31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Informational Fiction
Informational Fiction? What the dang blasted heck is that supposed to mean? “Informational Fiction”. I mean, it’s either information or it’s fiction, right? Facts v. Fiction. Lifelong enemies, those two! But, you see, it’s just not that simple. Seems that authors and even illustrators have these distinctly creative instincts. Instincts that cause them to fill fact-based books with fiction and made up stories with real world facts. Such books are often the most creative seen in a given year . . . and a headache to catalogers everywhere. Where on earth am I supposed to put in my library a fictionalized biography of Alicia Alonso that sticks to the truth of her life but is full of fake dialogue? Where do I put the book about the girl in early Renaissance Italy, where a deep-dive into speculation remains the only way to tell her story?
The truth is, today’s books are marvelous amalgamations of imagination and reality. They may not be easy to characterize under a Dewey Decimal Number, but they could potentially help kids better understand the state of the world today. That’s why today we salute this “informational fiction” (a Melissa Stewart term, hat tip to her) and give it its own separate list.
2020 Informational Fiction
For Younger Readers
Numenia and the Hurricane: Inspired by a True Migration Story by Fiona Halliday
In 2011 a little whimbrel got caught in Tropical Storm Gert off the coast of Nova Scotia, right smack dab in the middle of her migration to the US Virgin Islands. The bird, who was being tracked by scientists from the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, survived and inspired Halliday to present the story (fictionalized with a separation and reunion with siblings) in rhyme. It is not without poetry. “Bandit-eyed, / They slip unseen / Through beckoning moors / Of tangled green.” For folks doing a poetry unit, a migration unit, a conservation unit, or even a climate change unit, this could make a darn decent readaloud.
The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom by Colleen AF Venable, ill. Lian Cho
What a treat! Adults have struggled for years with finding the best way to teach children about the different parts of the orchestra. From Peter and the Wolf to Fantasia to picture books like The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and The Composer Is Dead, there seems to be no end to the attempts. This book has its own methods of conveying information. A method that consists of constantly interrupting people with drum solos. The exceedingly patient band director Mr. V is determined to find you, the reader, your perfect instrument. To do this, he describes a great number, giving lots of additional nonfiction information along the way. You’ll get stuff like the science of different reeds alongside Cho’s beautiful art. It isn’t until you get to the end of the book that you realize that every kid in the class is based on a famous musician. So expect to see some cameos from folks like Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez, Ian Anderson, Sidney Bechet, and more. I enjoyed how the info was conveyed, and who doesn’t love a book where the tuba triumphs in the end?
“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway by Beth Anderson, ill. Jenn Harney
Reminded me more than a little of Jonah Winter’s Here Comes the Garbage Barge (which has this AMAZING Storyline Online reading from Justin Theroux that you have to check out) from back in the day. And like that book, this isn’t a title that you’d go to if you were looking for the strict facts surrounding Kelly’s life. That said, this book is a true hoot. Here you’ve got this NYC transit employee who may have saved thousands of lives in his lifetime. We’ll never really know since the guy was so good at his job. He would literally sniff out leaks that could lead to explosions and worse and apparently found an average of eight a day. Not only that, he was the Subway Hero of 1939 before we even had a contemporary one, throwing himself under a train to help save another man. Eventually he was succeeded by sniffer dogs (makes sense) though I love the note at the end that says, “though various forms of technology are used to detect and measure leaks and fumes in the subway, workers still depend on sharp ears and a keen sense of smell.” The art by Jenn Harney matches the tone of the book beautifully. Funny, silly, and inventive.
Solar Story: How One Community Lives Alongside the World’s Biggest Solar Plant by Allan Drummond
A remarkable look at the Noor solar power plant in Morocco’s Sahara desert through the eyes of a girl in a neighboring village. True facts meld with fun storytelling to bring us a tale of real world sustainability. Drummond faces a problem many authors face when they get too good a single kind of concept. In his case, he’s sort of the master of the fictionalized picture book set in a real world location that’s battling climate change in its own way. He did a book on cities that bicycle and communities that are entirely green, and now he’s focused on a solar power planet. The story and characters are fictional, but the facts are not. There’s a really nice description of all the different ways of defining the term “sustainability” above and beyond the usual, and I appreciated how the book pointed out that the skills learned in the construction of the plant could be used in other communities as well. Top notch work.
Sumptuous art imagines the life of a girl in early Renaissance Italy who would go on to invent a kind of glass so unique it became its own form of currency. This is a key example of a situation in which the story is based on a real person but, due to the lack of factual information, much of the tale must be invented. I’ve loved the art of Evan Turk for years and years, and I was tempted to write this one off as a case where he just wanted to justify a cool trip to Venice. Yet the sheer amount of research that went into this story will blow your mind. And that’s not even counting the fact that it’s just an incredibly cool story about a girl who investigated ancient glass techniques and cracked them (no pun intended). Delicious
The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, edited by Yoshimi Kusaba, ill. Gaku Nakagawa, translated by Andrew Wong
So you wanna write a picture book about how we should consume less? Well good luck in finding a hook, my friend. Honestly, where would you even begin? A smart way might be to look for a real world example of someone who lived an ascetic but appealing life. What about a president? What about the President of Uruguay? This book chronicles an actual speech given by President José Mujica at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Now don’t go slapping this into your Nonfiction section of the library, necessarily. Though the sentiments of this book are true, the words have been rewritten to fit a picture book audience. Part of what’s so fascinating about this particular title is that it is a translation from the Japanese original. Apparently Mujica is a huge deal in Japan and that accounts for this book’s origins. The message of simply wanting less and appreciating more is admirable, and the art is gorgeous. It’s a book with a clear message, absolutely, and the package and telling so nice that you might think twice about wanting that new doodad you had your eye on the other day.
