Most people in the children’s literature community are familiar with picture book biographies, but did you know that there’s a second major category of nonfiction picture books?
It’s time to shine some light on concept picture books.
A concept picture book explores an abstract idea or process, and in many cases, offers a unique perspective or new way of seeing things.
This approach works well for authors interested in focusing on patterns and cycles in the natural world, animal behavior and adaptations, and math concepts.
Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and a chronological sequence structure.
In contrast, concept books usually employ an expository writing style. And they can feature any of the six major text structures now being taught in most schools (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution).
Sometimes they make clever use of a unique text structure that perfectly matches the book’s topic.
Here are some examples:
- Description: An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006), Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton (Candlewick, 2014);
- Sequence: No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong (Charlesbridge, 2013), How to Swallow a Pig by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2015);
- Cause & Effect: Earth: Feeling the Heat by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Chad Wallace (Henry Holt, 2010), Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman (Charlesbridge, 2004);
- Compare & Contrast: Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci by Gene Barretta (Henry Holt, 2009), Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014);
- Problem-Solution: A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2014), The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins (expository with narrative beginning and end) by Sandra Markle (Millbrook Press, 2015);
- Question and Answer: Hatch! by Roxie Munro (Cavendish Square, 2011), What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2003);
- Unique: Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).
In most cases, a picture book biography has a third-person point of view, and the voice is either lively or lyrical, depending on the subject’s personality. Once again, concept picture books offer greater diversity.
The voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.
The point of view can vary, too. Plenty of concept books have a second-person point of view, and a few recent titles boldly employ a first-person point of view. One of my favorites is The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 2015).
With so many choices, how do writers narrow their options? It isn’t easy.
What it comes down to for me is finding the best possible way to delight as well as inform young readers. Once I stumble upon the special bit of magic that allows me to accomplish this goal, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering.
I consider various text structures and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view and the best way to use language devices. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.
The strong compare-and-contrast text structure assists children in making connections among the sixteen different examples in the book.
The book features an intriguing title, fabulous illustrations by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins, and an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read alouds.
Secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to thoroughly explore how and why animals use sounds to communicate their thoughts and feelings.
If you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of concept picture books, I encourage you to read and analyze a broad range of the books listed above, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.
Kirkus Reviews gave Can an Aardvark Bark? a starred review. Peek: “Prolific science writer Stewart always chooses appealing facts, but what makes this collection work so well is the skillful presentation by both author and illustrator.”
A curriculum guide, storytime guide and activities are available from the author. A book trailer is available on Vimeo.
Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying.
She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, 3-5 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016).