African American boy looks at a steamboat in the river.Kids deserve to know about amazing, courageous people from the past. But sometimes the historical record is too sketchy to tell a strictly nonfiction story about a real event. That’s where historical fiction comes in–writers can tell a story that conveys a historical truth without having the life sucked out of the story by the lack of documentary evidence required by nonfiction. Deborah Hopkinson tells just such a story in Steamboat School.

An 1847 made it illegal in Missouri to teach reading or writing to any African Americans, even free citizens. In this book Hopkinson tells the true story of how one committed, creative African American preacher found a way to keep teaching without breaking the law.

This is a great story for kids. It highlights the importance of education, and the lengths people are willing to go in order to learn to read and write. It showcases a man of courage and conviction. It’s a story about kids learning. It would be a great shame for the story to go untold simply because the historical account is so sketchy. So Hopkinson creates a fictional frame to tell the story, but she also makes it clear right from the cover of the book that this is a fictional account, “inspired by a true story.”

The back matter is extensive and fascinating. She talks a little about research material she looked for but failed to find, and she gives the reader much greater detail about the historical characters.

The text of the book isn’t quite nonfiction, but combined with the excellent back matter, this book can fill many of the functions of excellent nonfiction for kids.

Steamboat School, Inspired by a True Story by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband. Disney-Hyperion: 2016.

Children around a globe.




I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book every Wednesday at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of book My Heart Will Not Sit Down shows African child sitting in doorway of hut.Some picture books are straight fiction. Some picture books are straight nonfiction. And then there are a few, like Mara Rockliff’s My Heart Will Not Sit Down, that straddle that line.

As the author’s note explains, “In 1931, the city of New York received a gift of $3.77 to feed the hungry. It came from the African country of Cameroon. Many people in New York really were hungry at that time…[but] Even at Depression prices, $3.77 wouldn’t have gone very far in New York City. For the villagers in Cameroon who sent it, though, the money would have been a fortune.” This heartwarming story, based in part on the author’s interview with a woman who grew up in Cameroon in the 1930s, uses fiction to imagine how that real life $3.77 might have come to be sent to New York City.

The text and illustrations work together to plunge us into a distant place and time. We see “the grandmother with strong arms pounding cassava” and “the laughing girls who carried pots of river water balanced on their heads.” We hear a “drum’s quick, sharp beat” and  feel “the bamboo bed” which Kedi sleeps on “between her brothers and sisters.” Although the entire book is written in English, we hear the cadences of a different language and catch a glimpse of a different way of looking at the world. When Kedi hears of starving children in New York City, “her heart stood up for them in sympathy.” Her mother worries, “How can we send money to people whose faces we have never seen?”

The book works hard to create a sense of foreign otherness, but it doesn’t alienate. Rather, it stresses the theme of people worrying about each other and doing whatever they can to help others. As the Author’s Note says, “”As for Kedi’s belief that no one should ever go hungry, that belongs to the world.”

This would be a lovely book to read before a food drive. It reminds all of us that tiny actions matter.

My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Ann Tanksley. Knopf: 2012

Children around a globe.


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Allyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.


frenzyKidLitFrenzy 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:

Not American


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 A potato wearing a crown.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 gingerbreadis 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?

Unattributed Quotations

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, holding pistols, face each other, ready to duel.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.Cover of book titled Game Changer shows two basketball players, one leaping toward the basket with the ball in his hand.

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.

potatoI loved this elegantly simple story of how King Frederick the Great of Prussia convinced his subjects to start planting and eating potatoes. The language is simple and direct. “There was once a king called Fritz. One day he heard about a new wonder plant from South America: the potato.”

I also loved that the author is transparent about the difficulty of telling old stories like this. The final page reads, “This story may be a myth. But to this day, people honor King Fritz by putting potatoes on his grave.”

The illustrations are made of photos of potatoes and colorful potato prints. Perfect! This would be a fun book to pair with a potato printing activity, and the book itself would provide lots of inspiration.

This story was published originally in Germany. Thank goodness it, like the potato, made it across the Atlantic Ocean!

The Potato King, by Christoph Niemann. Owlkids: 2015









Too bad I didn’t read this book until after President’s Day. For one thing, in it, the President of the United States Never. Wears. Clothes. Not once.

