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MOWMT March 1: Fiction-y Nonfiction with Mary Boone

by Mary Boone

I love a good nonfiction picture book. But there are times when the straight nonfiction-telling of a story isn’t the best route to take. Nonfiction books must be 100 percent factual – no invented quotes or descriptions that can’t be backed up by research. Informational fiction, on the other hand, shares facts but may also feature fictionalized elements, such as the narrator or setting. I once heard editor Carol Hinz refer to this sub-genre as “fiction-y nonfiction.” 

My forthcoming book, SCHOOL OF FISH (Henry Holt, 2024) focuses on a popular program through which elementary schools are given fertilized salmon eggs that they hatch and grow until the students can release them into nearby streams. I tried really hard to write a nonfiction picture book about this program. But draft after draft, the story sounded more like a procedural guide than something you’d want to read with children. That’s when I decided to add a fictionalized protagonist whose fictionalized classmates participated in a 100 percent factual program. That’s also when I sought out mentor texts that shifted my thinking: Adding fictionalized details to these stories doesn’t make them less valuable or important. 

Sometimes, in fact, a side dish of fiction may be just what it takes to best tell a meaty nonfiction tale. Here are four informational fiction picture books worth checking out: 

A HISTORY OF UNDERWEAR WITH PROFESSOR CHICKEN by Hannah Holt, and Korwin Briggs (Roaring Brook Press, 2022). This book is filled with terrific information about the evolution of underwear and WOW facts with which young readers can impress their friends: “Did you know King Tut’s tomb contained more than 100 pairs of underwear?!?” The book is factual – except for its feathered narrator and underwear models. And truly, how else could the story be told? Would a book filled with illustrations of people in underwear be as successful? I think not.

THE BOOK ITCH by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda Books, 2015) tells the story of Lewis Michaux, owner of a well-known bookstore in Harlem. This account could have been written in straight nonfiction, instead it’s told from the perspective of Michaux’s son, Lewis Jr. The National African American Bookstore was a place to buy and read books. It was also a place to learn and exchange ideas, which comes into focus thanks to Nelson’s storytelling decision.

MOON'S RAMADAN by author/illustrator Natasha Khan Kazi (Versify, 2023)) allows readers an opportunity to see how Islamic cultures around the world celebrate Ramadan and Eid through different food, dress, and ceremonies – with the Moon as their guide. The Islamic calendar and lunar cycles are intrinsically linked, so the personification of the Moon makes perfect sense.

BOARDWALK BABIES by Marissa Moss, illustrated by April Chu (Creston Books, 2021) is the story of Dr. Martin Couney. Back in the early 1900s, the outlook for premature babies wasn’t good – until Couney invented the incubator. He not only cared for the babies, he turned them into a carnival sideshow – selling tickets to help finance his invention. It’s a fascinating story and – aside for some made-up dialogue – it’s true. But that’s enough to put this book firmly into the informational fiction category.

The Prize: One lucky March On with Mentor Texts participant will win a picture book manuscript critique or a 30-minute ASK ME ANYTHING video call session with author Mary Boone during which they can get her thoughts on topics ranging from querying to revising and everything in between. (The fine print: Manuscript must be 1,000 words or less. Manuscript must be submitted and call must take place by Sept. 1, 2024.)

Bio: Mary Boone has ridden an elephant, DNA-tested salmon, and baked dozens of cricket cookies – all in the interest of research for her books and magazine articles. She’s written 70+ nonfiction books for young readers. Her middle-grade book BUGS FOR BREAKFAST: How Eating Insects Could Help Save the World (Chicago Review Press, 2021) was long-listed for the Green Earth Nature Award. Her forthcoming picture books include: PEDAL PUSHER (Henry Holt, 2024), SCHOOL OF FISH (Albert Whitman, 2024), and FLYING FEMINIST (Andersen Press, 2026). Mary is represented by Stacey Kondla of The Rights Factory.

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