Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Behind the Books: Writing Science/Nature-themed Picture Books

While there are certainly exceptions, most nonfiction picture books fall into two broad categories—picture book biographies and science/nature-themed picture books.

As I discussed last week, almost all picture book biographies feature a chronological sequence text structure and a narrative writing style. That means that if you're writing a picture book biography, most of your big-picture decisions are made for you. The biggest considerations will be (1) voice, which will be determined by the personality of the person you are writing about, and (2) deciding which scenes to show and how to link them with expository bridges.

The underlying architecture of science/nature-themed picture books is much more diverse. These books can feature any of the text structures (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution) espoused by Common Core. They can be surveys or specialized, or they can be concept books. They can have a narrative or expository writing style, and the voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.

With so many choices, how does a writer narrow down his or her options? It isn’t easy. 

What it comes down to for me is finding a way to delight as well as inform young readers, and that often involves surprising them and/or encouraging them to think about the topic from a new or different perspective.
Once I find that special bit of magic, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering. I consider various nonficiton categories, text structures, and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate employs an intriguing title, a cumulative sequence text structure, and humorous bookworm characters in a third layer of text to delight readers as they explore an important science concept—the interrelationships among plants and animals in a rain forest community.

Feathers: Not Just for Flying uses an expository writing style and a wondrous lyrical voice to explore a specialized topic—the many surprising ways that birds use their feathers. Similes in the main text drive the book’s compare and contrast text structure, inviting readers to make connections between feathers and familiar objects in our daily lives.

I truly admire An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston (and it’s many companion titles). The book instantly makes children (and adults) curious. The layered text allows for bold statements with provocative descriptive words—clever, artistic, giving—that challenge our thinking. Secondary text and labels support and expand on the main ideas, encouraging readers to appreciate eggs in a whole new way. By carefully crafting a circular structure with a twist at the end, Aston leaves readers amazed as well as satisfied.

Here are a few other science/nature-themed picture books that I highly recommend:

Bone by Bone by Sara Levine

Creature Features by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas

How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge

Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy

Weeds Find a Way by Cynthia Jenson-Elliott

I encourage you to read and analyze these books, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.

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