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. 

daylightDiurnal. Crepuscular. Nocturnal. This book pairs animals who are active at different times of day, implicitly inviting you to see similarities and differences between them (and explaining the technical chronotype terms in the back matter). The paintings are lovely–as one expects with Wendell Minor!–but the language was what most surprised and delighted me. It’s full of vivid words, lots of alliteration, and is fun to wrap your tongue around while reading aloud.

At night, pink-nosed opossum plods through the field and forages for food with her family on her back.

In the back matter, Minor mentions that he has seen all the creatures in this book in his own backyard. What a great challenge, to see how many creatures creep through your yard throughout the day!

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2015.

oakThe oak tree is the main character in this book. We see it sprouting as an acorn and continuing to grow while the landscape around it transforms dramatically. At the end of the book, a terrific thunderstorm topples the tree, but a tiny sprout pops up next to the stump.

The illustrations are beautiful and carry much of the weight of the story. It’s fun to pore over them, looking for tiny details. The copy I checked out from the library had a pocket inside the back cover with a folded poster in it. The poster featured one of the most innovative timelines I’ve seen: it showed the cross-cut section of the tree’s stump, and with arrows, showed what was happening the year that tree-ring grew.

The book has excited some comment among Native American readers who feel it unfairly characterizes Native Americans and both how the used the land and how they were evicted from their homelands. I think their concerns could prompt an important discussion with young readers.

As an Oak Tree Grows, by B. Brian Karas. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2014

thomas-jefferson-life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-everything-12Illustrator Maira Kalman follows up her 2012 book about Lincoln (Looking at Lincoln) with a look at another president, Thomas Jefferson. Once again, the narrator’s voice is memorable and spunky, but while the Lincoln book had a childlike narrator, this book sounds like your quirky Aunt Edna telling you stuff:

But wait. We have not spoken of the Founding of America.

It’s a good choice for a biography tackling the confusing inconsistencies of Jefferson the visionary, the patriot, the slaveholder, and the philanderer.

The book competently guides its reader on a tour of Jefferson’s life. It’s organized by theme, each group of spreads looking at a different facet of Jefferson’s interests, passions, or accomplishments. There’s no bibliography and no source notes, but the real treat is Kalman’s candy-colored illustrations.

And Aunt Edna’s not a bad tour guide for a visit to a remarkable and troubling life.

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2014.