Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Behind the Books: What’s the Point (of View)?

In 2010, I had the good fortune to meet Melissa Techman (@mtechman), a school librarian in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Twitter. Over the years, Melissa has shared many great ideas with me.

One of my favorites came in the form of a comment to a blog post I’d written about voice and point of view in nonfiction writing. Melissa suggested having students create nature journals in which they experiment with point of view by writing about a particular observation first in what she called the “wondrous first person” and then in the “serious third person.” I loved the idea so much that I started doing it myself. You can see examples here and here.

Eventually, I began writing about the same observation in three different ways (1) wondrous first person, (2) scientist’s description, and (3) animal’s perspective. What I realized is that each of these approaches has its advantages and its shortcomings.

And that made me think more deeply about point of view in STEM picture books. Traditionally, most nonfiction books for children featured a serious third-person point of view. Like my scientist’s descriptions, the writing in these books had an air of authority, but it could sometimes be a bit dry.

Perhaps 15 years ago, nonfiction authors began experimenting with second person point of view. Why? Because it’s a great way to engage and connect with readers. When the author is using an expository writing style, second-person point of view pairs well with a lively, conversational voice. Examples include If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz, Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn DeCristofano, and Bone by Bone by Sara Levine.

When the author is using a narrative writing style, his/her intent is to bring readers right into the middle of the action. The voice is often energetic and descriptive. Examples include Journey into the Deep by Rebecca L. Johnson, If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty, and Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre.

More recently, first-person point of view has become increasingly popular. In picture book biographies like Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese and Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh. First-person point of view allows readers to see the world from the subject’s perspective. And in books like I, Fly by Bridget Heos and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, animal characters are able to speak directly to readers and share facts about themselves in an engaging way.

As far as I’m concerned, point of view is one of the most critical tools nonfiction writers have at their disposal.


  1. Hi Melissa, I always enjoy your posts. I'm curious as to your thoughts on first-person POVS in biographies. I have seen the increase in them and I really enjoy them, it's engaging. But I find it a bit confusing since the author is obviously not the actual subject of the book, yet he/she is "speaking" as if she is. I had assumed that is crossing the line of true NF. What are your thoughts?

  2. This is a great question, Debra, and different people have different ideas about whether or not first-person bios are a good idea. Part of the issue is whether bios are, in fact, nonfiction. Not everyone thinks they are. For more about this topic, please see this post:

    I also recommend this post, which explains how some people are now using the term "informational fiction" to classify books that are mostly based on verifiable facts but take some creative liberties:

    I hope these help you think about this topic, which, in this new era of fake news, is bound to be on the minds of more and more educators, writers, editors, and book reviewers.

    1. Love the idea of "informational fiction." Would this be applied to 1st person by the animal characters?

    2. It really depends on the book and the usage. I'd suggest looking at I Fly by Bridget Heos and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson as models.

    3. Thanks Melissa! I do remember reading both of the posts you refer to. Very interesting topic of conversation. I'm just glad that publishers are interested in these types of books, even though they may not be "pure" NF.

    4. Editors are interested in them, primarily because the kinds of people who take jobs as children's book editors tend to be the same people who are drawn to storytelling. Informational fiction is a way of making people and episodes from the past come alive in story form. I think the bigger question is whether and to what extent educators will embrace them. On that point, the jury is still out.

  3. Great post, Melissa, and very informative. And I love the term "informational fiction" that you've suggested above, especially for biographies in particular.

  4. Interesting post! I just attended a nonfiction bootcamp put on by SCBWI San Francisco North in Oakland. There was quite a bit of discussion about what constitutes NF these days, including the challenges faced by librarians in deciding where to shelve specific books. It was pointed out that, ultimately, the Library of Congress makes the designation, but the publisher can decide how to market a book. Individual librarians can decide to shelve a first person bio (of someone who's been long dead) in biography or fiction. Sometimes we make shelving decisions for our school library based on where we think it will get the most attention. It's a sticky wicket. At the bootcamp, someone also suggested that the author needs to be quite clear in the back matter to explain what, if any, liberties were taken with the facts and why. I suppose that a book written in the first person of a long dead person could be completely accurate and considered NF if that long dead person wrote an autobiography and the thoughts are transferred exactly as written.

  5. You're correct. The NOC does make a designation, but as I discuss in this past post they aren't as consistent as we might wish:

    While librarians can choose to shelve books in a way different from the LOC, librarians don't always have time to read every single title.

    And while authors and illustrators and publishers should be clear in the backmatter about anything that's not verifiable, that doesn't always happen.

    Yes, if a long dead person or a living person wrote an autobiography or letters or kept a journal and the author quotes those primary sources, that's clearly nonfiction--they are considered verifiable facts (even though two people might remember the same event differently, but that's another can of worms.)

    I tend not to like first-person biographies, but since they are out there, I think the most important thing is to make it clear to children when the subject of the book did say something and when they didn't.