Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Behind the Books: Final Thoughts About Structure and Design (For Now)


The best nonfiction books for children begin with an author’s passion for the subject and a clear vision for how to present the material in a fresh, engaging way. Even when two or more authors choose to write about the same topic, each writer will bring his or her own interests, ideas, and imagination to the project. By making decisions about structure and design with care and deliberation, each writer will communicate the content in his or her own special way.

Ultimately, the most successful books will be the ones that present the material in a way that resonates with the largest number of readers.

For example, Mama: A True Story, in Which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama During a Tsunami, but Finds a New Home, and a New Mama by Jeanette Winters is a nearly wordless picture book with compelling art. A Mama for Owen tells the same story in the form of a more traditional picture book with soft watercolor illustrations. Both are lovely books.

But it was the photo-essay approach of Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu that truly captured the hearts of readers. It was a New York Times bestseller and spawned a whole series of photo-illustrated stories about remarkable animals.

Of course, this charming story of the tortoise and hippo isn’t the only true tale that has intrigued more than one author.

Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai is the central figure of at least four excellent, and yet quite different picture books.
--Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola
--Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter
--Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson (illus. Sonia Lynn Sadler)--Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli (illus. Kadir Nelson).

This diversity in approaches to the same nonfiction topic shows that there is no single right way to present ideas, information, or true stories to children. And that is why nonfiction authors are now experimenting with structure and design more than ever before.

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