Nonfiction books that accomplish both instruction and delight, appeal to all kinds of readers (that is girls, boys, adults and everyone in between), can be quite hard to come by. In a way nonfiction has to work harder than other ‘genres’ of books, because, well, it’s just such a large pool! I mean nonfiction can cover so many different kinds of things, so many different topics and there are MANY different styles of nonfiction books.
Among the many things that I do I often interview illustrators for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and for next month my editor asked me to get in touch with Elise Gravel – who is Elise Gravel? I thought. So I went to the library and sat down on the floor in the kids section (I’m a regular so
this isn’t weird at all this is only slightly weird) and poked through her collection of Disgusting Creatures nonfiction books which includes: The Fly, The Worm, The Slug, The Rat and the upcoming (this month, I believe) Head Lice and Spider.
What I discovered that Elise Gravel is a fairly prolific Canadian author/illustrator from Québec. She has a knack for appealing design, humour (sometimes subtle, sometimes just plain toilet-y) and actually introducing facts about really gross creatures (I mean, she has other books too, but I’m focussing on this nonfiction series). I remember as a little girl I wouldn’t even touch the page of a book if it had a spider or something distinctly icky on it – but this little spider looks pretty cute, and despite being full of gross facts and lots of spiders, I might have been amenable to at least holding the book while someone flipped the pages.
The series is entertaining, gross, silly and educational all in one – it’s a gold mine!
The books follow a general format they describe the creatures physical features and what stands out about the creatures – i.s. Flys are covered with hair and have a ridiculous number of eyes, rats have huge teeth so that they can chew through things and worm come in all different shapes and sizes to accomplish different kinds of tasks or survive in their different environments. Tied into the information are the speech bubbles which provide the humour:
The illustrations aren’t perhaps scientifically accurate, but they don’t necessarily fluff up the creatures and make them adorable, I mean they are presented in a quite likeable way, but they are still pretty gross. Look at those eggs? Those do not look appealing. Yet there is just something so charming about these creatures and their interaction with the reader – the worm asking the reader to feel his muscles (because the worm moves by squeezing his muscles) or (pictured below) the fly having shave a lot because he’s covered in hair. Elise takes these strange, unappealing creatures and shows them from a very human perspective, teaching the basics about them, what they do and why they exist without over cutesefying (new word!).
These books, designed a little like Mo Willems – looks at those colours! – are a great starting point for kids. Simple language, intermittent jokes, astounding fun and disgusting facts and a sleek look make these books a great addition to the household, school and library… er… library. Perhaps the child reader (or me, for that matter) won’t exactly get over their squeamishness about spiders or worms, but a general understanding of these creatures, and perhaps a curiosity that will lead to further research, will be established.