Cover of The Tree in the Courtyard shows Anne Frank writing in her diary next to a window through which we see a tree.The Tree in the Courtyard is another nonfiction picture book that uses fictional elements to tell a nonfiction story. Here, the story of Anne Frank’s experience of hiding from the Nazis is told from the point-of-view of the horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard outside her hiding place.

The story is written in the third person but it’s clearly told from the tree’s point of view. Throughout, the tree is anthropomorphized:

The tree loved the sight of her [Anne Frank].

The tree dropped worried leaves.

The tree did not understand.

With the tree looking on, we see Germans invade the Netherlands. We see the Frank family go into hiding. We see Anne write in her diary, celebrate Chanukah, and fall in love. We see soldiers swarm through the hiding place. Ultimately we see Mr. Frank return alone from a concentration camp and we see Anne Frank’s hiding place become a museum where other children visit.

I think I would have been annoyed by the tree-as-narrator device, except that the tree is thoroughly grounded in fact. There was a horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard while the Franks hid–Anne refers to it three times in her diary, in fact. Just as the book describes, the tree really did start to die after the house become the famed Anne Frank Museum.

Many strangers came to try to save her. They injected her with medicine. They trimmed her crown and cut sprouts from her trunk. They built her a steel support and collected her seedpods like gold coins.

Despite all the experts’ efforts, the tree died. But people planted the sprouts they had harvested all over the world (the book includes a list of ten spots in the US where sprouts from the tree are growing).

Just like the girl, she [the tree] passed into history. Just like the girl, she lives on.

This moving retelling of Anne Frank’s experience is paired beautifully with sepia-toned ink drawings.

The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Peter McCarty. Knopf: 2016.

Children around a globe.


Every week I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

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.

Cover of book shows Vincent Van Gogh striding past a childIn 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.

Cover of book showing wolves morphing into dogs.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

Children around a globe.




I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy. 

Cover of book shows whale watching cruiseI’ve been thinking a lot lately about nonfiction text structures. I love lots of nonfiction picture books with traditional story structures: following a character through her life from birth to death, or recounting an event from beginning to end. But there are lots of other text structures possible, as well. Whale Trails: Before and Now elegantly sets up a compare/contrast structure to explore the differences between whale watching trips with whaling voyages.

The design of the book invites the reader to compare and contrast. Every spread has, on the left, full color with illustrations that bleed to the edges of the page. The right hand page of the spread, though has a black and white illustration enclosed within borders. But every spread deals with the same idea, showing how it differs or is the same across the centuries.

The narration is in first person present tense:

My father and I live for the sea. He is the captain of the Cuffee whale boat, and today I am his first mate.

But it invites us to look back to the past:

Before now, each generation of my family sailed these waters in search of whales.

We see the whale watching travelers traveling up the gangplank, and the whaling boat crew traveling up the gangplank; the route of the whale watching cruise and the route of the whaler; the gear aboard the whale watching cruise and the gear aboard the whaler, and so forth.

This fascinating book is another great example of a book with solid nonfiction content that ably uses a fictional framework–the girl who is serving as first mate today. Would you shelve this in the fiction section? Or the nonfiction? I’m not sure, but I think it’s clear to the reader what is fact and what is not.

I’ve never gone whale-watching, but I loved doing it virtually in this book!

Whale Trails: Before and Now, by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Christy Ottaviano Books: 2015.

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016"


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy


Bugs. What’s not to love?

Plenty for most of us. Icky, creepy, crawly critters send most of us running. But even ugly pest animals deserve their own books, don’t they?

Cover of book showing acartoon of a housefly talking to a class full of childrenI, Fly: The Buzz about Flies and How Awesome They Are has a housefly narrator who argues the case that ugly bugs are every bit as interesting as the beautiful ones. Along the way he shares lots of amazing housefly facts. (Did you know that houseflies go through metamorphosis?) And in the funny surprise ending, he finally decides to embrace his position as pariah of the insect world.

This is a great example of the book that tiptoes along the border on fiction/nonfiction. The talking housefly is clearly fictional, but the bug facts it shares are squarely on the nonfiction side of things. The fictional narrative framework opens up space for humor and lightness that makes the nonfiction all the more attractive.

Cover of book showing a spider spinning silk around a heart shapeI’m Trying to Love Spiders walks the divide a little differently. The unseen narrator struggles with her aversion to spiders. She shares lots of fascinating facts about spiders but occasionally is startled into smashing her subjects (with a funny handprint in the illustrations instructing us to “Squish here”). This verges into postmodern meta-fiction (like Press Here) but uses it to convey solidly nonfiction content.

I’m not sure if I love bugs, but I loved both of these witty, cleverly-structured books about bugs.

I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are, by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. Henry Holt: 2015.

I’m Trying to Love Spiders, by Bethany Barton. Viking: 2015.

Storytime video of I’m Trying to Love Spiders. 

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016"


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy