Top Ten Picture Books With Fascinating Author’s Notes For All Ages by Elizabeth Dillow
I have long been an advocate for encouraging the frequent reading of picture books well past the “recommended” age, generally defined as 3-8 years old. It pains me when I overhear a parent or caregiver tell a child past the age of 8 that picture books are “for babies.” It’s very possible to choose books that appeal to older children once they’ve outgrown If You Give a Mouse a Cookie—one such way is to read books with a mind-blowing, perspective shifting, or “you’ve got to be kidding me, what!?” author’s note. Spoiler alert: it’s fun for all ages. I’ve learned just as much interesting stuff from author’s notes as my children have. Here are ten books with author’s notes that will add even more value to a story in the classroom or at bedtime!
President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
This is a wildly silly progressive story about President William Howard Taft and his, er, inability to budge out of a bathtub. The story requires a complete suspension of disbelief—that is, until the end when Mr. Barnett delivers the ultimate “gotcha” in his author’s note. After reading you’ll know actual facts about President Taft’s relationship to bathtubs during his years in public life; it certainly isn’t essential presidential history, but it is super entertaining.
Sewing Stories by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
This biography of Harriet Powers follows the life of a former slave and the art she created in the form of story quilts. The book is structured as a narrative, but with additional details added throughout on “sidebars” of fabric. The author’s note provides more information about the relationship between Harriet and the woman who is credited with the preservation of her first quilt as well as detailed explanations of the quilt blocks; images of the two known surviving quilts and a rare photograph of Harriet circa 1896-1897 are also included.
She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Catrow
I’ve studied a lot of history in my life, but this was the first time I had ever heard of the practice of women in the late 1800s wearing actual dead birds on their hats in the pursuit of fashion—let alone the ways in which this custom was tied to the women’s suffrage movement of the 20th century. It’s a slightly heavy-handed and simplified introduction to social and political activism for kids, but definitely a shocking and entertaining one.
The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen
The Circus Ship is full of lilting rhyme about the night a circus ship runs aground off the coast of Maine with its unique cargo of animals. The islanders work to harbor the circus animals in hilarious ways from their blowhard owner who survives and tries to round them up. Readers learn in Van Dusen’s author’s note that his highly fictionalized story is based on an actual event that occurred in 1836; far-fetched but (partially) true historical stories are a great way to introduce kids to the ways in which historical fiction is imagined.
The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith, illustrated by Eva Montanari
History is sometimes recorded with glaring omissions, as is the case with Alberto Santos-Dumont, credited with inventing the first airplane before the Wright Brothers showed off their flying machine in the Outer Banks. The story of Brazilian Santos-Dumont’s quest for flight leads to some great discussion about why he is so little known to most Americans. A heads up: I struggled to read the end of the author’s note out loud without crying because Santos-Dumont’s remarkable life ends very surprisingly and tragically in suicide. It is most definitely a story (and author’s note) worth reading, though.
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
The achievements of Misty Copeland—the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre—are what unlikely dreams are made of, and Copeland’s love letter to young readers who may feel as if they haven’t found their identity or strengths yet encourages them to see past traditional definitions of beauty, strength, and ability.
The Really Awful Musicians by John Manders
Author and illustrator John Manders gives the illustrious age of Charlemagne and the invention of musical notation a supremely silly spin as musicians of questionable ability race through the countryside to avoid being fed to royal crocodiles. The author’s note provides a look at medieval instruments and invites readers to check out a group of musicians who actually play said instruments in the 21st century—in beautiful harmony.
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Everyone knows Finding Winnie as the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner, but the author’s note (in the form of a scrapbook) adds an additional layer of perfection to the story. It provides visual proof of the otherwise nearly inconceivable details of Harry Colebourn’s relationship with a black bear named Winnipeg (and even more inconceivable, a photo of the real Christopher Robin hanging out with Winnie in a zoo enclosure in 1925). I grew up only knowing the cartoon version of Winnie, so this additional primary source documentation provided by Lindsay Mattick was an absolute delight.
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet
I’m a sucker for anything Melissa Sweet creates, and this story of how the Macy’s Parade came to be ends with an author’s note that celebrates Tony Sarg’s self-taught creativity, explains her own artistic process, and features a 1933 New York Times advertisement for the parade that’s worth a thorough examination. She offers a number of fascinating paths for more investigation, too—like connecting the dots between Tony Sarg and Kermit the Frog.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
While not a traditional picture book, Wonderstruck must be included this list because in true Brian Selznick form, the author’s note enhances the story so much that it makes you want to reread the book immediately after finishing (see also: The Invention of Hugo Cabret; The Marvels). Including everything from an explanation of Deaf culture to the origins of a Minnesota-inspired museum diorama, Selznick offers more information about details and inspiration like a gift—but don’t try to read the author’s note first, because it’s an experience best left to the end.
Elizabeth Dillow is a photographer, writer, and designer who occasionally (OK always) avoids short stories but never skips an author’s note. She lives in Cheyenne, WY with her husband, three daughters, and about two tons of books. She blogs at A Swoop and a Dart.