When the internet took off in the 1990s, it was presumed that most people would get their factual information online. Based on this premise, and the fact that some nonfiction books quickly become outdated, many school and public libraries cut back on the purchase of nonfiction titles for children.
At that time, the majority of children's nonfiction books were educational in nature, usually featuring large blocks of text, black-and-white photographs and uninspiring design aesthetics. The tables have now turned, as a burgeoning number of cleverly designed nonfiction picture books for children hit the market.
As the author of one such book - Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather (NLA Publishing. $24.99), illustrated and designed by Tania McCartney - I can attest to the challenges of creating such titles.
Our weather book involved extensive research, plus consultation with experts in both meteorology and Indigenous culture. There was also extensive collaboration between the author and illustrator to ensure we had the right mix of informative text, fun facts, appealing graphics and imaginative illustrations.
The result is a book that is designed for children to dip into to discover not only how the weather works but also fascinating facts about Australian weather phenomena, historical weather events, and important concepts such as Indigenous weather knowledge and climate change.
While the possible subject areas covered in nonfiction picture books are endless, there are two main formats - narrative nonfiction and the encyclopaedic-style presentation of scientific facts. The narrative picture book format uses evocative language and compelling images to draw the reader in, while also imparting knowledge about the subject matter.
In The Way of the Weedy Seadragon (CSIRO Publishing. 32 pp. $24.99), Anne Morgan skilfully interweaves an abundance of information about these charming creatures with their life story. These strange but enchanting fish look like a mix between a horse, a dragon and seaweed, and they are adept at camouflage, snorting their food and dancing to procreate. As well as the wealth of factual information included in the seadragon's story, Morgan also provides additional information, a glossary and a diagram of the seadragon at the end of the book.
In keeping with the subject matter, Lois Bury's watercolour illustrations are fluid and colourful. Her seadragons dangle, drift and dance across the pages. She uses close-ups to emphasise interesting facts, such as their opposable eyes, how they snort food through their straw-like snouts, and the hatching of baby seadragons. This is an appealing book about a curious creature whose existence, like that of many others, is threatened by the warming of the oceans caused by human-induced climate change.
Claire Saxby's Iceberg (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $24.99) also explores the effects of climate change. Her interactive, lyrical text draws the reader in as she reveals life on, under and around an Antarctic iceberg. The text is an ode to Antarctica and a clarion call to curb global warming, so that icebergs and the creatures whose lives they support do not disappear forever.
Jess Racklyeft's evocative and atmospheric images provide a visual accompaniment to Saxby's poetic text, depicting the stark Antarctic landscape and the creatures that inhabit it, ranging from seals and penguins to squids and whales. The book includes a stunning wordless four-page spread that is a glorious homage to the underwater creatures of the Antarctic. Her textural images, full of saturated colours and great child-appeal, combine with Saxby's sophisticated text to produce a stunning and important picture book.
Dry to Dry: The Seasons of Kakadu (Walker Books. $26.99) by Pamela Freeman and Liz Anelli is another excellent example of the art of creative nonfiction picture books. Part of Walker Books' impressive Nature Storybooks series, it charts a year in the life of Kakadu, a fecund and beautiful part of Northern Australia. Using the usual format in this series - a cleverly written narrative supported by short snippets of factual information on most double-page spreads--it introduces the reader to a sample of creatures that live in Kakadu, ranging from crocodiles and grasshoppers to cockatoos and termites.
Liz Anelli's watercolour illustrations are abuzz with detail, capturing not only the creatures that live in Kakadu but also the many moods of this unique place, the weather that washes over it, and the flora and fauna that call it home. Like Iceberg, Dry to Dry is an ode to a remarkable place that is also being impacted by climate change.
Other nonfiction picture books use a more encyclopaedic style to hook budding meteorologists, botanists, biologists and scientists and encourage them to discover more. George Ivanoff's entertaining and often mind-blowing The Human Body Survival Guide (Penguin. $24.99) reveals just how awesome, and sometimes gross, the human body can be. Written in a highly entertaining and interactive way, this book uses striking design elements--including red, grey and black images on white pages and strong graphics--to present a plethora of fun, informative and sometimes off-putting facts. This is a highly entertaining way to learn about how the human body works.
Plantastic: A to Z of Australian Plants (CSIRO Publishing. 64 pp. $29.99), by Catherine Clowes, with illustrations by Rachel Gyan, introduces budding biologists to some seminal Australian plants, including acacia, banksia, gum trees and tree ferns. Featuring a double-page spread for each of the 26 plants covered, Clowes' comprehensive plant descriptions are engagingly written, with an interactive 'Plantastic Activity' section for each plant, plus a guide to where the featured plants grow and a glossary at the end of the book.
With its clean, pared-back design aesthetic and textural images of each plant, including close-ups of their flowers and leaves, along with the creatures that interact with them, this is an engaging introduction to Australian flora.
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals (Lothian. 128 pp. $32.99) by Sami Bayly also provides a double-page spread for each dangerous creature featured. The design, layout and overall presentation of this book are outstanding. Bayly's full-colour, scientific illustrations are presented on patterned paper, while the text is broken up into clearly labelled sections covering description, danger factor, conservation status, diet, location/habitat and fun facts. Black-and-white drawings, plus silhouettes showing the size of the featured creature compared to a human being, provide additional visual information.
Each entry packs a punch, full of well-presented fabulous facts aimed squarely at the book's middle-grade to adult audiences. The range of animals presented is impressive, including a wide array of insects, as well as snakes, spiders and larger predators. With its stunning full-colour illustrations, engaging information and impeccable book design, this is a standout example of a nonfiction picture book. Like the other books featured, it demonstrates how engaging and inspirational beautifully produced nonfiction picture books can be.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author. Her nonfiction picture books include Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather, illustrated by Tania McCartney.