Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 19, 2010

English Majors Give Thumbs Up to Two Nonfiction Picture Books

My children’s literature students are almost entirely English majors, trained, of course, in the art of critique. It seems you can hand them a nonfiction picture book, even a very pretty one, and it’s not hard for them to rip it apart. It had better not to be too long. It had better not be what they’re unafraid to call boring. It had better move beyond facts, eschew big words and a show-off attitude, and keep a tight focus on the subject. They are not daunted by stickers on the cover; if it’s didactic it’s didactic. If the author drones on about volcanoes, sharks, the Inuit, or Leonardo da Vinci, they will say so. They scared me a little bit. Hey, everything can’t be, say, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse.

But there was some love, too. The students liked the intimate tone and the way the narration kept to a child’s point of view in One Thousand Tracings, written and illustrated by Lita Judge They liked the endpapers with photographs of old boxes that Lita found in an attic and that inspired the story. The book is based on a girl, Lita’s mother, who helped collect penciled or cut-out tracings of feet so that shoes the right size could be sent to those who had little food and clothing after World War II.

My students approved of the way the war and Europe were kept to the background, while a child’s curiosity and care were up front. They liked the tactile and relatively small images of shoes and brown paper, and how something that could be held in the hand might raise bigger questions about the world if a reader desired. But issues weren’t slammed down upon them.

Another book that met with their high-bar approval was Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathi by Claire A. Nivola. A group who focused on biography and nature liked the quote form Maathai on the book’s back: “Remember what millions of hands can do.” They felt this philosophy was reflected in the book, which is naturally about the Nobel prize winning founder of the Green Belt movement, but shows her in the context of other people and not smack in the center. You see that in this picture, too.

Both of these favorite books were written and illustrated by one person. Both have received a lot of acclaim, but so had most of the other books students read and dismissed. The art is lovely in both, but the tones are soft and the style more realistic than not; neither used a layout that called attention to itself. Many of the other books used bigger pictures, bolder colors, more experimental design. The tone and pace of the writing, like the art, is quiet: no one seems to be trying too hard. Perhaps what made these books stand out was the warm and clear connection the creators had with their subjects. Both books have someone who cares about others at their centers. Maybe that’s what we were drawn to. True stories with a beating heart.

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  1. “True stories with a beating heart.” – nicely put. Also, nice point about not trying too hard.

  2. These also strike me as being more of the “quiet” picture books that theoretically don’t sell as well. Clearly there is appeal when a book is done well.
    I utterly agree with your students liking for One Thousand Tracings. It strikes me as being like A New Coat for Anna and The Lily Cupboard in the way it approaches a large, potentially devastating topic in a way that a child can not only grasp, but fully understand, without being preachy.

  3. I can like a book that knocks me down, but also have had so many lovely moments with books that don’t yell.

  4. It was interesting to me that people around 21, who know the facts, would be drawn to some books that take note of the big world, but also kind of crouch like a teacher helping you button a jacket and talk to you face to face.
    Thank you for the picture book recommendations, Kathy. I’m afraid I’ve missed those, and will look for them. You are a treasure trove!

  5. What an interesting post! Haven’t seen One Thousand Tracings and am intrigued! “True stories with a beating heart.” So well said.

  6. beating hearts
    Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a blind study in which children and your students evaluate an identical set of books, using the same criteria (with age-appropriate words/rating systems, of course)? I wonder if they’d find the same pulse…

  7. The cover of Planting the Trees of Kenya really draws me in. It’s so interesting to hear what your students have to say! I’m putting both of these on my list. 🙂

  8. I think you’d like One Thousand Tracings. And there’s very cool back story on Lita’s website, with somehow poignant photos of shoes traced on old newspapers.

  9. Re: beating hearts
    It would be an interesting study. But of course that pulse is so hard to gauge. Sometimes it seems a small heartening miracle when we all love the same things.

  10. I think you’ll like these! There are other very good books about Wangari Maathai, all coming out after she won that Nobel, but this may be meant more for older readers,(though it is strange, as one student pointed out, that while that’s so, some of the other books draw more attention to the attacks and imprisonment she faced). And the trees here are gorgeous!

  11. Writers take note
    This post should be required reading for all would-be children’s book writers.
    I think it is also interesting that both books were written and illustrated by the same person.

  12. Re: Writers take note
    Thank you for your comment, Roberta!

  13. Hi Jeannine — thanks so much for using TRACINGS in your class — and a nice pairing of books too! I’ve really been enjoying BORROWED NAMES, been reading it very slowly. It’s one of my favorite books of all time!

  14. I’ve always liked Tracings, but I also like some other books my students seemed ho-hum about, so that reinforced my feeling about Tracing’s power. Good job! And I’m so happy to hear you like Borrowed Names!

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