Give Picture Book Non-fiction a Chance?
Non-fiction books in a picture book format can be a hard sell in a Newbery discussion. The Terms and Criteria state that the “distinguished contribution to American literature” is “defined as text.” And in the best picture book non-fiction, like the best picture books and graphic novels, text and illustrations are usually dependent on one another. But in just the past three years we’ve had four out of eleven Honor and Medal titles in which the pictures were essential. This year I like several excellent non-fiction picture books with multiple starred reviews, including GRAND CANYON by Jason Chen (5 stars), BALDERDASH by Michelle Markel (3), and THE SECRET PROJECT by Jonah and Jeanette Winter (5). But my favorite so far is GIVE BEES A CHANCE (good reviews, no stars), so I’ll try to make a case for it:
From the Terms and Criteria I’m mostly focused on: “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” and “quality presentation for children.” In GIVE BEES A CHANCE the narrator addresses her “best buddy Edgar” and tries to convince him that bees are wonderful. This clever stylistic choice allows her to reach just the right balance of information and humor. There’s enthusiasm within the text (“Once you learn how great they are, you’re bound to fall in love with them!”) and some interjections from Edgar, usually humorous. In one spread, the narrator presents a nine-step look at how honey is made, but Edgar focuses on just one word: “…did you say barf?”
Analogies fit the age level and make easy sense to the reader. Losing a stinger is “sort of like your hand disappearing if you pinch your sister.” A flower can’t pass on pollen because: “I don’t have arms.” When Edgar dons armor (“it was designed for dragons…I think it can handle bees”) it’s amusing and obviously won’t work, but it makes perfect set-up for a page on beekeepers and their gear.
Statistics are used judiciously, at levels that work for younger readers. “Just one pound of honey takes two million flowers and thousands of bees to create…” That’s tangible and impactful, and because she doesn’t do too much of this, it’s a fact that will stick with a reader.
The light touch and easy flow of narration, with jokes and interjections along the way. means you barely notice how carefully organized the information is. She starts with types of bees (“Didn’t I tell you that there are about 25,000 different kinds of bees to love?”), shifts to honeybees in particular, which leads to stingers and anatomy. Later, when Edgar says he’d rather give up honey and have no bees, the narration shifts from honey to the insects’ role in the ecosystem, and then the bee population crisis.
Here’s an example from a single brief page: First she offers a big fact that most young readers can comprehend: “A single bee can visit over 1,000 flowers a day, making bee pollination powers unparalleled!” Then she jumps from numbers to impact: “Which means without bees, there’d be a lot less yummy stuff to eat.” And finally, builds upon that “without bees” phrase with a picture of a milk carton and the words “Have you seen this pollinator?” All of which sets up the next page-turn, where we learn more about disappearing bees.
So what about the illustrations? They certainly do support the text. The information is essentially within the words, though. So is the humorous tone, though that is definitely enhanced by the pictures. I only spot two cases where the humor really comes only from the visuals: the bee in a dog costume and the “Bee-Peration” drawing.
This book succeeds in all the ways it tries to, in my mind: Specific facts about bees. A cohesive understanding about bees and their importance. Organized with logic and creative flair. Presented at a level that will result in tangible new knowledge that the reader will retain. And it’s funny.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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