Monday, 9 August 2021



One of the reasons I love picture books, is because there is such a fantastic range – from funny to heartfelt to educational and everything in between, there really is something to suit every kind of writer. This Picture Book Den post is going to focus on an exciting subgenre of picture books that feels particularly popular at the moment, with just as much variety – narrative non-fiction picture books. (Plus, there's an exciting cover reveal at the end!)


What is a Narrative Non-fiction picture book?

Just like any strictly fictional text, a narrative non-fiction picture book is a story first and foremost. There might be facts before the story (front matter), facts at the end of the story (back matter), facts throughout… but the primary focus is on engaging characters and a satisfying plot.

This is different from illustrated non-fiction in a picture book format, where text might be arranged by headings, subheading or chapters and can be read out of order.

Here are some of my current favourite examples of narrative non-fiction texts. As you can see, there’s a massive range in style, presentation and topic:

The Spacesuit (Alison Donald, Ariel Landy)

The Spacesuit is a narrative non-fiction picture book inspired by the seamstresses who made the spacesuit for US astronauts in the Apollo missions headed for the moon, based on the life of Ellie Foraker. It includes timelines, fact boxes and facts intertwined in the narrative. Alison is also the author of A Super Sticky Mistake – the story of how Harry Coover invented super glue – another great narrative non-fiction picture book (illustrated by Rhea Zhai).

Amara and the Bats (Emma Reynolds)

In this narrative non-fiction text, environmental activism gets a nocturnal twist! Amara and the Bats is Emma Reynold’s debut picture book as an author-illustrator. It’s the story of a little girl who loves bats and is sad when she moves to a new town and finds that bats no longer live there due to loss of habitat. She is inspired by real life youth climate activists to take action and rallies her friends to save the bats! There are bat facts weaved in throughout the story, and lots of fantastic practical steps to take action and help bats in the back, too.


They All Saw A Cat (Brendan Wenzel)

They All Saw a Cat explores what a cat might look like from the perspectives of various animals' points of view. It’s simple in delivery but powerful in concept. I’ve never seen anything like it! There is no front matter or back matter, but the illustrated way the animals perceive the cat is true to life and really makes you think.

The Amazing Scientist Series (Julia Finley Mosca, D. Reiley, Brendan Wenzel) I’m crossing my fingers that this series of books keeps expanding. The texts explore some of the world’s most amazing female scientists. In addition to the facts there’s a complete biography, colourful timeline and a personal note from the featured artist. These ones are in rhyme, too.

Poo! Is That You? / Wee? It Wasn’t Me! (Clare Helen Welsh, Nicola O’Byrne)

Here are two of my most recent narrative non-fiction texts. Lenny the Lemur is on holiday, first in the Amazon and next in Alaska, when he comes across an unfortunate problem that needs solving. He learns lots of interesting animal facts as he does. The third in this mini-series is slime-based and will be publishing in 2022.

Where did Narrative Non-fiction come from?

The recent rise in narrative non-fiction appears to have come from the US, where invention stories and biography picture books for 3-7yr olds are booming, but blending fact and fiction together in picture book format is not new.

Simon James’ books were a firm favourite in my classroom when I taught as an early years teacher, especially Sally and the Limpet. It’s the story of a little girl who gets a limpet stuck to her finger, and has a gentle message of caring for sea creatures intertwined into a funny and fantastical tale.  Dear Greenpeace, also by Simon James, sees the main character (and reader) learn about humpback whales all through letter format. Again, there’s a lovely mix of fact and humour.

I’m pretty certain narrative non-fiction wasn’t a ‘thing’ when these books were made, but the advantage of adding subtle educational layers to picture books has always been clear. It’s a real selling point for gatekeepers when a text has the potential to impact on young readers long after the last page has turned and when it can be used a springboard for future learning.


Tips for writing Narrative Non-fiction:

Research – Once you have identified your narrative non-fiction concept and suitable ‘way in’, next must come more detailed research. Whilst narrative non-fiction is a story first and foremost, the facts still need to be accurate. Use reliable, first-hand sources where possible, and try to back up each fact with at least three pieces of credible research. It might be possible to link with museums, organisations or contact family members.


