31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Informational Fiction
This weekend I received a question via twitter from author Deborah Hopkinson. She said:
This led to an interesting conversation amongst several folks over what the best term might be for a book that, “has some documentable information but also some made up parts–invented dialog, animal narrators, fantasy elements, etc.” (according to Melissa Stewart’s definition). So, for the first time ever, we’re switching the title of this particular list from “Fictionalized Nonfiction” to “Informational Fiction”. There are a lot of great books out there in a given year that mix and meld fact and fiction. Here’s a list that nods to some of the more stellar titles:
2019 Informational Fiction
Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice by Debbie Levy, ill. Whitney Gardner
Give this one to Debbie Levy. She wrote a nonfiction picture book bio of RBG called I Dissent a couple years ago (Fun Fact: 12% of librarians still use the bookbag S&S made for that book’s promotion) and then, I guess, figured that there was a lot more to say. But rather than do a nonfiction chapter book (which could be a snorefest) she decided to do a comic. Very cool. I read this one to my daughter at bedtime and found myself explaining all SORTS of stuff I hadn’t thought to explain to her before (how courts work, why women should serve on juries, etc.). Levy kind of doubles down on the legal aspects here, so expect that some kids will drop out during her cases while others swallow them whole. My daughter, meanwhile, was convinced for a while that Ruth’s husband was a goner. Quite the relief that he lives!
Birthday On Mars! by Sara Schonfeld, ill. Andrew J. Ross
I’ve seen a lot of Mars Rover picture books in my day. Not a one of them has ever impressed me until now. First off, I was very attracted to the size of this tiny book. Look at its widdle size! A miniscule 6.5 X 8 inches. I can hear some of you groaning that it’ll get lost on your shelves, and you’re right. It will. But inside the book you follow the rover Curiosity as it celebrates its birthday (based on the rover actually singing itself that song on August 5, 2013). There’s some nice backmatter, and beautiful images of Mars. Beautiful and strange all at once, it doesn’t try to be more than it is.
Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride by Joel Christian Gill
They tell Bessie she’s not enough. They tell her she’ll never be fast. They tell her she’s just a girl. But this fictionalized adventure from the childhood of the first Black woman to travel solo across America on a motorcycle shows that gumption can beat out prejudice any day. I liked the text a lot. I was less fond of some of the choices in the art (I mean, it’s cool that she’s wearing a helmet, but who seriously wore one in the early 20th century?). But the writing makes up for it (and that said about the art, this may win the award for Best Endpapers of the Year). A smart way to handle a nonfiction subject (who was also an unreliable narrator of her own life) in a fictional way.
Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson by Jen Bryant, ill. Cannaday Chapman
Can I say how much I love it that Jen Bryant selected Wilson as the next subject worthy of biography? In the name of full-disclosure, when I lived in New York I would get season passes to August Wilson plays (don’t ask me to choose a favorite). The challenge with this book was for Bryant to be honest about his life (it shows him dropping out of school multiple times) while also explaining why he made the choices he did (this is a really good book at showing how racism can be ingrained in a system). It’s also an examination of how a person becomes a writer. The key line in this book is when Wilson is talking early on to playwright Rob Penny and asks how you make your characters talk. “Oh, you don’t – you listen to them,” is the answer. The whole book is about that listening. It’s also chock full of invented dialogue, which makes sense considering Wilson’s ear for it. Makes it hard to catalog but a joy to read.
Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop by Tamar Meir, ill. Yael Albert, translated by Noga Applebaum
There’s a real advantage to not remembering why you placed a certain book in you library on hold. Why precisely did I want to read this book? No idea, so I just picked it up and dove in. And at first it just seemed like the story of a boy who loved ice cream and who, in turn, grew up to influence another boy to love ice cream. Pretty standard stuff. Of course that was before the plot took a sharp right turn and the Nazis invaded. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, since there’s a shot of Francesco Tirelli as a child playing with soldiers over a map of Europe (WWI type stuff). What this is then is a fictionalized account of the real Francesco, who hid a whole host of Jewish people in his ice cream shop. It’s also, appropriately enough, a Hanukkah tale. At one point the people burn cooking oil in a chocolate mold that has seven spaces in it. The art is deft and the text consistently interesting. So much so that I didn’t know this was based on real people until I got to the Epilogue at the end. A book worth discovering and remembering.
