KidLitFrenzy is running a mock Sibert competition, asking people to nominate their favorite contenders for this years ALA award for the most distinguished informational books for children. Right up my alley!
So I’ve spent the last two weeks revisiting my favorite 2015 nonfiction picture books and reading them aloud with my family. So many great books!
But some of my favorite reads won’t make it to my Sibert list. Here’s why:
I’m a sucker for family history stories, and this import from Germany has fantastically detailed illustrations, too, that keep you looking and looking and looking. As far as I can tell, the author did her own translation, but the book was originally published in Germany, so it’s ineligible for the Sibert. It’s definitely worth reading, though, especially if you have a kid who likes Richard Scarry books or other heavily-illustrated texts.
I also loved the whimsy of both the text and the potato print illustrations of The Potato King. It was also originally published in Germany, but it probably would have been ineligible anyway since it’s a retelling of an unsubstantiated historical story (though the back matter does a great job talking about its status as a legend).
Not Quite Nonfiction
As a rule, I don’t like made-up “non”fiction. Why invent conversations and events for Benjamin Franklin when there’s so much documentation for his life?
But every year I fall hard for a few books where the authors make clear-eyed, hard choices to include fictional elements in order to tell a nonfiction story properly. One of my favorite nonfiction picture books this year is Gingerbread for Liberty, about a German immigrant, Christopher Ludwick who, at great personal cost, cooked for General Washington and the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The author, Mara Rockliff, has a good bibliography–she used a history by one of Ludwick’s contemporaries as well as more recent scholarship as her sources. But when you’re writing about a mostly-unknown person who lived 250 years ago, you quickly run out of reliable sources where you can pull quotes. Rockliff invents dialogue to tell this story, including something she has Ludwick say over and over again: “No empty bellies here. Not in my America.” Is there any evidence that Ludwick actually said this? Not a shred. But this refrain encapsulates his life’s work in eight well-chosen words.
Maybe every now and then there’s a place for invented dialogue in nonfiction! But I’m struggling enough with this issue (in my own writing projects too!) that I’ve removed Gingerbread from my mock Sibert stack. What do you think? I especially wonder about the perspective of librarians and teachers. Am I being unfairly demanding? Can a great informational book have invented dialogue when quotations simply don’t exist in the sources? Or do we move this book to the stack of really, really great historical fiction and let it live happily there?
Finally, I loved both Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History and Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game. Both books had great pacing, lively language, and accessible quotations skillfully woven into the text. But neither of them had source attributions for any of their quotations.
As an author, I know that the publisher usually ends up having the decisive say in how much material goes into the back matter. I’m certain that both those authors could cough up source references without any trouble. But in these cases those references didn’t make it into the back matter, which seems a shame for an informational book. I love rich, detailed back matters, including source references for quotations, so I’m reluctantly cutting these two books from consideration.
But I still hope they get read lots and lots!
Next week, some of the books that stayed in my Sibert stack.