Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Golden Age of Picture Book Biography

After I speak in schools, I hope students feel that "nonfiction" is not synonymous with "non-interesting." (Actually, I hope they recognized that before I showed up, but field reports often indicate otherwise.)

Now I want to address another publishing misconception. "Picture book" is not synonymous with "children's book."

I do not call myself exclusively a "children's author." Yes, some of my books usually do not score readers beyond children, particularly nonfiction series books for the school and library market. Such books must adhere to an established format and that often leaves little room for a creative imprint. A child may have no choice but to read such a book, but an adult interested in the subject will almost certainly look for a more lyrical approach.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is a picture book and it is shelved in the children's section of bookstores, but I wrote it for all ages.
I've appeared at a diverse bunch of venues for it, from museums to comic conventions. At most of them (aside from school visits, naturally), I seem to be signing more books to adults than to kids.

The crossover potential of nonfiction picture books is an idea that some people in publishing have not embraced. In many cases, sales don't give them reason to...but that is perhaps because some authors haven't seen the value in promoting their books as crossover books.

They really should.

We are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography
, and that's good news whether or not backpacks and pigtails are still part of your routine. If a book is well-written, who cares how many (or few) words it has? Less is, as always, more. (Except, perhaps, with Twitter.) More than a couple of adults have told me that they actually prefer to learn about a subject in a picture book as opposed to a longer text. In our overscheduled modern lives, that's just good time management.

Of course, other adults feel that getting an introduction to a subject via a picture book is embarrassing. But it seems hypocritical to dismiss a relatively short, well-written nonfiction book simply because it has custom illustrations instead of photographs (or instead of no images at all).

Why? Well, since when are pictures just for children? We have all encountered adults who have art on their walls, pillars of photo albums, and something besides a solid color as their computer background—not to mention coffee table books brimming with glorious images. (With respect, I don't know anyone who has bought a coffee table book to read it.)

And you can't name a mainstream magazine or web site that doesn't consider strong visuals as important as strong reporting and writing. Visual literacy—learning how to read a layout dominated by graphics—is a growing topic in education and everyday life.

On a commercial note, one so obvious yet infrequently discussed, writing a book that attracts (and is accessible to) both kids and adults increases an author's market potential.

Though good illustrated nonfiction can have an all-ages audience, that is not the only reason I feel we are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography. Overall, the quality of writing in new nonfiction picture books has never been richer.

The days of starting a picture book biography with "Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Kentucky" are as dead and buried as, well,
Abraham Lincoln. Vivid language is imperative, but it's about more than that. It's also about approach. Biographies don't need to start with birth and end with death (or success). The illustrated portion of Boys of Steel covers only about ten years, roughly 1930 to 1940, though I do address what happened next in a text-only, three-page author's note. Nonfiction picture book writers have more freedom in terms of structure and style than ever before.

What's more, a healthy number of nonfiction picture book biographies profile people who (to my knowledge) have not had any previous trade book (for kids or otherwise) to themselves. Even Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, brains behind one of pop culture's most ubiquitous figures, were virgins in the standalone biography genre before Boys of Steel. They've been integral parts of larger comics histories (notably Men of Tomorrow and Superman: A Complete History), but they've never had a book just about them.

A quick and therefore criminally incomplete list of picture book biographies that are forerunners of their subjects (which in some cases means at least one other book on the same subject has come out, but only after the picture book):
  • The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (color inventors)
  • Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas (bodybuilder/marketing wizard)
  • The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (modeler of life-sized dinosaurs)
  • Sawdust and Spangles: The Amazing Life of W.C. Coup (circus/aquarium pioneer)
  • Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor (first woman to get a patent)
  • Fartiste (about Joseph Pujol, who turned flatulence into performance art)
  • America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle (first woman to swim the English Channel)
Dang. That list should be longer. If you can, please add to (and correct) it in the comments.

