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The Power of Picture Books: Finding Ways to Bring Meaningful Nonfiction Facts to the Page

Numbers are boring.

Perhaps not to everyone, but to the majority of kids, numbers don’t stand a chance. Not against spiders or dinosaurs or rockets or hip hop. Sure, every toddler goes through a phase where their parents hold open books filled with an increasingly large number of objects (usually some sort of animal). Those are fun, and important—a colorful workbook, a mind-teaser. A puzzle.

But at some point, your kid will turn to you and complain. This is reading time, not school time. Can you please just tell me more about that Wild Thing?

Educators have, for years, bent over backwards trying to create entertaining educational stories and programs. Nothing new there. This pursuit, in my mind, is one of the great adventures of the digital age. How to integrate education, specifically science education, into the lives of our kids while similarly entertaining them. Luckily, to children, books still hold a magical sway.

Has your kid ever just kept playing with toys, uninterested in hopping into bed to read that book, and you just started without them? First, they look up, then they wander over and lean on you, and then they dive into the story?

The inherent power of picture books for young readers is a real phenomenon. But books still need to do the heavy lifting in terms of entertainment and education keeping kids’ attention.

When I set out to write my first picture book, A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, I held two tools in mind.  For one, I carried a healthy respect and awe of my kid’s clean slate of a brain. Every single thing I did could be absorbed into his head and create some sort of memory. That’s humbling, thinking of the responsibility we parents have to our children, to expose that brain to… well, everything.  On top of that, I have always maintained a true passion for the incomprehensible. A child’s awareness must be full of the incomprehensible. Every day they discover something, and that something just is. A ball. Food. Bright lights. Even gravity. But the reasoning behind how everything works and exists… incomprehensible.

What I wanted to do was to approach numbers, the topic of my book, in a way that allowed my own sense of inconceivability as an adult to shine through. In other words, I wanted to be on the same plane as my son.  What better way to accomplish this than to write a book about the number of stars that exist in the universe?

Every time I visit a group of kids at an elementary school, the first thing I tell them is that even the teachers in the room (and their parents who read them this book) don’t comprehend how big a hundred billion trillion is, as a number. Twenty-three zeroes in a number is a very, very big number.

Of course, not every book is going to have some unknowable quantity in place, but for me, having this gigantic number helped me—as a writer—understand exactly what my goals for writing this book were. I wanted to be able to answer a simple question, how many stars are in the sky, in a way that made a kid say wow, that allowed a young girl or boy to use the answer to create a context to ALL NUMBERS AROUND THEM.

In other words, I took a simple, researched bit of science and used that as a way to explain an aspect of the everyday life of a child.

This technique continues in my second picture book, Power Up (out March 19th), where I begin by literally describing the theoretical atomic power that resides in a kid’s pinkie finger (but in a much more interesting way than I just described).

By the end, we’ve moved on to the amazing things your body can do and what your child needs to do in order to keep that body full of energy. Because if there’s no energy, then you can’t do all the amazing things your body has the potential to do.

And there’s the key—we start with the incomprehensible, zoom into the specific and amazing (i.e., how many bones are in the body, how far a human can run, how amazing it is to even be able to see), and then return to the larger world armed with the recently acquired self-assured knowledge. In Power Up, I wanted to impart not just how amazing the body is but how you can use your body for good in the world, how you can connect to the world all around you.

I believe there are hundreds of ways to address science in books for children. Melissa Stewart (of Celebrate Science and author of many amazing nonfiction books for kids) has a tremendous breakdown of styles of and approaches to nonfiction that I think is a very handy tool. But for me, I wanted to make sure that every kid reading the book could be included. There are a mind-bogglingly large number of stars in the universe, and what would understanding that concept do to a kid? Could that overwhelm? Could that make them feel small?

I think whether you’re writing a book on bees or parabolas, it’s key to bring the book into the realm of experience, and connection to the reader. I very much wanted to make it clear to each child that even though they are one small part of a vast universe filled with impossibly large numbers, they were unique, special, and real. That science you’re teaching them…it’s imprinting onto a unique brain, building an understanding of the world that’s connecting to everything else you’ve been teaching.

In the end, for me, the research for my books was the “easy part.”  What’s the smallest bone in the human body (and what does it do?)? How many ants are there?  What is E=MC^2?  How far away is the moon?  Many more talented mathematicians have paved the road for me to follow. What was significantly harder was to create a road that my kid could follow, that he would want to follow.  I know that I’m speaking in a nebulous term, without specifics, but the gist is this: when you’re trying to connect to a child, pull them in and show them. Don’t condescend. Don’t be a textbook. Try to remember what it was like the first time you learned that amazing thing you’re teaching them and impart that same sense of wonder. Do that through a story, a poem, it doesn’t matter, but what I think is very helpful is a path.  Don’t just count the number of goats on a page. Instead, create a world that the kid will think about days later, lessons about the world that helps paint their understanding of the universe. A lofty goal, perhaps, but one that every picture book author should maintain.

Edited by Bill Sullivan, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Seth Fishman

    Seth Fishman can hold his breath for 163 seconds and likes to blink about 15,000 times a day. He is the author of POWER UP (March 19th, 2019) and Horn Book Award Honoree A HUNDRED BILLION TRILLION STARS. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California and works at The Gernert Company, a literary agency based in New York City. Social media links: Twitter: Instagram:

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