One of the things I love about nonfiction picture books is that they come with so many different structures and styles. Yesterday, we took a closer look at Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which takes a look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, so while this is an informational picture book, it’s also very personal in its perspective.
Today’s mentor text is Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, a picture book biography of zoologist Joan Procter. It’s written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala, and it’s one of my favorites when it comes to this format.
There are countless ways a writer can approach a picture book biography. Traditionally, we think of a biography as the basic story of a person’s life, from cradle to grave, and some picture book biographies do follow this format. But many more capture just a part of that person’s life, looking at their work in the world through a particular lens. It’s especially important to consider this approach if you’re writing about someone who’s already been the subject of numerous books. The world might not need another book about Ben Franklin’s basic life story, for example, but there’s still plenty of room for books that explore a lesser-known but fascinating aspects of his life, such as Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rocklifee and Iacopo Bruno (Candlewick, 2017) and Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock & S.D. Schindler (Calkins Creek, 2014).
Some of my favorite picture book biographies fall into what I’d call the “How the Seeds Were Planted” category. They look at a person’s major accomplishment and then look back to that individual’s childhood to see where the first sparks might have been kindled, where the seeds for that great project came from. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is one of those books and does a brilliant job connecting the dots to help young readers understand how a girl who loved reptiles grew up to be a famous zoologist. (And this approach has the bonus of showing young readers that the seeds for their own great accomplishments of the future are being planted right now, too!) Let’s take a look at how Patricia does that…
The book opens with young Patricia having a tea party. But it’s not an ordinary tea party! Her guests are the lizards she kept as pets. Right away, we have an interesting, kid-friendly image to begin the story. How can you not love a kid who throws tea parties for lizards? And look at how Valdez brings us into the time period of the early 1900s…
Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, a little girl named Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests.
She could have given a date – “One day in England in 1905…” but that would have felt stuffy and more like a research report than a story. The best picture book biographies paint pictures of a person’s life with language that’s vivid and fun. I love the alliteration in these lines…
Slithery and scaly, they turned over teacups. They crawled past the crumpets.
Isn’t that fun to read?
In this story, we get to see Joan as she grows – as a young naturalist, taking notes on her lizards in her bedroom, as a sixteen-year-old, walking the baby crocodile she’s just been gifted, and being mentored by a curator a the Natural History Museum. The story could have started with Joan’s accomplishments as an adult, but by approaching it this way, Valdez allows young readers to make a connection with someone their own age in the opening pages, which makes it more likely they’ll stay with Joan, following her story as she grows into the famous naturalist she eventually became.
The story goes on to share Joan’s work with Komodo dragons as an adult, but at the end, it calls back to that opening tea party. On the very last page, Joan, an adult now, is shown surrounded by children at a tea party she hosted at the zoo’s reptile house, with her Komodo dragon, Sumbawa, as the guest of honor. This return to a variation on the opening image brings readers full circle and wraps the book up in a most satisfying way.
That passage, like all the others in the story, is based on historical documents and Joan’s actual writings.
(Note that at the time this was written, they thought Sumbawa was female, that’s why he’s referred to as “she” in the article.That’s one reason authors have to double-check even primary sources! We learn more about history as time goes on, and we always want the most current information.)
Anyway, these are the sources that sparked that lovely beginning-to-ending connection for Patricia.
If you’re looking at your copy of the book right now, you’re probably noticing that this “last page” isn’t really the last page of the book at all. So let’s talk about back matter…
Back matter is the rest of the story and the related bits of information and resources that come after the primary narrative ends. Pretty much all of my favorite nonfiction picture books have back matter. In Traci’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, it consists of a page of definitions of things mentioned in the story, from shell shakers and stickball to the Trail of Tears, along with an author’s note and a page on the Cherokee syllabary.
At the end of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, Valdez shares a more formal version of Procter’s biography – one that includes all the dates and details that perhaps weren’t visual enough to be part of the main story. This is a way to add that cradle-to-grave version of the biography after the fun, kid-friendly story. It’s followed by a bibliography, which is included in nearly all picture book nonfiction. Other back matter might include timelines, maps or charts of relevant information, and lists of books, websites, and museums for readers to explore if they’d like to learn more about the topic.
So here’s your assignment for today: Make a list of five people whose lives you find interesting. They can be famous historical figures or little-known people who have amazing stories. And then, for each one, try to imagine three different ways you might write a picture book biography of that person, other than the cradle-to-grave model. For example, in writing about George Washington, one might choose to focus on Washington the Soldier, or Washington the Enslaver, or on one small chapter in Washington’s life that changed its course. Got the idea? If you need to take a little reading & research time, go right ahead. And then spend a little time brainstorming angles for your own picture book biographies!