31 Days, 31 Lists: 2018 Fictionalized Nonfiction
It’s the contradictions of the profession that sometimes yield the most interesting discussions. You may, in the past, have heard me refer, without irony, to our current era as the New Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Not just in terms of diversity and equity, but also in terms of sheer creativity. While artists have tried for years to present children’s literature in new and exciting ways, we’ve never seen them indulged by their publishers on quite this scale. And who is one of the beneficiaries of this wave of creativity? Nonfiction, of course! From facts and figures to people and places, whether you’re an expository nonfiction lover or squarely in the narrative camp, there was something for everyone out this year.
So why did I say there were contradictions? Because with great creativity comes a loosening of borders and definitions. And that’s when we get down to trying to determine whether or not something is “true”. Now I’ll tell you right now, I’m downright conservative when it comes to fake dialogue in books that claim to be nonfiction. Many is the beautiful book that I cast aside merely because it gave us the unknowable. I like my nonfiction to adhere as closely to the truth as possible, but at the same time I love the creative ways people have come up with to present factual information. What to do? Why a list dedicated to those works of nonfiction with fictional elements (or are they fictional tales with nonfiction elements?). Because creativity deserves to be honored one way or another. This is my way.
2018 Fictionalized Nonfiction
Boats on the Bay by Jeanne Walker Harvey, ill. Grady McFerrin
The younger you get in terms of reading levels, the more difficult it can be to ascertain whether or not a book is actually meant for the picture book or in the nonfiction section of your library. Take Boats on the Bay. The mere fact that it’s so beautiful might cause one to feel that it’s a picture book, but that’s your fiction-lovin prejudice at work, my friend. I was surprised by how factual this little book turned out to be, in terms of all things nautical. PW called it a “catalog of vessels”. Darn tooting.
Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak, ill. Julian Frost, photographs by Linnea Rundgren
Oh, my little beauty. Who’s the best little work of nonfiction for young readers out there in 2018? You are! Yes, you are! This book is in my top five of the year, hands down. I originally saw it in galley format (an early version of the book sent to reviewers) so it wasn’t until I got the hardcover that I discovered that on the back in tiny type, and next to a particularly shiny circle, it says that if you really MUST lick this book, please restrict yourself to this area. The entire enterprise is what you’d get if you combined Herve Tullet with an electron microscope. The reader is introduced to a germ and then must transport it all over the place. The germs are cartoons. The places they go, high intensity microscopic scans of teeth, clothing, skin, and more. It’s an irresistible readaloud, and not a bad way to get kids interested in washing their hands more. If it looks familiar, it already appeared on my list of books that use photography in neat ways.
La Frontera: El viaje con papá – My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills & Alfredo Alva, ill. Claudia Navarro
Ah. This one is bilingual on the page, with both English and Spanish text available in its first printings. Timely, it follows the fictionalized nonfiction tale of its author Alfredo Alva, as he and his father made their way from Mexico to the United States in 1980. Back matter includes information on immigration, a history of the U.S. and Mexican border, and photos of Alva’s family and hometown. SLJ called it a “must-have”. I don’t think they’re wrong about that.
Hawk Rising by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Brian Floca
My library plays host to nesting peregrine falcons every year. By this point in time I know more about the darned birds than anyone at any cocktail party I’ve recently attended would really want to know (“They’re the fastest animals in the world! They eat blue jays!”). More than anything they’ve given me an appreciation for observing wild animals in urban settings. In this book two kids observe a red-tailed hawk from the comfort of their home. Floca is a master, so you’re in safe hands there, but I haven’t seen him do as much with wild animals before. This was a nice change to see. It’s beautiful, but the mix of fiction and nonfiction elements will make it darned hard to categorize for librarians. To a very great extent the book that this felt the most like was Maria’s previous book Coyote Moon, which also mixed true facts with a story. It’s a popular motif to do this these days. Hence, today’s list.
Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall
Well, of course. I’m sorry, do I have to say any more about this? More than anything, I love it when a creator gets obsessed with something, be it lighthouses or warblers or what have you. Ms. Blackall gives you the rundown on what exactly a lighthouse is, as well as what it does. Doesn’t hurt matters that she makes the whole thing gorgeous along the way. The fictional elements come in the form of an average lighthouse keeper who stays on the job for many years, raising a family there. Honestly, I was reminded of that Reading Rainbow episode about lighthouses. Do you remember it? It pairs beautifully with this book. Here, I’ll show you:
Hey-Ho, to Mars We’ll Go! by Susan Lendroth, ill. Bob Kolar
What would getting to Mars entail? There are whole teams of scientists contemplating that very question right now, but why should those pesky grown-ups get all the fun? In this book a group of kids blast off into space, all thanks to a text that can be sung to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”. Hi-ho the derry oh indeed.
