By Silvia López
As the name implies, back matter is material placed at the end of a book’s main text. Sometimes it’s only an Author’s Note explaining how the author’s interest in the topic led to writing the book. But back matter can be much more.
In picture book narrative nonfiction, the information in the back enriches the story, expands its usefulness, and increases its value. Back matter can include clear, simple explanations of difficult concepts touched upon in the main story, a glossary, a timeline, recipes, photos, a list of related books and other print materials, as well as links to websites and videos. Good, solid back matter demonstrates the author’s research and knowledge about the subject of the story.
Narrative nonfiction picture books, especially biographies or those that deal with an aspect of history or science, are often a child’s introduction to a person or event. Though not all readers are created equal, most children might not be interested in too many dates, intricate ideas such as the causes of conflicts, or complicated scientific procedures. Too many details placed within the text can bog down the story and make young readers lose interest. They want a good story. And the text of picture book narrative nonfiction should be just that: a good story based on truth and presented in terms that the reader can, on some level, relate to and is able to understand. If the story piques the reader’s curiosity, then back matter becomes the jumping-off point to find out more.
Children’s authors are constrained by the vocabulary level and background knowledge of their audience, with picture book authors having the limitation of word count. Back matter serves to explain technical or historical information that may not be within the reader’s frame of reference. This expands the usefulness and target audience of the book.
Sometimes back matter is geared to the child, but it can also be written on a little higher level to be used by an adult sharing the book with the child. Either way, it works best when it’s clear, accessible, and interesting. Not everyone, not even adults, can be expected to know as much about a topic as an author who has spent months researching material for his or her book.
Good back matter can turn a story into a teaching tool. The way we write a story is different from the way we write its back matter. Author Laurie Wallmark states that teachers can use that difference to teach narrative vs. reporting writing styles. Teachers can also use picture book narrative nonfiction as a way to introduce older readers to a topic before moving on to more complex books. A simple story accompanied by well-researched, unbiased information can promote thoughtful discussion and encourage further reading.
Beyond nonfiction, good back matter can work for other genres such as historical fiction, realistic fiction — even folktales! The back matter in a book featuring a fictional character living through an historical event can give information about that time. The same goes for realistic fiction where characters have circumstances such as adoption, foster care, an illness, the environment, etc. And folktales often have fascinating origins. Back matter can point out a tale’s evolution through time, or the beliefs of a particular culture or country.
I believe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I also believe in learning from the best. For that reason, this activity asks you to analyze one (or more) narrative nonfiction picture book. Hopefully, you will be able to get the books at your public library. Classification of picture book narrative nonfiction varies, so ask the librarian. You can also browse at your local bookstore for some of the newer titles.
First, read the story. Did it capture your attention? Did it leave you wanting to know more? Afterwards, look closely at the back matter in the book. Did the explanation expand the facts in the story? Was it clearly written? Did the author’s enthusiasm for his or her topic show through? Try the links. Are they still working? Were they helpful? How about the bibliography? Were there comparable books?
In looking at various books, did you find the back matter in some more helpful than in others? Was the back matter written in a way a young reader might understand, or would it require a little help from an adult? What would you have done differently?
You can look for “picture book narrative nonfiction” in a search engine. Below are some sites to get you started on some titles:
We Are Teachers.com: https://www.weareteachers.com/nonfiction-picture-books/
Solutionary Stories: https://www.solutionarystories.com/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Silvia López was born in Cuba and moved to Miami as a child. Her lifelong love of books turned into a career as children's librarian and later author. López is an eclectic writer whose work, in both English and Spanish, reflects her interest in animals, history, folk tales, and people who have overcome obstacles to achieve great things. Books include Handimals: Animals in Art and Nature; Queen of Tejano Music: Selena; Pacho Nacho; My Little Golden Book about Frida Kahlo; and Just Right Family: An Adoption Story. My Little Golden Book about Sonia Sotomayor is scheduled for release in 2022.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Silvia López will be awarding a signed copy of Queen of Tejano Music: Selena.