Picture book readers are young. Very, very young. Their entire lives they’ve had a black president. They’ve never known a world without smart phones. September 11, 2001 is ancient history to them–it happened long, long before they were born.
So when you’re writing a nonfiction picture book, how do you provide context without making most of the book about what happened before the story started?
Vicky Nolan faces this problem in Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, the story of how a steel beam from the World Trade Center was melted down and became the bow of a ship. Her story is about what happened after that terrible day, but she can’t assume that her readers will come to the story with all of the personal memories that older readers have. She has to tell what happened without letting what happened on September 11 becoming the story.
It’s a tough problem, but one elegantly solved by using every page of the book to its fullest advantage. The endpapers show a boy with a baseball mitt walking under a cloudless blue sky. In one corner, high above him, is a jet.
The next spread shows a New York street, crowded with taxis, and we see the blur of a jet–startlingly close to the skyline–in the rearview mirror of one of the taxis.
The next spread is finally the title page. There, we see one of the Twin Towers against the blue sky, and we see the nose of the jet make first contact with the building.
Later in the book, Nolan shows us the next step in the progression–the blue sky overwhelmed by clouds of dust and rubble–and she reminds us that “Almost three thousand people lost their lives.” But most of the scaffolding for this story happens before the first words of the story. Almost immediately, we are plunged into the aftermath of the disaster, which is where the heart of her story lies.
This book is interesting to compare to The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It solves the problem in the opposite way–it is thoroughly grounded in what happened before September 11, 2001 and only mentions the disaster at the end.
Thomas Gonzalez–the artist who drew 14 Cows for America–has created beautiful pastel and watercolor illustrations for the book.
Seven and a Half Tons of Steel by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. Peachtree: 2016.
Every week I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.