Orbis Pictus? Is That a Fancy Latin Name for a Picture Book?
Anyone who has ever dipped their toes into the teeming waters of juvenile literature has probably at least heard of the Newbery and Caldecott awards. Those like myself who aspire to be professional librarians are probably familiar with many of the recipients of these awards. Many children have likely read one or two books who have achieved the coveted gold or silver stickers. If you mention awards for children’s books, most people will think you are talking about these two awards or others like them that are bestowed upon juvenile fiction and picture books. Even those who may consider themselves “experts” on children’s literature probably would not assume that you are talking about nonfiction or realize that awards are even given to nonfiction. I should know. Up until a few short weeks ago, I was one of those people myself.
When I first heard the term “Orbis Pictus” award, like many of my peers, I thought that it was some fancy-sounding award for picture books similar to the Caldecott medal. I was close to the truth, but not quite there. While the Caldecott and Newbery medals are awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, the Orbis Pictus winners are selected by the National Council of Teachers of English. The other major difference between the Caldecott and Orbis Pictus awards is that the latter recognizes excellence in nonfiction rather than fiction. The criteria for winning this award are similar to the Newbery and Caldecott awards-organization, design, and style-with the additional criterion of accuracy, a trait unique to nonfiction titles. There are a few other differences between the awards such as the fact that there is a limit of five Orbis Pictus honor books each year whereas the Newbery Award has no such restriction. To be honest, reading nonfiction in general does not usually interest me, so I was not too excited about this award when I first discovered it. However, first impressions can be deceiving.
While I abstain from reading nonfiction for the most part, I was comforted to discover that a lot of the Orbis Pictus winners and honor books relate to history, a subject that I enjoy, usually in the context of historical fiction. The two books I chose were Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Bryant. I could not have chosen better. These two books offer some of the most fun and creative takes on biography I’ve ever seen. The artwork is visually pleasing and the narratives are neither didactic nor condescending, but instead tell the stories of these two men in interesting ways that rival some of the best juvenile fiction I have read lately.
Not only are Orbis Pictus books fun to read, but they offer a plethora of educational opportunities. Of course, the first and most obvious way to use them is to read them to children or have them read the books themselves, however, they can also be useful for developing lesson plans and library displays and programs that can take learning to the next level. Here are a few examples of what could be done with the two books I mentioned.
As you may know, one of the achievements Franklin is known for is his writing and publishing of Poor Richard’s Almanack, a booklet that contained calendars, times of sunrises and sunsets, moon phases, weather forecasts, travel information, how-tos, and general advice. An activity could be organized for a lesson or library program where participants would create their own almanacks. Paper would be provided that could be folded into little booklets. While the children may not have the information required for some of the typical almanack fare, they could certainly write travel information for places they have been and how-tos for their favourite pastimes. The teacher or librarian would encourage creativity and outside-the-box thinking so each almanack would be as unique as its creator. A worksheet such as the adages resource from the following website could also be utilized: http://makinghistorygrant.wikispaces.com/5th+Grade+Unit+-+Ben+Franklin
An even simpler activity can be utilized in conjunction with The Right Word. In case you have not had the pleasure of reading this amazing book, let me describe it a little. Each page of the book has a different style of writing. One of the styles that the illustrator uses is a collage of what looks like newspaper or magazine clippings. My idea is to have the children make posters of their own with a collage of pictures and text that they cut out from similar periodicals. As an extra challenge, the teacher or librarian may suggest that the posters have a theme such as the power of words or language.
For this class on middle-grade literature, I was required to dive deep into many genres that are not typically my favorites. I was, of course, reluctant to leave my comfortable and familiar shallows, but I held my breath and took the plunge. Some of these genres I will likely continue to avoid (humor and westerns come to mind), but thanks to the Orbis Pictus books I read, nonfiction may have to be added to my repertoire.
5th Grade Unit – Ben Franklin. (n.d.) In Making History Grant. Retrieved from
American Library Association. (2015) Book & Media Awards. Retrieved from
National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Orbis Pictus Home Page. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus