Dawn Publications
The “Creative Non-Fiction” Conundrum (and Opportunity)

By Glenn Hovemann, Editor

Let’s say you are in a library or bookstore and you want to find a book that will inspire a child to connect with nature in some way. Should you head for the fiction or non-fiction section? This may seem like an obvious, straightforward choice (paper or plastic? credit or debit?) so you head for non-fiction because—well, because you want something about nature.

But on the way to the non-fiction section you pause, remembering the attention span issue and how some plugged-in young ones seem prefer to be bedazzled, and how that last book of facts and photographs just didn’t quite catch on. So you turn toward the fiction shelves. But then you pause again. Wait! I really want to inspire a love of nature—an ethic of caring for the Earth, you say to yourself, not wanting to repeat some of the unenlightening fiction that you’ve read aloud recently.

What to do?

What you are looking for are books that encompass the best of both fiction and non-fiction worlds. You’ll be happy to know that there is a wonderful literary cross-over zone sometimes called “creative non-fiction” that offers unique learning opportunities for children. Sometimes it’s called “narrative non-fiction.” Other people slice it finely and call some books “informational fiction.” But whatever you call it, unfortunately in the black-or-white choice of fiction/non-fiction, these books have an uncertain home.

As a publisher of books that connect children and nature, we face this dilemma practically every time we release a new book: what should we tell the folks who have to decide where to shelve them? How can we best guide an appreciative audience to books that fit extremely well in the hands of children but not as certainly in either the fiction or non-fiction shelves of libraries or stores? Alas, there isn’t a “creative non-fiction” section—yet.

One of our most popular titles, for example, is Over in the Ocean. It is truly a creative work in both its text and its illustrations. The text is patterned after the classic children’s tune, “Over in the Meadow.” The song includes the elements of a counting book. It begins like this:

Over in the ocean / Far away from the sun

Lived a mother octopus / And her octopus one.

“Squirt,” said the mother. / “I squirt,” said the one.

So they squirted in the reef / Far away from the sun.

Subsequent pages feature other animals from the reef and their offspring, up to ten. Obviously this is a dramatization, not a factual event. Children understand this perfectly well. They sing, clap, and count along with the ditty as they learn about animals that live in coral reefs. And the illustrations? They are not photographs, but life-like, stunningly crafted images of coral reef animals made from polymer clay, which was then photographed. Is this book fiction? Sure it is.

On the other hand, mother octopus and her offspring don’t have a conversation (although they do “squirt” inky fluid for self-protection). Six pages following the sing-along text give additional information about the animals, all carefully verified by naturalists, plus tips from both the author and the illustrator about how to expand the lesson. The author is careful to point out that the number of offspring is fiction, based on the song; she uses it as a learning opportunity to show that the animal in question may actually have a very different number of offspring than portrayed in the song. Is this book non-fiction? Sure it is.

Creative non-fiction is sometimes said to be “dressing facts in fiction” either by creating a storyline or using some literary technique. It uses both the tools of the fiction writer and the careful research of the non-fiction writer. Both are equally important.

Practically every title we choose to publish at Dawn is creative non-fiction because our goal is to capture the attention and awakens enthusiasm for nature in children. With engaging text and magical art, our titles are designed to direct their attention to the marvelous real world around them. We want to engage their curiosity, which may lead a child on a lifelong learning adventure.

Another good example is Eliza and the Dragonfly, which was honored by both the literacy folks (the International Reading Association chose it as their Picture Book of the Year in 2005) and the science folks (the National Science Teachers Association named it an Outstanding Science Trade Book). In it, a dragonfly flies in the window and lands on Eliza’s toothbrush! Eliza tells her bug-loving Aunt Doris, who leads Eliza to a local pond. In the story, the magic of a dragonfly’s transformation from an ugly nymph swimming in water to a magnificent flying “hawk of the insect world” is paralleled by Eliza’s own growing-up awareness. It’s a wonderful story in its own right and is enhanced with light-hearted, fluid watercolor illustrations. Fiction? Definitely. Non-fiction? You bet, especially considering the pages of additional information and resources for learning that follow the main story.

Our most recent example of creative non-fiction is Dawn’s first venture into hybrid cartoon/realistic art. Our new series about birds, The BLUES Go Birding, is intended to engage young children, pre-K through 2nd grades, in the wonderful world of birds and bird-watching. The BLUES are five charming cartoon bluebirds, Bing, Lulu, Uno, Eggbert, and Sammi. Each has a distinct personality—anthropomorphic, to be sure, and lots of fun. In the first of the series, The BLUES Go Birding Across America, the BLUES are a band who landed a Fourth of July gig on the White House lawn, and are looking for a new song. So they travel from Alaska (bald eagle) to Massachusetts (mallard), listening to roadrunners, owls, meadowlarks, turkey vultures, mockingbirds, and other iconic American birds before their appearance before robins on the famous lawn in D.C. In addition to the narrative there are speech bubbles with funny quips by each of the BLUES. On each page is a notebook entry about the bird they see, a short “field guide,” and birdwatching tips. Everything is carefully researched and checked by the Cornell Lab, among other birding authorities.

Unfortunately, a few people glanced at the cartoon characters and jumped to the conclusion that this was fiction: an anthropomorphic, not-to-be-trusted book. Fortunately the reviewer for School Library Journal understood it perfectly and wrote: “This is a lighthearted romp with solid information on birds and bird-watching that could inspire future ornithologists.”

The kids sure like it. They don’t worry whether it’s found in the fiction or non-fiction section.