture books I read, to help me plan my own approach. There are so many variations. “The Music of Life” by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman is chock full of images, information, and links. I especially liked the back matter in “The Brilliant Deep, Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs” by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe. It included links and action items for kids to pursue. I’d love to hear more about whether back matter affects the target age level of a picture book.

    1. carolhinz

      Thanks so much for your comment and book recommendations! While I always start by looking closely at curriculum standards in thinking about the age range for a book, I do think that back matter can help extend the appeal to a broader age range in part because it gives educators more material to work with.

  5. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Thanks for sharing these different examples of back matter! I just read Unspeakable and will be reviewing it later in February. Such a beautifully produced and important book! Have you seen the winding road timeline in Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book by Keila Dawson? Great visual element.

    1. carolhinz

      Oooh, that winding road timeline sounds great. I will definitely check it out! And I’ll look forward to seeing your review of Unspeakable–thank you so much!

  6. mariagianferrari

    I am a complete back matter geek–love both reading it & writing it :). Thanks, Carol!! So glad I get to work with you on books!!

    1. carolhinz

      Maria, it’s always such fun working on back matter with you because you always have so many fantastic ideas for what to include!

  7. Mary E. Cronin

    This is so helpful! I’ve been studying back matter lately– most recently in WE WAIT FOR THE SUN by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe. Fascinating balance of what is in the narrative and what is in the back matter!

    1. carolhinz

      I’m so glad to hear it, Mary! I have heard good things about WE WAIT FOR THE SUN and am looking forward to seeing it for myself.

  8. Mary York

    Great examples of back matter, Carol. I love the pronunciation guide in the back matter for The Floating Field!!

    1. carolhinz

      Thanks so much, Mary! I was so glad Scott suggested including the soccer terms in Thai and English, and it was a fun challenge to ensure the pronunciations were as close to Thai (which is a tonal language) as we could get.

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