Guest Post: Cat Urbigkit on Nonfiction: “Every Picture Tells a Story”

By Cat Urbigkit

Here’s a story:

Here’s another story:

I sincerely believe that every picture does tell a story, and as a nonfiction author who uses photography to illustrate my books for young readers, it’s my job to provide narration that can accompany and enhance each picture, but never replace it.

For each of my books, images are carefully selected as stand-alone pieces that children can go back to examine independently – to “read” the story in each image. I work so that even children who are not yet old enough to read and understand the words can get a “read” from the images.

As a child, my favorite books were always illustrated, and I spent many hours letting an illustration (painting, drawing, or photograph) transport me into another world.

Those large-sized animal farm books full of photos, Robert Lawson’s drawings in Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand (1936), and N.C. Wyeth’s paintings illustrating Majorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling have been life-long favorites.

As an adult, I produce books aimed at that childhood reader I once was. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I think it’s a logical sequence for voracious readers to become writers.

I have a deep love of literature, and am devoted to the specificity of the English language, which makes nonfiction writing a natural genre for me.

My interest in photography began in my teenage years, but it wasn’t until my husband, Jim, presented me with a quality camera as a gift that I was really able to begin to work to develop my craft. The years of trial-and-error, and small fortunes spent in film and film-processing costs, made for slow going, but I started writing news and feature articles for local newspapers, with a few photos published every now and then.

Few of my photos were outstanding, but I was able to experiment with subject matter, and discovered that my best shots were of those subjects that I care for most – all centered on life on western rangelands.

I live on a working domestic sheep ranch in western Wyoming, where we also raise livestock guardian dogs to protect our sheep herd from predators.

Charmed by witnessing the encounters of the animals as they interacted, I began trying to capture those moments with my camera. Jim looked at my images and suggested I should try to put together a book since most people are totally unaware of the unique bond that forms between the animals.

Firmly in agreement with Theodor Seuss Geisel’s view that “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them,” I decided to target my effort toward children.

Selecting from my very best images, I picked the photos that would help to tell the story, and wrote captions for those images, organizing the photos into a logical flow. I sent the photocopied manuscript dummy to ten publishers and got interest back from three publishing houses. As it turns out, there were no competing titles in print – this was almost entirely new subject matter for young readers.

It was an easy decision for me when Kent Brown of Boyds Mills Press (AKA Farmer Brown) called me to try to negotiate a contract, but we ended up deep in a discussion of the merits of various sheep breeds.

It’s a decision I’ve never regretted, and Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs: How They Guard Sheep was published in 2005, soon winning a variety of awards, including one from the International Reading Association. It was just released in a new Spanish/English bilingual edition.

Kids like role-playing, imagining themselves in the roles they read in books, and they also enjoy looking at photos of other kids. I photographed my son Cass for A Young Shepherd, which describes how a young boy begins his own sheep herd by caring for orphan lambs.

It’s an activity undertaken by kids all over the world every year, so the book serves as a good introduction to animal husbandry for those who might develop that interest.

What kid hasn’t imaged being a cowboy on the western range? While the general public might think it’s is a thing of the past, I decided to show kids that cowboys still exist, but probably not as they had considered. To create Cattle Kids: A Year on the Western Range, I followed about a dozen children I knew that live on family cattle ranches. It took me a full year to gather all the photos, showing that it’s not just cowboys that work on the range, but cattle kids.

This is the only book for which I had to develop a detailed outline so that I could be sure to capture the needed images to tell the story. It had to include both boys and girls of varied ages, in all seasons, doing an assortment of important cattle work, with some riding horses and others riding motorcycles. I wanted kids to be able to imagine being cattle kids too, so they needed to be provided with a variety of role models.

Puppies Puppies Everywhere! provided a good break in my publishing pattern, allowing me to expand into rhyme. I selected some fun images of puppies (believing you can’t go wrong if the subject matter is puppies) and worked to develop a rhyming two-word text for each image, with the word “puppy” being one of the two words.

In this manner, those not-yet-readers can hear the book read aloud to them a few times, and are able to demonstrate their abilities by “reading” the book back to the adults. Even though some of the words are somewhat sophisticated for the young reader, the photos provide the reader with context for understanding those words, and the combination serves as a learning tool.

The Shepherd’s Trail expands on the theme of working on the western range, but it focuses on a rarely seen component – sheepherding, which is the substantially the same now as it was 100 years ago. Instead of using children to illustrate this book, I followed shepherds from a variety of cultures (including Basques and Nepalese) again to provide a variety from which imaginations can be set free to roam.

Path of the Pronghorn is my first wildlife title, and the first for which I didn’t provide the photography. Instead, talented friend Mark Gocke makes his first venture into the children’s book world with his striking images. This is what I hope will be the first of several titles we’ll team up to create. We want to share our love of western wildlife, and our interest in their daily lives, with others.

My next book, due out in Spring 2012, appeals to a child’s compassion for the underdog. The Guardian Team is a true story of six orphan lambs, a scraggly young wild burro taken from the wild, and the runt pup of a litter of livestock guardian dogs. All of these animals got off to a difficult start in life, but I put them all together and photographed them for the next few years as they interacted and grew into beautiful adults, living together as a single herd. It’s a twist on the “ugly duckling” I think kids will enjoy, and it’s a true story.

My books have been a natural progression for me, sharing my love of agriculture and the western range, laying out the facts for kids. I like nonfiction because you have to be honest with your readers – no glossing over the less-than-pleasant aspects. Kids are great truth detectives, so it’s a good match for me.

I think I’m an exception to the general assumption that you’re either a writer or an illustrator. Because of the life I lead, I must be both. While many western ranchers see beautiful, unusual or striking images every day, they carry those pictures in their minds. I carry a camera all the time and work very hard to capture the image so that I can show others what it is that I see. And I constantly work to find the words to compliment those images.

For me, the story simply wouldn’t come without the pictures.

Five tips for better photos:

  1. Backgrounds matter: be sure to pay attention to the background of your shot. Is the landscape something you want to include, or do you need to change the shot to eliminate a distraction?
  2. As you look through the camera viewfinder, think like an artist or movie director – frame the shot for the best visual impact. Are there elements of the foreground or background you can use to enhance the shot?
  3. Use different angles: try the shot both horizontally and vertically, zooming in for different perspectives.
  4. Go low: If you’re shooting photos you hope captures the attention of a child, take your photos from that level. Squat down, get on your knees, or even lay down on the ground for a fresh perspective.
  5. Keep shooting: With digital photography, the cost of processing photos has been eliminated. Shoot plenty of images with different lenses, camera settings, perspectives, and angels. You can delete the ones you don’t like, and through the process of trial-and-error, you’ll discover what works for you.