09 March 2010

What Makes Day-Glo Brothers Shine

Early this year I had the honor to be on the panel to judge the Cybils Award for Nonfiction Picture Book. The winner was The Day-Glo Brothers, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tony Persiani, which has also received other honors.

As Barton describes in an afterword, this book began when he read an obituary about Bob Switzer, one of the brothers who invented Day-Glo paint sixty years ago. Barton recognized how the Switzers’ history falls into a classic problem-quest-solution structure, which children can easily relate to.

Furthermore, that narrative involved colors, making it ideal for a picture book, one of the genres where our book industry expects books to be printed in full color and budgets accordingly. In fact, Charlesbridge printed The Day-Glo Brothers with Day-Glo inks. Tony Persiani’s illustrations start out in muted grays and pastels, and gradually become brighter—and brighter still.

One reason I thought The Day-Glo Brothers stood out even more from other good nonfiction picture books is that it’s the first popular book on its subject. It required original research from private sources and old articles. It had to explain unfamiliar science about “daylight fluorescence.”

(Though a printed book can go only so far, of course. Charlesbridge posted a video to demonstrate the science. Wish I had that capability when I was trying to explain interference patterns making the rainbow colors on bubbles in Soap Science.)

A lot of children’s nonfiction titles go over the same ground as books that have already been published for adults, sometimes rather recently. Often the authors have done their own research as well, as Tanya Lee Stone did for the Sibert-winning Almost Astronauts. (In that case, the adult forerunner is The Mercury 13, by Martha Ackmann, published in 2003.) Lots of children’s nonfiction focuses on topics that have already been written about a lot, in quite similar ways, as Dave Elzey recently discussed in regard to biography.

Of course, there’s still a lot of art and craft necessary to translate books for adults into stories that much younger readers can understand and relate to. One author can be inspired, even guided, by another yet reach different conclusions with different emphases. But when another book has been published, it’s simply easier for a busy children’s author to locate sources and even a narrative structure. And it’s a lot easier to convince publishers and libraries that ”there’s a worthwhile book here.”

So I give The Day-Glo Brothers extra points for being the first book about the Switzer brothers and their new kinds of paint. It affirms that the best children’s nonfiction depends on the same rigorous research as the best nonfiction for grown-ups.


Melissa Stewart said...

Great post. I really like this clearly written and colorful book and appreciate Chris Barton's hard work.

Educators who'd like to use this title in their classroom can find some excellent multiple intelligency activities here:

Gail Gauthier said...

One of the reasons I liked this book so much is that it really is written for young kids. I see a lot of nonfiction picture books with a great deal of text that is too mature for the traditional picture book reader. Even the artwork is more appropriate for a textbook than a picture book. I've been told by librarians that a lot of kids in the upper grades of elementary school have to read books with a specific number of pages for many of their school assignments. So they can't read these elaborate nonfiction picture books for their classwork, and younger kids will often be overwhelmed by them. Who are these books for? Maybe older kids are reading them in their leisure time, but...

Anyway, Day Glo doesn't do that. It's really nonfiction written for the age group it is intended for.