What makes a nonfiction picture book come to life?
I've been wondering about that for a while. One thing I do know (or think I know) is this: simplicity works.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite nonfiction picture books of all time.
"Birds have no teeth. No hands. No antlers, horns or spines. But birds have beaks. And beaks are enough." Thus begins Sneed B. Collard III's fascinating book "Beaks!" illustrated by Robin Brickman and published by Charlesbridge. It goes on to describe some of the fascinating uses of beaks, and shows why birds need no teeth, hands, antlers, horns or spines to do all that they need to.
Sneed has also written other books along the same lines – "teeth" and "wings". They are all "just" lists. But what wonderful lists they are.
Lists, which can so easily deteriorate into boring repetition in the hands of a less remarkable writer, are transformed into incredibly interesting work in his hands. You want to turn the pages and find out more, more, more.
Why? Because his prose is evocative, clear, and crisp.
Because each book is packed with wonderful information. They are like mini-encyclopedias in that they contain an amazing trove of knowledge; but the way the information is presented is anything but encyclopedic.
And because the illustrations are superb – scientifically accurate eye-candy.
Those are three reasons that I can think of that make the books as wonderful as they are. But surely, there are other reasons, too.
For those of you who might already be planning ahead for father's day in June, here's an idea for an special father's day gift: "Animal Dads" – another elegant book and a wonderful "list" by Sneed B. Collard III.
Sneed B. Collard is not the only successful nonfiction children's book author to use the "list" format successfully, of course. Visit any bookstore or library and look at nonfiction picture books on scientific topics, and you'll see that many of them are lists.
As an oceanographer-turned author, my "training" was in science and mathematics. In those fields, we were always taught of the importance of a good question. So I'd like to throw out a question that I hope will be good enough to spur discussion: What transforms a nonfiction picture book written using the "list" form into a special, creative, exceptional and exciting work?