A Note about This Story
The titles vary, but what belongs in that bit of text that comes at the end of a nonfiction picture book, next to the timelines and glossaries, the bibliographies and source attributions? Why have an Author’s Note?
In my reading of nonfiction picture books, I’ve found six kinds of questions addressed in Author’s Notes. (And of course, some notes contain information from more than one of these categories.)
1.WHAT JUST HAPPENED? COVERING THE SAME GROUND
Writing a nonfiction picture book requires a lot of pruning: which details are absolutely essential to the story I’m telling? The Author’s Note is a place to be more expansive about the details in the book–perhaps include dates and places that muddied up the story narrative, or to give more details that had to be pruned. In her biography of Isamu Noguchi, The East-West House, Christy Hale tells the story with spare haiku-like poetry. The poetry does a wonderful job of conveying mood, but if you want to be able to tell someone data about Noguchi, you’ll need to turn to her excellent back matter which retells the story in prose form.
2. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? TELL ME MORE
Writing a nonfiction picture book also requires careful framing. Lives stretch sloppily beyond the stories we tell, and sometimes those lives are so fascinating that the writer itches to include more and more and more. The Author’s Note is an escape valve; it allows the writer to share the wonderful bits but maintain the integrity of the story, too. Janet Halfmann’s Afterword in Seven Miles to Freedom tells the fascinating story of what happened to Robert Smalls after her story ended. I was amazed that she convinced herself to keep it out of the main text, but she was absolutely right to. The story stands on its own as it is, and the Afterword enriches and deepens our understanding of the man.
3. WHY DOES IT MATTER? LEGACY
Some Author’s Notes explore the question of why this story matters. Brian Floca’s Locomotive follows a nineteenth century train on a cross-country trip. In his afterword, his essay “A Note on the Locomotive” talks about the history of technical innovations (what happened next–see above) and also considers how trains have changed America. The Author’s Note in Flying Solo, by Julie Cummins, explores Ruth Elder’s legacy in opening aviation as a career to women.
4. HOW DID I GET INTERESTED?
These types of Author’s Notes answer that perennial question–where do you get your ideas? Cynthia Cotten used the Author’s Note in The Book Boat’s In to tell about how she first learned about nineteenth century floating bookmobiles. Victoria Griffith tells a family story to explain her initial interest in the question of whether the Wright brothers were really the world’s first aviators in the Author’s Note in The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont.
5. HOW DID I RESEARCH?
Issues of research are increasingly important in juvenile nonfiction as teachers work with the Common Core. Marc Aronson’s middle grade nonfiction books are great examples of tackling research issues head-on. Some nonfiction picture book writers use their back matter to write about the same issues. Melissa Stewart uses her Author’s Note in Feathers: Not Just for Flying to talk about the scholarly articles that prompted her initial interest in the topic and how she used them to structure her research. (In a fascinating passage, she also talks about her struggle to find the right structure for the book.) In Brothers at Bat, Audrey Vernick writes about meeting the family that her book is about and about how she got the information she needed from them. Jen Bryant uses the Author’s Note in A Spash of Red! to write about experiences she had while researching the book and Karen Gray Ruelle uses the Afterword to expore the difficulties of researching the ways French Muslims helped save Jewish lives during World War II.
6. BUT DON’T YOU THINK…? TACKLING CONTROVERSIES
The Author’s Note is a great place to tackle controversies that would derail the story if they were left in the main text but that may, nonetheless, distract the reader. In A Picture Book of Daniel Boone, David and Michael Adler use their Author’s Notes to explore the dispute over Daniel Boone’s birthdate, the question over whether he cared about the War of Independence, and the mystery over where he’s buried. Alicia Potter uses the Author’s Note in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda to explore the question that otherwise would nag at the edge of her narrative–is it moral to remove animals from the wild? She’s able to comment on the dangers of applying the moral codes of one historical era to another. While her book does not ignore the issue, in her back matter in Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, Barb Rosenstock addresses head-on the controversy surrounding our third president in a section titled “Thomas Jefferson, Slaveholder.”