Nearly 250 librarians got an information boost from the first panel of authors and illustrators at School Library Journal’s annual Day of Dialog, the pre-BEA event. Moderated by Kathleen T. Isaacs, author of Picturing the World: Informational Picture Books for Children (ALA, 2013), the lively discussion offered Jim Arnosky, Jennifer Berne, Elisha Cooper, Thomas Gonzalez, and Jonah Winter the chance to share more information about their creative processes, who they write for, and why they choose to create nonfiction for young readers.
The prolific Arnosky said he gets inspiration for his work as an outgrowth of his interest in the natural world, which can be seen in his recent Shimmer and Splash (Sterling). “Once I learn about one animal, I wind up learning about a dozen more. My wife and I just get in a truck, go where they live, and stay there for months. It’s a self-perpetuating thing for me.” An illustrator as well as an author, his creative process sometimes starts off as a movielike stream of images, which later gets populated by facts. He knows he’s latched onto a future project when a subject continues to occupy his thoughts. “A book is a special medium; it’s like a poem, or a good song. And it stays with you and becomes a part of your mind,” he shared.
Winter also compared writing an informational title to another art form. “An author is like a sculptor. You scrape away at the marble until an actual figure appears.” While writing picture book biographies such as You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (Random), he is conscious of the images that go along with the story, mindful of the pacing and the format’s usual 32-page count.
Berne agreed with the sculptor motif, and added that, as an author carves away, “somehow the right path appears” which allows you to figure out “what needs to go and what needs to stay.”
Cooper said he relishes working on a project because, “you start off ignorant at first, but then your curiosity takes over, and you fall in love with it.” He added, “there’s an art in the gathering, but an art in the carving down.”
Illustrator Gonzalez, who recently completed work on Alice B. McGinty’s Gandhi (Amazon), spoke from an artist’s point of view. “The pace is given to me, which is a little bit of a challenge, but at the same time it forces me to resolve any issues. I do like to sneak things in here and there; working on a book then becomes like leaving your fingerprint.” Winter responded, “And, that’s what makes a picture book interesting though, the liberties the illustrator can take.”
With the current resurgence of nonfiction, especially in light of Common Core State Standards, the need for accuracy in informational books is as important as ever. While the panelists believe that getting the facts right is always a goal, some of them had different opinions on the level of accuracy needed for a children’s title. Gonzalez makes sure to steer clear from anachronisms in his illustrations, “I do spend a lot of time researching on the time period and the subject’s background. You don’t want to include an iPhone in a picture book about Gandhi.”
Berne said she felt strongly that authors are charged with presenting someone’s life to the world, and it’s a crime to change historical facts. “You can see a life through 100 different kinds of lenses, but it still has to be the truth. I feel a real responsibility to the person I’m writing about.” Her On A Beam Of Light: A Story Of Albert Einstein (Chronicle), offers a different look at the famous scientist’s life.
Winter argued, “I believe in staying true to the essence of the figure, but there may be some details that need to be excluded or even altered for the condensed picture book format, which I’ll mention in the author’s note. I know this is a bit controversial, but I want to tell a good story.”
Cooper quipped that in his picture book Train (Scholastic), the trains actually run on time, as opposed to real-life schedules. He shared that the author’s goal is to be factual, but he or she has to move the story forward, and there are countless choices to be made. “We have to draw a line in a certain way.”
Arnosky, who writes about the natural world, also noted that he treats, “a tree as if it were a historical figure. I feel a responsibility to that tree. And, I don’t want to add anything in my books that kids will have to unlearn later.” Arnosky said he is also very aware of his audience, and is sure to include vocabulary found in everyday conversation. He said candidly, “I don’t use a dictionary. I never did, because if I were talking to my grandsons I wouldn’t try to find a better word, I’d just talk. I make these books for children that are waiting to see another story about animals.”
Berne shared that she writes for kids, and for the adults who read the books to young readers. “It absolutely has to be as good for the adult reader. I try to imagine a whole crowd of people at different ages,” she said, adding that she likes to take into account what the subject of the biography would think about the work as well.
Cooper pictures a smaller audience in his head: “I write for a small group of people who are close to me, who I love and respect.”