Nonfiction is nonfiction and fiction is fiction. But sometimes picture books use a fictional framework to present nonfiction content. Sometimes that’s called historical fiction, but sometimes it’s something else entirely. The thing without a name.
In The Artist and Me, Shane Peacock imagines a child who is a neighbor to Vincent Van Gogh and, along with other townsfolk, teases and bullies the artist. Eventually, he is moved by the beauty of Van Gogh’s art and as an adult, comes to regret his actions. The story is fictional but inspired by the reality of the reaction to Van Gogh’s work.
It’s a pity that Peacock couldn’t dive into letters and diaries of Van Gogh’s tormentors to document how poorly they treated him. But it is a rare situation where someone records such acts of daily, offhand unkindness. And yet we know from Van Gogh’s letters about this poor treatment. This is one of those stories that perhaps can only be told through fiction.
Hudson Talbott’s book about the evolution of wolves into dogs, From Wolf to Woof!, also faces the problem of the lack of specifics. Scientists know that dogs are related to wolves and they can conjecture about how they came to be dogs, but it’s merely conjecture. Talbott takes this uncertainty and overlays it with an origin myth. He creates an outcast boy who develops a mutually beneficial relationship with an outcast wolf to lay out one plausible scenario of how wolves might have been domesticated.
In both of these books, the authors use back matter to talk about where their stories depart from nonfiction. I don’t think children will be ill-served or tricked by either book (especially if the adults in their lives share the back matter with them). I liked both of them.
The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, illustrated by Sophie Casson. Owlkids: 2016
From Wolf to Woof! The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2016
I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.