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. 


Beyond the Monomyth

CampbellI have spent years being aggravated by all the hoopla over Joseph Campbell-Christopher Vogler-that-everlasting-hero’s journey. My thinking didn’t fit into its straitjacket. I thought it was just me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough.

Then I began reading criticism of Campbell’s mono-myth theory. But that assessment from the field of folklore scholarship wasn’t percolating into the world of literature and film. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I’m a Star Wars enthusiast. But I couldn’t buy the idea that a single Eurocentric version of story was somehow fused into everyone’s synapses.

During the 25 years in which I have been writing and publishing in the children’s literature market, writing teachers I know and love have insisted that the Call to Action, the Refusal, the Mentor, and so on, are necessary ingredients of story. Campbell himself cast the Ramayana in this Jungian framework. Really? Rama’s sad, benevolent rule after the tragic departure of his queen is supposed to be a reward for his heroic journey? And how about the woman in the story? There are many emotional and esthetic meanings to be drawn from Sita’s return to the Earth, her mother, but the concept of “reward” does not fit into any of them. Talk about stuffing a sprawling multilayered epic into a mass-market storage bin!

Over the years, all the Campbell worship just made my head hurt. So I’m delighted now to read this essay by Marie Mutsuki Mockett on what a story can be. She writes:

I suspect, if you are reading this essay, you too are at once a cautious but adventurous reader looking for something other than the same experience over and over again. You too are looking for a story that feels like a story, but isn’t necessarily a clone of something you have read before. You want to be immersed and moved. You want real and you want authentic. And you want a story to work.

Mockett looks to Japanese film and story for alternate models, and she finds them in all their complexity. But the gift she gives us is the permission to set aside a single version of story and create our own. Structure is necessary but it doesn’t have to be only one kind. There is no one default version of “story.” The richness of being human is that we are not all alike.

Vonnegut and the Shapes of Stories

You’ve seen this one.

amanwithoutacountryIt’s distilled Vonnegut, iconoclastic and in its own bizarre way elegant. It’s funny, of course. And yes, it makes sense. It also gives us permission to play. We know because it’s Vonnegut, and because there’s more like it in A Man Without a Country (Maria Popova has a lovely post on the book) that none of it, and perhaps least of all the Western civ reference, is meant to be taken literally.

I could spend time drawing my own shapes, and it would be loads of fun. Non-Western civ shapes–the tortured plummeting downward of the Ramayana, the embedded spirals of frame stories and avatars through the ages. But this is my favorite list of all.

Snippet: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”