For Older Readers
Alicia Alonso Takes the Stage by Nancy Ohlin, ill. Josefina Preumayr
Since a goodly chunk of my education can be directly traced to the children’s books I read, I was already aware of Alicia Alonso thanks to Carmen Bernier-Grand’s Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina. That book was a strict biography. This one? Very much in the vein of that old “Childhood of Famous Americans” series. That’s not a criticism, just an explanation of why I’d suggest placing this in your fiction rather than biography section. Nancy Ohlin takes the facts of Alicia’s life, and focuses less on the politics of being a Cuban and more on how she worked with her partial blindness. We use the word “empowering” a bit too often when we talk about children’s books, so I’ll just say that I liked very much the way in which Ohlin tackled the subject of Alonso’s partial blindness and how her return to the stage was aided by colleagues that knew how to work with changes to how she would dance. I am less enamored of the design decision to exclude the author and illustrator’s names from the cover and title page entirely. I understand that this is part of the “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” series (a series that includes books similar to this one about Ada Lovelace, Madam C.J. Walker, Junko Tabei, and Dr. Wangari Maathai) but just because you have a brand that doesn’t give you an excuse not to credit your hardworking creators. Because it is, after all, a rather good book.
The Bird in Me Flies by Sara Lundberg, translated by B.J. Epstein
Berta may be just a farm girl, but she desperately yearns to be an artist. But in 1920s Sweden, a dream like that is an impossibility . . . or is it? A fictionalized retelling of the young life of Swedish artist Berta Hansson (1910-1994), my librarians went positively gaga for this book. Every year they fall in love with one European import and this year it was this Swedish import. It’s one of those funny little books that sit squarely between early chapter books and longer fiction. It’s a super quick read and you’ll find lush watercolor art on practically every page. It’s a story we’ve seen before but Epstein’s translation has captured a tone of pure yearning that I found impressive. Certainly worthy of discovery.
Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith
Fighting off wild wolves, taming mustangs, catching crooks. Meet three real life heroes like you’ve never seen them before. Pretty much the more Bass Reeves and Stagecoach Mary we can get into the collection the better. And while I hadn’t even heard of Bob Lemmons before this book, now I may need to know more. This little history collection is short, sweet, and to the point. Smith’s art didn’t grab me right off the bat, but when it did I was hooked. Extra points for completely eschewing that wild rumor that Mary had a trained pet eagle. I also love Kadir Nelson’s intro, which states that a third of the settler population in the Old West was black. Did you know that? Do our children? They do now.
Blades of Freedom (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales) by Nathan Hale
No shade on the “History Comics” series coming out this year, but have you noticed how many books out there are macking off of Nathan Hale’s success? It’s not as if the “Hazardous Tales” series (in which the historical Revolutionary era spy Nathan Hale delays his own hanging by telling a Provost and a Hangman stories about American History) hadn’t covered slavery before. Heck, his Underground Abductor may have been his finest work (it’s my favorite children’s book about Harriet Tubman). And he’s never been intimidated by big stories. But slavery gets the FULL ON treatment in this story of Haiti, Napoleon, and the Louisiana Purchase. Is it necessary? A little story: This year, my family received as an early Christmas present a board game called “Archipelago”. As I read through the instructions, I came to the slow, horrified realization that the entire game was one big justification for European colonization (though apparently the game “Puerto Rico” is even worse?). I decided to look online to see if anyone had ever expressed any thoughts about this and found myself sinking deep into a 2012 rabbit hole where grown arse adults were saying that colonization could not possibly be equated to genocide and other equally inane statements. I came away from that experience realizing how much work is yet to be done. This book, this painful and insightful and horrifying book, is precisely what we need to do it. You will find ZERO smiling slaves inside. Instead you’ll find the most gruesome book in the series to date (and I include Donner Dinner Party in that statement). The kooky thing? Kids are going to read it over and over again. I don’t know how he does it, but I pray he never ever stops.
The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies by Pranas T. Naujokaitis
Watching the wide variety of “History Comics” from First Second this year has been fascinating. The “Science Comics” series has always been so touch-and-go. Some books in the series are deft and agile, while other are distinctly clunky. It appears that something similar has happened with the “History Comics”. Overall, they’ve varied in quality, but in a general sense I’ve been impressed. Perhaps most impressive, in some ways, is this creative look at the Challenger Disaster. This is a historical event that happened during my lifetime but that I have no memory of at all. Using a framing sequence of a class of space kids learning about the disaster on “Challenger Day”, we get to meet each crew member, learn about why this program was important in the first place, see the tragedy, and then do a deep dive into the investigation of what happened. Naujokaitis cleverly keeps the revelations coming. I mean, who knew that Sally Ride was the anonymous tipster that led Feynmann to the O-rings? Smartly handled with very little extra weight, this is fiction and nonfiction mixing together at their best.
The League of Super Feminists by Mirion Malle
“You can read this to me,” my 9-year-old informed me seriously, “just so you know that I hate the art and I’m not going to stop hating it.” Deal. Life’s too short to convince an American child that French contemporary cartoons are more than initially meets the eye. Malle’s book is best described as a HIGHLY informative encapsulation of a variety of feminist topics of conversation. Consent and intersectionality and representation and privilege and inclusive language and much much more all get their day in the sun. It’s a one stop shopping book of contemporary issues (and explanations). But there’s also some really good explanations of rudimentary feminism. For example, princess narratives? Not bad! But if that’s all you’re watching then there could be consequences down the road. I should note that for the first part of the book my daughter would occasionally moan about the art. By the end? No moans at all. Not so much as a peep, and plenty of appreciative laughter for the funny parts. This is the book we all need right now.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
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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