Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and edi­tor for decades, I often heard peo­ple accuse my col­leagues and me of “bias,” of hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser dis­put­ed. It was a com­mon charge, espe­cial­ly if the issue was con­tro­ver­sial.

But in truth, reporters are no dif­fer­ent than any­one else. Every­one comes to a sub­ject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a cer­tain beach is like, then you are like­ly to asso­ciate oth­er beach­es with that expe­ri­ence; if you’ve nev­er been to the beach, then you can only imag­ine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-can­dy, you will read about can­dy dif­fer­ent­ly than some­one who doesn’t like it.

When you write non­fic­tion, these dif­fer­ent read­er per­spec­tives mat­ter. If we want to be thought­ful about a sub­ject or apply those all-impor­tant crit­i­cal think­ing skills, it helps to acknowl­edge our nat­ur­al biases—not to judge, but sim­ply to under­stand that our expe­ri­ences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high stu­dents, I often hold up a copy of my book Tom­my: The Gun that Changed Amer­i­ca and ask them what they think it is about.

Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, espe­cial­ly, for young peo­ple?” Then I might show them the paper­back ver­sion, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cov­er.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actu­al­ly start talk­ing about guns—what role they play in our soci­ety, what makes them inter­est­ing to read­ers and how they gen­er­ate strong feelings—without hav­ing to debate the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

Because we live in such a visu­al world, I spend hours track­ing down the right pho­tos, car­toons, and doc­u­ments to help tell a sto­ry. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influ­ence my writ­ing by remind­ing me what the world looked like and how peo­ple felt in that time peri­od.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s expe­ri­ence, chal­leng­ing the bias­es they bring to the sto­ry.

Bonnie Parker

Bon­nie Park­er (pho­to: Mis­souri State High­way Patrol)

Con­sid­er this pho­to of Bon­nie Park­er, a key image in my next book, Bon­nie and Clyde: The Mak­ing of a Leg­end, due out in August 2018. It’s a cru­cial pic­ture, the first time she became known to the pub­lic. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now com­pare it to the glam­our shot below, tak­en just a few years before. Does it change your per­spec­tive at all?

Maybe one way to make stu­dent research and non­fic­tion more engag­ing is to con­sid­er our assump­tions and bias­es by bring­ing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bon­nie Park­er (from the col­lec­tions
of the Dal­las His­to­ry and Archives Divi­sion
of the Dal­las Pub­lic Library)

  • Ask stu­dents to make assump­tions about a book from the cov­er. Then com­pare to what the sto­ry is inside. Did their per­spec­tive change?
  • Pull out a sin­gle image and try to guess what it means to the sto­ry. Then, read that chap­ter (or pic­ture book) and test it.
  • Ask stu­dents to search for a pho­to sep­a­rate­ly from their research on a sub­ject. Did the pho­to enforce or change their point of view?

What oth­er ways can you address how a reader’s expe­ri­ences can impact under­stand­ing?

One Response to A Picture and a Thousand Words

  1. David LaRochelle November 17, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

    Wow — what star­tling dif­fer­ences between the two pho­tos of Bon­nie Park­er, and what a great way to make your point!

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