Bridging the Fiction/Non-fiction Divide

I am negotiating the boundary between fiction and non-fiction (or informational narrative) in many of my projects these days, so Melissa Stewart’s posts about the two — particularly last week’s “Wait that’s not broccoli it’s chocolate!” — resonate.

Melissa makes a case for the place of non-fiction picture books in kids’ lives in the classroom and beyond, highlighting the tension between what kids want and what adult decision-makers tend to give them. She cites some pretty interesting research — check it out.

The discussion reminded me of when I first read Jessica Olien’s THE BLOBFISH BOOK. I’m a big fan of all things meta, and the way Olien’s blobfish hijacks this dry, old-school-looking, cloth-bound tome about the deep sea is hilarious. But I noticed something when I was reading it: part way through, I stopped paying attention to the “real”, informational narration and started to mostly follow the character’s bubble-dialogue interjections. The factual content sort of faded to the background for me.

Granted: I’m just one reader, and I am well beyond the age of the target audience. But reading that book underscored the tension between character-driven, entertaining narratives and informational ones — a tension that we see in individual books more and more frequently in the market today, as books try to more effectively reach both trade and educational audiences.

THE BLOBFISH BOOK felt doubly meta for raising the question ‘is there a point when the character’s story arc and humor overtake the informational value of the book and makes it moot?’ I don’t know the answer to that question – I need to read more of this sort of book with kids — though I’m guessing THE BLOBFISH BOOK, like most books, works for different children in different ways.

We are a consumer- and entertainment-oriented culture. Laughter sells, so the trade market privileges books that make people laugh. (And humor is so important). Likewise, many of us relate to stories through character and human emotion, so the market is heavy with character-driven books too. But does there have to be tension between making kids laugh or capturing their hearts, and engaging kids minds in other ways?

My former-teacher-self says: books that bridge the fiction/non-fiction divide and appeal to kids on many levels can be fantastic introductions to new subjects. Teachers and other caregivers can dig in more with conversation and with other books and activities that go into greater informational depth. It needn’t be an either/or.

Melissa’s reminder not to give short shrift to non-fiction simply because the trade market is experimenting with the fiction/non-fiction boundary is a good one, though, and her deeper message is equally important: keep checking in with and paying attention to the preferences and interests of the kids who are our ultimate audience.

Melissa is continuing the conversation with more posts here (thanks Melissa). In the meantime, keep an eye out for Julie Segal-Walters’ hilarious debut, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, illustrated by Brian Biggs and due out with S&S/Paula Wiseman books in October. This meta-picture book tangoes back and forth across the fiction/non-fiction divide!


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