by Stephanie McPherson
Summer reading fun! – It’s a phrase synonymous with lavishly illustrated picture books, fantasy, mystery, series books with spunky heroes and lots of action I’d like to think that nonfiction elicits the same enthusiasm as more fanciful books, but I’m a realist. Can a well-crafted bio or a thoroughly researched science title compete with Harry Potter? Well, “compete” may not be the right word. But true stories can engage and intrigue young readers too.
Perhaps author and editor James Cross Giblin said it best: A nonfiction writer is a storyteller. Whether it’s the history of the Women’s Rights Movement, the life cycle of a star, or the story of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, a story is still a story. Rightly told (that doesn’t mean fictionalizing), it should capture and hold the attention of young readers.
Nonfiction picture books are especially exciting to me. Aimed at somewhat older children than fictional picture books, many are informative, creative, and, in my humble opinion, wonderful. Here’s a handful of titles I’ve enjoyed recently.
The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig – Juxtaposing the biblical beatitudes with highlights from the Civil Rights Movement, Weatherford has created a profound and beautiful meditation.
The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond – The husband and wife team that created Curious George had a narrow escape from Nazi Germany to the United States during World War II.
Testing the Ice: A True Story about Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson – Sharon Robinson recalls incidents from her childhood as the daughter of the first African American to play in a major baseball league.
Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World by Margot Theis Raven, paintings by Chris Soentpiet – Ever wonder where the beloved song came from? I’m not telling, but I can promise a good read.
Johnny Appleseed: The Story of a Legend by Will Moses – Written and illustrated by the great-grandson of the renowned artist Grandma Moses, this book represents visual and narrative art at its best.
That handful of books I mentioned could easily become a wagon load. I’m reminded of a story about Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. As a child, he sometimes traveled with his family from Michigan to Portland, Oregon. They always carried an empty suitcase to be filled up with volumes from their favorite bookstore! I love that! Having researched Larry, I’m sure that a good many of those titles were nonfiction. I don’t know where he got the biography of Nikola Tesla he devoured at age twelve, but he lists it as a prime source of his ambition to found his own company one day.
I could go on about Larry or about other successful book-lovers. But it’s time to stop. One of the nice things about picture book nonfiction is that it DOESN’T go on and on. Succinct, clear, and engaging, it generally provides a quick and humorous, thought-provoking or just plain fun experience between weightier tomes. Creative nonfiction – it’s not just for school anymore.