And then there are plenty of picture book biographies that come out after an "adult" biography, but an adult biography that did not get wide exposure or is out of print. I have examples but I will spare you for now. Suffice it to say we are talking about some fascinating individuals.

Just because a person has not been the focus of a biography before does not mean his story is not worth telling. Aren't we all perpetually hungry for "new" stories? Nonfiction writers are also detectives. I often feel the more unknown a figure (or an accomplishment of a well-known figure), the more engaging a book about him/it can be: "How could I have not heard about this before?" What writer would not take that as a high compliment?

So what about the youth audience for picture books? A subject for a future post. In the meantime, let's recap.

This is the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography because...
  • it's really an all-ages format, despite how many such books are marketed
  • visual literacy has become essential in our graphics-heavy digital age
  • picture book nonfiction is written with more flourish than ever before
  • in our ever-busier era, concise writing is in high demand
  • increasingly, picture book biographies are the first biographies on certain people
  • everyone likes pictures
Pictures sure would have made this long post go by faster...


Don Tate II said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm a fan of anything David A. Adler (who's bios are often illustrated by Terry Widener). LOU GEHRIG: THE LUCKIEST MAN. AMERICA'S CHAMPION SWIMMER: GERTRUDE EDERLE.

And I especially love what Andrea Pinkney and her husband Brian Pinkney do with biographies. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington.

And then there are the parings of Brian Selznick and Pam Munoz. Definitely not books for kids only. I'd give them as gifts to adults.

My personal all-time favorite would be THE MIDDLE PASSAGE by Tom Feelings. Ageless.

Barbara Kerley said...

Hi Marc,

Great post. And thanks for including Waterhouse on the list!

In my experience, writing a picture book biography forces you to hone in on what is truly elemental in your subject's life. There is no room for anything but the core story and, because the book is illustrated, you have to focus on moments when your subject is actively pursuing their passion.

The result is the story of a clean, clear pursuit of something that made a difference--and what could be more compelling than that? (No matter what your age!)

Barbara Kerley
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

Louise May said...

Great article Marc. It taps into so much of what we publish at Lee & Low. We have brought out numerous illustrated biographies about people who have not previously had a book written solely about them. To name just a few: SURFER OF THE CENTURY (Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimming champion and legendary surfer), HONDA (Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Motor Company), THE LAST BLACK KING OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY (Jimmy Winkfield, African American jockey), HOWARD THURMAN'S GREAT HOPE (theologian and civil rights leader), . . . and the list goes on. Many more such books can be found on our Web site:

Chris Barton said...

I'll add another Lee & Low book to the list: George Crum and the Saratoga Chip. And like the snack he invented, it's hard to stop with just one story about the creation of an everyday part of our lives. There's much more picture book material where potato chips and Day-Glo came from.

Unknown said...

Off the top of my head:

Manfish, about Jacques Cousteau
Manjiro by Emily Arnold McCully
Muhammed Ali by anyone
Salt in his shoes, about Michael Jordan
Talkin' bout Bessie
The National Geo photobiography series
Anything by Jeannette Winter, or Jonah Winter, or Robert Burleigh.

Not to mention your book, Chris Barton's book, etc, of course! Pretty much the entire 921 section of the school libraries that I select for.

I frequently find myself suggesting these for adults at the public library - you can tell when the person doesn't want 500 pages of analysis, and I know that the J books are engaging, factually correct, and hit the high points. That's part of why we interfile the kids' nonfiction and the adult nonfiction.

Chris W said...

I would point out that in Japan, comics (or manga, as known there) have been used to tell biographical and historical nonfiction tales for at least several decades. Perhaps those do not quite qualify as picture books, but the intent to tell complex nonfiction accounts in an easily digestible visual format is quite similar. They are widely read by kids and adults in Japan.

I can't think of any examples that have been published in English. The closest may be "Japan Inc: Introduction to Japanese Economics", although that used fictional characters to narrate real-life economic history.