Untold Stories and Nonfiction Picture Books

Recently the eight-year-old daughter of one of our MFAC alums, Jen Huffman Mazi, wrote a book report on Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies, a picture book by journalist Cokie Roberts, and illustrated by Diane Goode.
The stories came from research Cokie uncovered for her adult history book Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised a Nation. 

“Founding Fathers have been talked about most,” Sis (Jen’s daughter) wrote. “When we hear about presidents’ names, there are no girls [heart-shaped dot over the “i”]. What we hear from history, it seems that women and girls never walked the earth…Well guess what!? GIRLS ARE ALIVE TOO! [Heart-shaped dots under the question mark and exclamation points].” 

Sis’s reaction set off a storm in Jen, too, and she ended up writing a full-page column on it for the Kansas City Star. (You can read it here.

But before she wrote, Jen did her research.

Like me, Jen has a “mad reverence” for nonfiction picture books. So does Editor Neal Porter. (See his article in the January 2014 Hornbook in which he discusses their growing popularity.)

Remembering my talks on history and nonfiction picture books at Hamline, Jen contacted me. I was delighted to discuss why women’s history is important to share with young readers. Through several networking channels—including MFAC alum Jill Davis who now works at Harper Collins—Jen scored an interview with Cokie Roberts herself.

Sidebar: Networking can help us reach our writing goals. For many of us, our main focus is getting books published. But that can be a long process. Getting our ideas into the world in other forms can enrich our work and give us confidence along the way.

Cokie loved Sis’s book report. She told Jen that before publishing this picture book, she had not considered the relevance of how nonfiction picture books can present “young brains with big
issues early in their lives.”

Our little girls have a hard time recognizing people in the great story of America . . . but white men in white wigs and tights were not the only people . . . They didn’t do it alone.”

Cokie’s own grandchildren (she has six) were horrified that there hadn’t been a woman president.

When visiting schools, Cokie finds the girls quite feisty. ”You know in all those pictures that you’ve seen in history books, is anything missing? The little boys will say the silliest things like, ‘There is some symbol that should be there’, and some little girl will eventually raise her hand and say,

“Where are the women? There are no women in those pictures!’ They really do get that women are left out and they don’t like it.”

Cokie (like many people) was surprised to learn that picture books are read by older kiddos:

“I thought that by the time you were nine or ten you were reading chapter books” But her grandkids said they weren’t too old. “No, no, no, no, no! Our teachers tell us that there are so many good picture books that can teach us so much.”

Currently Cokie is researching working on a book on the “Chronicling America” web site, which contains hundreds of digitized newspapers, starting in 1832.

Jen ends her column by discussing how even today “some may think she (Sis) is less because she is a girl. There will be plenty of time for those conversations, and plenty of books to help me find the words.” 

Thank you, Sis, Jen and Cokie, for reminding us that these stories matter. Time to get writing so there will be more.