Inky’s Amazing Escape: How a Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home by Sy Montgomery, ill. Amy Schimler-Safford
Is it just me, or was 2018 unofficially The Year of the Escaping Octopus? I think I counted four different books alone that covered the theme. Of them, this may have been my favorite. Still, it surprised me that Sy Montgomery, unofficial queen of Nonfiction (her 2018 adult book How to Be a Good Creature is doing very well in my library) lightly fictionalized Inky’s tale. I do miss those horizontal pupils that all octopuses have (round ones are way too cartoonish) and apparently it was mistakenly drawn as female (or so says the Kirkus review) but the art is still lovely and if you’ve ever liked books that show octopus escape artists, it makes for a fun read.
Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby, ill. Rebecca Green
For just half a second there I thought this might be another picture biography of Iqbal the Pakistani boy that organized a protest against harsh conditions for working children. Instead, this is a fictional tale of a Bangladeshi boy trying to find a solution to a big problem. His mother cooks with firewood inside the home, which leads to air quality problems. They can’t afford a kerosene stove either. The answer to the problem highlights in large part an issue around the world and how people have come to deal with potential solutions. There’s even information about clean cookstoves, an activity to build a solar-powered stove out of a pizza box, and a glossary at the end. More fictional than a lot of the other books on this list, I still learned quite a lot from it.
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, ill. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Oooh. I have so many mixed feelings about this book. At the root of my feelings is an overwhelming love for it. Not a lot of biographies about black women guitar players out there, and the fact that Libba learned to do it backwards just floors me. It’s beautifully written with great art, so why’s it here in the fictionalized nonfiction list? Well, near the end there’s an image that shows Libba playing in a large auditorium to a crowd. That moment never happened, it’s just a flight of fancy on the part of the artist, but it’s there. So most of this is definitely nonfiction. There’s just an odd jab of the inventive as well.
Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, ill. Felicita Sala
This is honestly the only place I could think to place this book, due to its deft intermingling of the true and the fictionalized. Here you can see the gorgeous art of Felicita Sala at work, with an artful story by Alexandria Giardino to match. Why did the great poet Neruda write an ode to an onion? Kirkus was a little perturbed by the book, writing that if you actually wanted some concrete information on the man and his importance you should pair this with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, by Monica Brown and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Not untrue, but let us not play down the importance of what Giardino and Sala are doing here. This is trying less to be an account of Neruda in life (though there is some brief biographical info in the back) and more a look at what constitutes the creative process. How does mood or perspective affect creation? Beautiful on all counts.
The Turtle Ship by Helena Ku Rhee, ill. Colleen Kong-Savage
In sixteenth-century Korea, Yi Sun-sin was a highly respected admiral. In this fictionalized story, however, he’s just a boy with an idea. The king declares an open contest to design the best battleship.Yi Sun-sin takes inspiration from a turtle and designs a ship with that in mind. There’s lots of backmatter on the story’s roots, as well as a bit of STEM concentration on the experimental process. Not a lot of Korean naval history books in the children’s section of the library right now. Would be a shame if you missed this one.
Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh
It’s always nice when a book catches your eye. And a book that opens out into a six-foot long double sided accordion-fold sequence is certainly hard to miss. Add in the subject matter (undocumented workers unionizing for their rights with ample information about why it’s dangerous for them and why they still know they have to) and you have one of the most memorable books of the season. Elissa Gershowitz called it “a picture book for fourteen-year-olds” which may be the best description I’ve seen to date. It isn’t the subject matter that reads older, but the complexity of the content. For that reason, it becomes hard to categorize. Another reason you might not be seeing this book in libraries is thanks to its slipcase. Many is the library that doesn’t purchase books housed in boxes. And yet, the publisher Abrams knew this and chose to do the book in this original format anyway. That takes guts on their part, so I tip my hat to their chutzpah. See the recent discussion of this book’s Caldecott chances at Calling Caldecott too, if you get a chance.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Board Books & Pop-Ups
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Wordless Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – CaldeNotts
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Books for Kids
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – Translated Picture Books
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Comics for Kids
December 21 – Older Funny Books
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Fiction Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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