The Story in Nonfiction Picture Books

How do you decide where the story resides in a nonfiction picture book? Where in the research? How much of a life? What’s in it for the kid reader? What’s your stance as a writer relative to the subject?

MeJanePatrick McDonnell‘s picture book, Me…Jane, shines the light on little Jane who loves to be outside, who hauls her pet chimpanzee, Jubilee, everywhere, who watches the world around her with careful, caring eyes. It’s a leisurely, close-up look at the child protagonist. And because it captures a kind of joyful attentiveness, it carries weight for that other child listening to the words, looking at the pages.

Pay attention to what Me…Jane doesn’t do. It doesn’t try to plunk everything one might know about this life into the small container of the picture book.

Instead the story builds internally, in the small and comfortable world that the child Jane inhabits.

No biographical milestones, no big story turns, no facts and dates and figures. Just an inexorable push forward. There will be only one turn of story, but it will be so big that it makes the entire point of the book. Jane goes to bed one night, dreaming, and presto! The page turn flies us forward in time, all the way into the realization of that dream.

MeJane2It’s all done with connections on and off the page. The little toy chimp, the Tarzan references, the way the images move from page to page. The story here is of a small, curious human in a large, glorious world. About great forward leaps in time and in thinking.

If you, like me, are a writer who tends to get tethered to her words, it’s helpful to look at how visual artists construct story. Me…Jane does plenty for young readers, but its structure is also a lesson in freedom for the wordbound. 


2 thoughts on “The Story in Nonfiction Picture Books

  1. Uma, this is so helpful! I’m about to embark on a non-fiction picture book and can already see that I am going to have to fight the urge to overwrite.
    I like the idea of becoming untethered in my writing. I love this book, and will return to it for inspiration.

  2. Pingback: Be the Storyteller - Caroline Starr Rose

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