The spring weather was a fitting backdrop for the sunny mood at a children’s book panel at Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose Bookstore, held on Sunday, May 4. Picture book authors, illustrators, and children’s literature experts gathered for the bookstore’s second annual picture book panel, which focused on nonfiction. The panelists were Richard Jackson, editorial director of Richard Jackson Books, an imprint of Atheneum; author Jen Bryant; illustrator R. Gregory Christie; and author-illustrators Brian Floca, Susan L. Roth, and Duncan Tonatiuh. Children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus served as moderator.

By way of introduction, Marcus remarked how nonfiction “really appeals to something deep in a lot of people by speaking to the question ‘is it true?’ rather than to the question that permeates fiction, ‘what if?’ ” While enthusiasm for nonfiction in children’s books has fluctuated over the years, the Common Core state standards have resulted in a renewed “mania for nonfiction,” he said. With this in mind, Marcus turned to the panelists, who spent the next hour discussing the challenges and opportunities inherent in crafting nonfiction picture books for children.

Floca said that he does not consciously think about the fiction-nonfiction divide, instead focusing on “making the best picture book I can,” but that his own interests have led him to create books that are concerned with real-life subjects. Shaping material into its picture book format is “the great pleasure and challenge of making the books,” he said “The material starts to demand very tricky things sometimes.” When Floca was working on his Caldecott Medal-winning Locomotive (S&S/Atheneum/Jackson), he initially planned to have the book focus on crew members aboard the transcontinental railroad. History derailed this concept, with Floca’s realization that crews would have changed several times over the course of the train’s journey. So the book ended up focusing on the railroad itself, rather than on specific characters.

Bryant, who has created numerous biographies of artists and other historical figures, discussed the challenge of finding the right angle from which to tell an individual’s story. The process begins with a lot of exploration: “I just slosh around in a person’s life,” she said. “If you slosh around the material long enough, the story tells you where to focus.” Bryant finds striking similarities between writing picture books and writing poetry in terms of the “distillation” of language and subject matter required. In fact, Georgia’s Bones (Eerdmans), her picture book about Georgia O’Keefe, originated from a series of poems Bryant had written. “I try to share the integrity of these people’s lives in an anecdotal way, which I feel is accessible to children,” she said.

Tonatiuh’s chief difficulty in writing Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams), he said, was determining how to give the reader enough information to convey the magnitude of the story without overwhelming the format. He frequently uses author’s notes and other supplemental materials to both connect with readers on a more personal level and to place the stories he tells in broader context. “It’s like packing a suitcase – or writing poetry,” Marcus observed.

Speaking of packing a suitcase, Floca described how his research process often involves seeking out new experiences. And sometimes that involves getting on the road. For Locomotive, he drove the transcontinental railroad route. “I probably could have done Locomotive without traveling across the country,” he said, but he feels that he would not have been able to bring the story the same immediacy.

With real-life subjects comes real complexities, and often darkness. The authors discussed a chief challenge in writing nonfiction picture books: how to present tough or controversial material in a safe, accessible manner. Bryant feels that “difficult material” isn’t off-limits for children’s nonfiction, as long as it “is not overwhelming and not without hope.” Tonatiuh recalled that he received a “tiny bit of backlash” for Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote (Abrams), which allegorically addresses illegal immigration. Yet responses to his picture books dealing with potentially loaded subject matter “are mostly positive.” He said he chooses his subjects based on whether feels there is “an important story to tell,” rarely thinking about the possibility of someone objecting to them.

Art Meets Life

While photography might seem to outsiders to be the logical medium for a nonfiction book, the panelists concurred that there are no limits to the kind of artwork that can accompany true stories, be it be photography, photo-collage, or oil paint. Jackson reflected that nonfiction is “great for artists,” providing fertile ground for interpretation and innovation. He described how nonfiction has the benefit of an actual person or event upon which to base its material, but it’s through the imagination that the spirit of a subject is truly conveyed. “We have nonfiction as a discipline, but we have it relying on the old-fashioned tools of fiction,” Jackson said.

Christie acknowledged that a “photo is confining” at times. The responsibility of illustrating nonfiction, he believes, is to “put your own human element into it,” while respecting the dignity of the subject matter and “honoring truth.”

Roth, who works primarily with collage, observed that “imagination takes over” the process of creating children’s nonfiction, “and is required to take over” in order to bring justice to the subject matter at hand. However, photographs have often helped to depict pivotal concepts that would have been difficult to convey otherwise. Tonatiuh creates “flat, geometric art,” that stems from his interest and exposure to pre-Columbian Mexican art. “It’s ancient-looking but stylized,” which he felt fittingly honors the cultural and historical contexts of his books.

Marcus mentioned another illustrator – Chris Raschka – whose artwork he finds especially reflective of its subject matter. He referenced Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Bebop and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Jackson, who published the Coltrane book, agreed, saying: “You learn the spirit of the person [through Raschka’s work].”

The panelists concluded by speaking about the obligations nonfiction picture books have to their subject matters, audiences, and in terms of promoting compassion and equality. Bryant said that picture book creators should aim to tell “the human story,” and Christie added that “books should help people.” The panelists also discussed the importance of resisting the genderization that is prevalent in certain areas of children’s literature – for example, the use of pink to connote a book “for girls.” Christie observed how aesthetics can subvert gender stereotypes. For example, for Tonya Bolden’s The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali (Knopf), Christie created a pink cover – a color that might not typically be associated with boxing. He sent the book to Ali, who expressed his approval (he didn’t mention anything about the color of the cover). “Picture books can open up discussion” into gender, intended audience, and a great deal more, Christie said. And as Marcus noted, an informative nonfiction picture book is obligated to tell “a true story as well as a good one.”