Presentation of Facts –Decide whether your facts are going to be presented as fact boxes throughout, as front matter, back matter, an author’s note, whether they will be interwoven into the narrative or a mixture of these.

In my funny Lenny stories, Poo! Is that you? and Wee? It Wasn’t Me! the facts are incorporated into the character’s dialogue and reinforced with fun facts at the end.


In my lyrical non-fiction with Nosy Crow, the facts are interwoven into the narrator voice and consolidated with facts in the back matter. It publishes next month and is illustrated by none other than the winner of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2019, Jenny Lovlie. The story follows a young Arctic tern as she embarks on her annual migration to the Southern hemisphere in search of an endless summer. Children can learn about lots of other animals that also leave their homes for an warmer one. You can take a look inside here: Take a look inside Time to Move South for the Winter - Nosy Crow

In my re-imagining of Cinderella, inspired by the life and work of Lotte Reinger, the factual content is presented in an author note at the end of the book. (Cover reveal at the end of this post!)

In The Spacesuit by Alison Donald and Ariel Landy, the facts are intertwined with the plot but also presented as fact boxes throughout.

Narrative non-fiction picture texts to look out for:

There are some really exciting narrative non-fiction books on the horizon, some due for publication soon. Here’s a look at a couple!

Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny is a funny, reassuring picture book story about yoga, mindfulness and finding calm, from debut author Emily Ann Davison and award-winning illustrator Deborah Allwright. Yo-Yo is a fidgety, bouncy, can’t-sit-still-EVER type of bunny. Even Grandpa’s yoga class won’t stop her wiggling and giggling! But when Yo-Yo finds herself lost in the deep, dark, shadowy forest, maybe Grandpa’s yoga will help her find the way home . . . With simple yoga step-by-step instruction in the narrative and some poses at the end to practise, children can stretch, breathe and feel calm with Yo-Yo.


And I hope it's ok to announce my real-life inspired story publishing this November with Andersen Press. Described as Cinderella meets paper-cutting, with a strong feminist twist,’  the story is based on the life and work of German film director Lotte Reiniger.

‘Lotte doesn’t believe in happy endings. She lives with her horrible, bossy sisters and her only friends are the exquisite cut-out paper puppets she makes by the light of the moon. But when an invitation to the Palace Spring Ball arrives on their doorstep, Lotte sees her chance to change her life for ever...

This is a Cinderella re-imagining with a difference where forceful individuality and talent create happy endings not fairy tale magic. Whilst the story is fictional, it was inspired by a real life individual and features an author note at the end. Laura Barrett, whose style is also inspired by Reiniger, is the very wonderful illustrator who has done the most fantastic job bringing the text to life - the artwork is so detailed and there are some wonderful surprises inside. Finally, here is her fantastic cover! 

Publishing 4th November 2021 - You can read and see more of Laura's beautiful artwork here Laura Barrett Illustration

If you didn’t love narrative non-fiction picture books before, I hope you do now! Just like in fiction, there’s a huge range; poetic, scientific, silly, serious – something for everyone! Narrative non-fiction texts can cover subjects such as biographies, inventions, events in history, animal adaptations, scientific phenomenon… anything you feel passionate about and that you think would entertain a child. Nothing is off limits if you can find the right age-appropriate angle.


Happy writing!

BIO: Clare is a children's writer from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. Her next narrative non-fiction picture book, 'Time to Move South For Winter,' comes out in just a few weeks and has been illustrated by Jenny Lovlie. She also has her first book with Andersen, Scissorella, publishing in November, which is another life-inspired tale. It has been beautifully illustrated by Laura Barrett. You can find out more about Clare at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh.


Pippa Goodhart said...

Really interesting, thank you! I'll give my students a link to this blog.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Clare. I love narrative nonfiction. And it was lovely to see pictures from Sally and the Limpet. We read it countless times in this house! Can't wait to see your Andersen Press book as an actual book!

Candi Miller said...

Excellent blog post. Informative and inspiring. I've bought "Time to Move South" and can attest to its infotainment value. And I'm excited to see "Scissorella". I love it when writers return to the root of folk- and fairytale to reimagine them. And a homage to Reiniger. What a bonus!