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Post-Orbis Pictus Nonfiction Musings, Round Two

Last week, Erika and I wrote a post about the Orbis Pictus and Charlotte Huck Book Award announcements at the NCTE Annual Convention. The Orbis Pictus Award was the first stand-alone award for children’s nonfiction, established by NCTE in 1989 and first awarded in 1990. You can learn more about the award on the NCTE site or in this post that Erika and I co-authored last fall for SLJ.  Last year at this time, I shared my thoughts about trends in the field of nonfiction K-8 in a post entitled “Post-Orbis Pictus Nonfiction Musings.” This week, I share some new observations about nonfiction for young people, informed by my reading during this fourth and final year on the committee. I hope that these observations are helpful to you in whatever role you play – teacher, librarian, author, illustrator, editor, or bookseller – in getting books in the hands of young people.

Why the Dearth of Books on Historical Events?  

BootsWhile biographies abound (more on that below), we received a paucity of books about particular events in history. Biographies are incredible portals into particular moments and periods, which is one of the reasons why I love them so much. However, isn’t history worth exploring through multiple, rather than singular, perspectives? Certainly, elementary schools still struggle to devote time to robust exploration of the world – past, present, and future- in social studies. We all know the reasons: policies put in place in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind that require teachers to devote the majority of their time to literacy and math, decontextualized.

Such policies are lost opportunities not just because students are forever disadvantaged in their learning about history and culture. For many children, exploring other cultures and other time periods is the fastest way to engage them as learners. When we we read for a particular purpose, within a curricular context, we can see the world in new ways, deepen prior knowledge on a topic, and develop our skills, agency, and resilience as readers and writers. It’s almost too late by the time young people hit middle school. Middle school social studies teachers are often drowning in the details of required standards. At the same time, middle level social studies teachers must build a foundation for historical thinking and the process of doing history, given the limited exposure their students have had at the elementary level. More picture books and chapter books that focus on historical events, like Dazzle Ships by Chris Barton last year, or Boots on the Ground by Elizabeth Partridge and 1968, edited by Marc Aronson and Susan Campbell Bartoletti, this year, would help.

Do So Many Collected Biographies Limit the Number of Individual Biographies?

Collected biographies can provide a great service to readers by introducing them to a range of people all in one volume. In 2018, I noticed an uptake, in the midst of the MeToo movement, in collected biographies about women. Many of these books were excellent. However, they worry me. When we promote the accomplishments of women and men and women of color in collected biographies, do we further marginalized them? Every woman in the collected books I read is worthy of her own biography. Will fewer of those individual biographies get published because the collected biographies exist? It remains to be seen.

Too Many Biographies? Never.

Between the LinesThe Orbis Pictus Committee continued to get a wide range of individual biographies, including multiple biographies on the same woman, such as Maria Sibylla Merian and Mary Shelley. I think picture book biographies remain one of the most cutting edge and artful aspects of children’s book publishing. Incredibly versatile, picture book biographies can be used across the content areas and the grade levels.

Some of the best lessons in writer’s craft, K-12, can so easily be understood when looking at multiple picture book biographies of the same subject. Keep them coming, and keep on innovating in terms of structure, design, and language. There can never be too many.

There are still so many people we need to hear about. This is particularly true when thinking of contemporary and historical Native Americans, about whom there remains a dearth of biographies, particularly biographies written by Native Americans.

More Back Matter, Better Back Matter, But More Back Matter Still Needed

Back matter keeps getting better and better. This year, I was pleased to see an increase in books, particularly picture books, with direct quotations in the primary text documented in the source notes.  For example, Lisa Cline-Ransome Game Changersmeticulously sources Venus and Serena Williams’ quotations in Game Changers, as does Tonya Bolden in No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves & His Kingdom in Kansas. In her picture book biography Confucius, author-illustrator Demi noted which translations she used for individual quotes, and further noted when she changed the language of the translation to make it easier for her young readers to read.

While I made it clear in last year’s Orbis Pictus Musings that I don’t think invented dialogue belongs in nonfiction, when it is employed, I appreciate that authors make note of it. For example, in the graphic biography The Faithful SpyFaithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, author-illustrator John Hendricks uses uses visual cues to clarify for his readers when a quote was directly from Bonhoeffer, and when Hendricks created a quote for dramatic impact.

There were continued innovations in back matter in 2018 as well. For example, in the chapter book Champion: The Comeback of the American Chestnut Tree, author Sally Walker includes Appendices with additional information for young readers, modeling the format of the scientific paper. Artist Katherine Roy provides specific information, including process photographs, in her Illustrator’s Note about the research she conducted for Barb Rosenstock’s Otis and Will Discover the Deep.

Unfortunately, there continue to be many nonfiction books, particularly those for the primary grades, published without any back matter whatsoever. This does children a disservice, and it makes teachers’ and librarians’ jobs that much harder. Why should students cite their own sources of information when professionally published texts don’t?

Animal Nonfiction and the Most Sophisticated Use of “Lift-the-Flap” in Nonfiction Yet

Books about animals continue to dominate the nonfiction picture book market. No surprise there, as elementary-agedTriumphant children continue to love to read about animals, their most obvious evidence of and concrete link to the natural world. The books about animals that grab my attention are the ones that do something different, that offer readers another concept to “hang onto” besides the animal itself.

Notable examples this year include Melissa Stewart’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs and Roxie Monro’s Rodent Rascals: 21 Clever Creatures at their Actual Size. A quiet book that does an incredible job of detailing the interrelationships between the animal and human world is Jan Thornhill’s TheTriumphant Tale of the House Sparrow. Like the house sparrow itself, the book is humble and significant all at once.

Eye SpyFinally, there is Eye Spy: Wild Ways Animals See the World, written and illustrated by Guillaume Duprat, which is one of the most highly multimodal picture books I have ever experienced. Originally published in France in 2012, British publisher What on Earth Books translated it for publication in English in 2018. Duprat grounds the reader in the ways that the human eye functions, and shows a scene as a human would see it. On each page for the rest of the book, Duprat shows exactly how another animal would see that very same scene. In seeing exactly what/how the animals see, readers experience up-close animal adaptation as it impacts vision. As a representation of researched knowledge, it is extraordinary, and a great deal of fun, too.

Publisher to Watch

Month after month I was dazzled by the array of gorgeous, oversized nonfiction books published globally by Quarto Knows, particularly the Wide-Eyed Editions imprint. Such quality and innovation of design! If you haven’t seen their books, head over to your local library to check them out.

Please remember that these observations and opinions are my own, and not necessarily shared by my Classroom Bookshelf or Orbis Pictus Committee colleagues.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for your interesting observations. Like you, I have noticed a lack of history books for children. This is disturbing, given children’s lack of exposure to strong, focused history instruction in schools. One exception to look out for—Andrea Warren’s forthcoming book ENEMY CHILD: THE STORY OF NORMAN MINETTA, A BOY IMPRISONED IN A JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMP DURING WORLD WAR II. Like many of Warren’s other books it relates the experience of one person against the larger historical context.