The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty, ill. Elizabeth Haidle
This one plays pretty fair. Granted, it really delves deep into what Venetia is thinking or feeling at any given moment, and that’s all speculation as far as anyone knows. It’s not like Venetia published a journal or autobiography or anything. But in the Author’s Note McGinty admits that, “When I put these events into the story, I imagined how Venetia waited, and how she reacted when she found out that her name, Pluto, had been chosen.” So there’s an acknowledgement of the fiction. Not for straight nonfiction sections, but if you ever had an Informational Fiction section in your library, this would most certainly belong.
Give Me Back My Bones! by Kim Norman, ill. Bob Kolar
With this book, I give you the ultimate gift: An entry for your STEM-related Halloween storytime. Seriously. First off, you’ve got the rhyming text, which somehow is capable of providing rhymes on the one hand, while also working in words like “clavicle” and “metacarpals” on the other. I don’t tend to see a lot of books that include information on the names of the bones, so this was an extra treat. Add in the fact that there’s a piratical connection (bonus!) and you have yourself a tried and true winner, my friends.
Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate, From Farm to Family by Elizabeth Zunon
Though I was familiar with Elizabeth Zunon’s work, until this book came out I was unaware that while she was born in Albany, NY, she grew up in the Ivory Coast, West Africa (specifically the city of Abidjan). Zunon never knew her grandfather, who owned a cacao plantation, so this book is a tribute to him. It discusses the history of chocolate, how it’s grown and prepared, and (in the backmatter) why it’s important to buy Fair Trade. All this couched around a sweet story about a girl who loves chocolate and hears stories from her father of harvesting it.
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chaffee, ill. Ellen Rooney
This is precisely the kind of book that inspires me to make this Informational Fiction list every year. It appears to be nonfiction at first, then contains just loads of fake dialogue. Too bad, since the art from Rooney (a painter, printmaker, and collage artist) is keen and Chaffee has a nice, informal style well-suited for the picture book biography genre. The faux conversations will keep this from being a nonfiction award winner but that doesn’t mean I can’t put it on THIS list! I highly appreciated learning about Switzer’s run and getting the background on that infamous picture of the man trying to pull her out of the race.
Hummingbird by Nicola Davies, ill. Jane Ray
I swear, I go years without a single Jane Ray title and then in 2019 I get two at once! This book is quite different from Corey’s Island, in that it has an informational bent that’s keen. Couched within the small stories of humans living in different parts of the Americas, we get an array of hummingbird facts alongside Ray’s gorgeous glowing art. The only mystery here is how she’s NOT done a hummingbird book before now. Talk about an artist born to paint iridescent neck feathers. Facts that I didn’t know before included the knowledge that a hummingbird nest is the size of half of a walnut shell and that they’re called Ts’unun or zun-zun in several languages in South and Central America, possibly because of the sound their wings make.
The Invention Hunters: Discover How Machines Work by Korwin Briggs
Sure, this is just a silly story about a bunch of inventors mistakenly identifying different construction site objects, but at its core I just love the science at work. This reminded me a lot of David Macaulay at his best. I swear, due to my own son’s obsession, I’ve seen how toilets have worked before, but this really made the mechanics crystal clear. And it’s continually drilling home what a pulley, wedge, lever, and more are. Engineering and comics for the youngest of readers.
Most of the Better Natural Things in the World by Dave Eggers, ill. Angel Chang
Boy, it is amazing how many books just slip under the radar in a given year. This book truly embodies the notion of fiction and nonfiction mixing and merging in a proper text. My library may have labeled it as “Picture Book” in our catalog, but what it truly does is define landscapes, one word per two-page spread. Some are pretty basic. Glacier, Tundra, Valley, etc. But a lot are beautiful sounding, strange, and cool. Chaparral. Badlands. Taiga. Happily, there are definitions for each (with pictures!) at the back of the book. It reminds me quite a lot of the water-related 2018 title Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World by Christy Hale. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a good isthmus.
Mother Goose of Pudding Lane, told by Chris Raschka, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
First off, I had no idea that Mother Goose could be attributed to a specific person. Raschka does a very good job of tying in her life’s story (what little we know of it) to a variety of different classic nursery rhymes. When my daughter was little I read a LOT of nursery rhyme collections. This one, with its additional information for older readers and parents, would have been greatly appreciated back then. Love the art and love the order in which the rhymes appear. A unique and creative approach to the most classic of all collections.
Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born by Miranda Paul, ill. Jason Chin
Who knew fetuses could be so much fun? So, honestly, I took this picture book with a stack of others into my lunchroom, assuming it was going to be the usual new-baby-gee-whiz fare. I guess I missed the fact that it was a Neal Porter book. Anyway, I open it up and the minute my eyes alighted on the dividing cells, I knew I was in good hands. A fascinating look at each stage of the process. And can I tell you something else? I kinda teared up with all the normal family stuff too. I mean, that little girl looks so excited to be a big sister. What can I say? I’m a softie.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This book is chock full o’ nuns! I don’t know if the world was crying out for a lightly fictionalized retelling of Queen Elizabeth I’s years in hiding while Mary ruled the throne, but if it wasn’t it should have been. What we have here is a loving telling of what it’s like to grow up on a beautiful island with loving nuns, only to have the world encroach not just on the people you love but also on what you thought you knew to be true. Due to its size and some of its complexity, someone asked me if this would be more for teens. After long consideration I think I would slot it firmly in the kids section. This is probably because Margaret, its heroine, is such a thorough kid. Funny and gripping and tragic and lovely all at once.
Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival by Lindsay Moore
I mean, it’s not like it’s a contest or anything but when it comes to using polar bears to hit home environmental messages in books, I think Sea Bear’s probably the best we’ve seen so far. Moore takes a fictional polar bear and walks it through what it’s life looks like in the 21st century. In a very small note on the publication page, Moore credits the scientists that study these bears in the wild. “With nearly fifty years’ worth of peer-reviewed research published in books and scientific journals, we have a wealth of information available about polar bears.” She goes on to thank the folks at Polar Bears International and Dr. Dale Smith for his knowledge of polar astronomy. So you know the research at work here was sound. This book is a perfect example of a tricky title to catalog. It’s a fictional bear in a real situation, informed by research. Memorable.
16 Words: William Carlos Williams & “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers, ill. Chuck Groenink
Naturally when you say “Williams Carlos Williams picture book biography” the first thing that comes to mind is the Caldecott Honor winning book River of Words by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet from about 10 years ago. Rogers and Groenink take a very different view of Williams, and the contrast is both striking and delightful. Where Bryant concentrated on Williams and his work as a poet as a whole, Rogers examines how his job as a house doctor informed his observations and work. Where Stewart is all collage and bright colors, Groenink works in a digital medium that replicates soft subdued colors where the red of the wheelbarrow pops. This book looks primarily at the Red Wheelbarrow poem and the overall effect is lovely. I’m popping it into the “Informational Fiction” category because, as the author says in her note at the end, “When I learned about Marshall, I thought of how the two men respected each other. Was Williams making a connection between himself and the wheelbarrow’s owner? That’s what I believed, and what inspired me to write this story.” As such the book is full of suppositions, but the bones are strong so I’m pleased to offer it here today. If nothing else, it inspires you to appreciate that sixteen word poem all the more. A grand exploration of the reason why poetry exists.
Truth or Lie: Sharks! by Erica S. Perl, ill. Michael Slack
Kids love sharks. Saying that is the equivalent of saying “Sunlight is warm”. As long as there are seasons and clouds above, children shall clamor for their shark books. And like any popular subject, that means that coming up with an original take on them can be tricky. I guess that’s why I’m so keen on this series. I love the quiz aspect of it. Reading it by myself at lunch, I kept wanting to show it to my own kids to tell them to quiz me. It’s good for the clever ones that want to brag about how much they know, but it’s also great for the kids that just want anything and everything shark related. Good subtitle too: “75% Truth + 25% Lies = 100% FUN!”
You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks by Evan Turk
It’s probably a bad sign of the times when a book on the National Parks feels political, isn’t it? I honestly am not quite sure where to categorize this. It feels like a poem, is filled with facts, and is the size of a Picture Book. I’m going with Picture Book on this one. Turk’s art is, as ever, incredible. And you can tell that a book is doing its job right when, after finishing, you want to run out and find the nearest National Park to visit (for me I think it’s either Gateway Arch or Cuyahoga Valley). Nice of him to include a map of the Parks, a list of the Parks shown in this book, and meticulous information on all the animals featured as well, don’t you think?
You Are Never Alone by Elin Kelsey, ill. Soyeon Kim
If you’ve seen Kelsey & Kim’s You Are Stardust or Wild Ideas then you know that they specialize in big ideas writ small. This book focuses on the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, and it does so with straightforward text that doesn’t talk down to anybody, alongside Kim’s customary gorgeous cut paper collage illustrations. I’m putting it in the “Informational Fiction” category if only because it practically reads like poetry some of the time, and the images are so lovely and dreamlike you could be forgiven for being confused. Beauty.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Booklists
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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