The story is a tall tale, slightly reminiscent of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, but I was impressed by all the good nonfiction research that went into this frankly fictional piece. The back matter explores the history of the rumor that Taft got stuck in a bathtub (as well as the blatant lie he told, saying he had never installed extra large bathtubs for himself). Barnett dug up a great black and white photo of four burly workmen sitting in Taft’s new bathtub before it’s installed.

And even within the story itself, Barnett and VanDusen take pains to get things right. The book opens with an accurate list of Taft’s real accomplishments. The right titles are given for the members of the cabinet who get involved in helping the president out of the bathtub. Barnett has the name of the vice president of the time, even down to his unlikely middle name–James Schoolcraft Sherman.

But most wonderful of all, VanDusen has taken pains to fit his caricactures to real people. Taft is obvious. But here’s Vice-President Sherman in real life:

sherman cropped





And here is VanDusen’s illustration:






Here’s the First Lady, Nellie Taft:







And here is VanDusen’s illustration:

Nellie cropped







President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris VanDusen. Candlewick:2014

Deep in the Sahara

We lived in Khartoum, Sudan with our children. We’d lived several places in Europe before that, and I thought i was an experienced expatriate. Sudan, however, stunned me. It was so very, very different from any other place I had ever lived! I watched in surprise as my children fitted themselves comfortably into the rhythms of this strange and lovely place.

Deep in the Sahara is set in a non-specified African country, but to me it screamed, “Sudan!” After the first time I read the book, I immediately turned back to the beginning and read it again. It captures for me the beauty, mystery, and awe of that haunting place.

The story is simple. A young girl wishes she could wear a head scarf like the older women around her. They listen patiently to her–she wants a head scarf so she can be beautiful, mysterious, older. Slowly, in the course of the book, she comes to a new realization of why she wants to wear a head scarf: as an expression of her deepest faith.

Technically, this book isn’t nonfiction, but it deals so sensitively with the question of religion and why women wear headscarves that I think it deserves to be read with nonfiction books about the region and about religion. The “Author’s Note” at the end is excellent at putting the book into cultural context. I wish I’d had this to read over and over to my children when we were in Sudan, but I’m glad it’s here now to pull out as we talk about other people’s faith practices.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi. Schwartz & Wade: 2013.



Sometimes important historical events remain only in fragmentary records. Thank goodness for historical fiction, which lets us see what those records mean in real human lives. Inspired by the Freedmen Bureau’s Cohabitation List of 1866, Lyons has constructed a story that shows the trauma slavery inflicted on black marriages and the joy with which couples embraced the chance to have their marriage declared legal at the end of the Civil War. We watch through the eyes of a young girl, Ellen, as her parents reminisce about jumping the broom and her satisfaction as she sees their relationship declared legitimate by the government. Daniel Minter’s print block illustrations are perfect for this story.

Ellen’s Broom by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter. GP Putnam: 2012.

Sometimes historical fiction is the closest we can get to the past. In an “Author’s Note,” Angela Johnson explains the limitations she was under in writing about the day slaves were emancipated:

I’d love to know how my great-grandparents celebrated when told they were free. But that tale has been lost to time, so I can only hope that this one will do.

In her tender, lyrical text (accompanied by beautiful watercolor illustrations), Johnson shows us the day, morning to night, when slaves far from the battle line received word that they were free. The text doesn’t overclaim, showing how in emancipation how daily life would remain full of work and demands but would nonetheless be “all different.”

Once in a while, historical fiction is the closest to nonfiction we’ll ever get.

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated to E. B. Lewis. Simon & Schuster: 2014.

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Historical fiction can be used to present troubling topics in a controlled way appropriate for young children. In this historical fiction, Yamasaki skillfully tackles a difficult subject–World War II Japanese-American internment camps. Her story shows the triumph of brotherly kindness and courage, without glossing over the institutional cruelty of the camps. Her narrative voice is spare. She uses few adjectives and descriptions to tell her story, but it is deeply moving. The story comes out of Yamasaki’s own family history. I only hope more writers find such beautiful family stories to share!

Fish for Jimmy by Katie Yamasaki. Holiday House: 2013