Category Archives: For Kids

Celebrating Stories about America’s National Parks!

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courtesy www.nps.gov

Happy Birthday America!

In honor of July 4th, and family travel season, I thought I would write about one of this country’s greatest treasures: The National Parks System. I’ve come to more deeply appreciate the NPS through my middle-grade reading kids, who are obsessed with the “Junior Ranger Program” – a program available at almost all U.S. National Parks and Monuments. On visiting a park – great or small – our children will ask the ranger if they have a junior ranger program. This is usually a printed booklet that asks the kids to to age appropriate activities relevant to the park — everything from taking a hike, attending a ranger talk on geology or nocturnal creatures, reading about a historical event or figure, and then completing various puzzles, activities and games. On completion of a booklet (which may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 or 3 hours), the ranger checks their work and viola! They are sworn in to be junior rangers!

5623805_f520My kids are really excited to collect the various junior ranger badges — there are about 400 in this country and my kids have 72 each — but others enjoy collecting patches, or stamping their “national parks passports” with stamps from various parks. It’s a great way to see America, and have the kids be the instigators and navigators of family trips (rather than the ones who dread going places and drag their feet) But you don’t have to go far (usually) to find a great NPS site – there are many smaller sites that you may not know about right around the corner from you! Just visit www.nps.gov to look at the list of wonderful junior ranger program-containing sites. (There is also a web ranger program, and several you can do online!)

There are many TERRIFIC books for kids to learn about national parks: check out some great lists here and here. When we visit a site, we often try to read something that gets us excited about what we are about to see. There’s undoubtedly a biography, nonfiction or fiction for every middle grade reader that would be appropriate to read about almost every park! Here are some thoughts that might make your summer NPS vacation both informative and literary!

 

1. Visiting Boston’s Historic Sites or just stopping by on your way to the Cape? There are several junior ranger programs in the area. And while you’re clocking miles on I-95 why not give your middle grade biography or history buff Who Was Paul Revere?

Who Was Paul Revere?

courtesy barnesandnoble.com

courtesy barnesandnoble.com

2. Heading to Florida for a beach vacation or to visit Disney? Take a day trip to the Everglades or the several other terrific NPS sites in Florida! Maybe your mystery reader will enjoy Nancy Drew 161: Lost in Everglades. 

3. Going to the big parks in Arizona? What about giving your animal-loving reader that old classic Brighty of the Grand Canyon

4. Of a literary or oratorical bent? What about visiting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge or Edgar Allen Poe’s Birthplace in Philadelphia or Fredrick Douglass’ National Historic Site in Maryland?

 

Feel free to add your favorite park/vacation related books below! And enjoy your summer exploring this nation’s beautiful parks!

Here’s an adorable link to get your younger travelers excited about national parks:  Sesame Street Explores National Parks

 

Low Tech Lemonade and Simpler Times

It’s summer. Time to relax.

Have a glass of lemonade and take things easy.

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These lazy days even super readers love a stack of picture books. So how about these picture books that celebrate the simple things…

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Go back to the basics with Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a classic story of the triumph of out dated technology and a return to simpler days. Mike and his old-timey shovel Mary Ann can’t keep up with the  new backhoes on the block, but when they dig themselves into a hole (literally!) Mike and Mary Ann make the best of it, with Mary Ann serving as the brand new building’s boiler.

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Have your kids even heard of a typewriter (that old-fangled noisy thing we used to write on, before computers!) Everyone will have a clattering good time with Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo Cows That Type, a tale of a barn yard of journalistic bovines who have their say as soon as the farmer’s back is turned. Get typing!

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Olden days weren’t always golden days. And a jump rope today could have been something very different in times gone by. Explore serious themes with your kids while reading Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful This Is The Rope.

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I love the next one so much– It kills me that I didn’t think of it first. The Day The Crayons Quit. And if you have a quirky sense of humor you’ll love it as much as your kids do, too!

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Steamy today, sweater weather come author. Get ready for knit one, pearl two with Extra Yarn!

I can’t think of anything better than snuggling on a porch swing with my favorite reader with a big stack of gorgeous books and a glass of ice cold lemonade. And I can see these books prompting lots of great discussions– not just about how things used to be but also how things ought to be!  

Read any wonderful old fashioned books lately? What’s your favorite simple summer pleasure?

Tami Lewis Brown is attempting to write her next novel on a clickety clackety old fashioned typewriter but she hasn’t given up on the internet. She’ll blog about that next Thursday at Through The Tollbooth.

The Nonfiction Family Tree

A few weeks ago, I attended the New England SCBWI conference in beautiful Springfield, MA. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop given by  Melissa Stewart and Sarah Albee on Nonfiction. It was fascinating!  There was so much GREAT information that I felt it would be good for others to learn about it. I contacted Melissa and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.   For those of you that haven’t heard of  or been lucky enough to meet Melissa, here’s a little about her:

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Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 science books for children. She has always been fascinated by the natural world and is passionate about sharing its beauty and wonder with readers of all ages.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.

Melissa believes that nothing brings nonfiction writing to life like firsthand research. While gathering information for her books, she has explored tropical rain forests in Costa Rica, gone on safari in East Africa, and swum with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands.

When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

With the advent of Common Core, nonfiction seems to be taking off. Can you give us a little background of how nonfiction has changed over the years? Wow, it’s changed A LOT. Fifteen years ago, most nonfiction text was rather dry. If an author wrote a manuscript with a strong voice, it was edited out. Today editors want, no demand, a strong voice. In the past, authors were supposed to be unbiased, but today it’s perfectly okay for writers to express a point of view.  Art and design has also changed. Ever since desktop publishing software was invented, illustrators and designers have been experimenting. The result is dynamic designs that kids can’t resist. The upshot is that today’s nonfiction has a dual purpose. It delights as well as informs.  

 

In your talk, you broke nonfiction up into seven categories. Can you explain these categories? Sure. In my talk with uber-talented author Sarah Albee [link: http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/], we drew upon the work of a group of highly-respected academics who call themselves the Uncommon Corp [link: http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com/]. They classify nonfiction books into seven broad categories. Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.   As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author’s approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn’t. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.

Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb. I’m not sure this system is the be all and end all, but it’s a very interesting way for writers, teachers, librarians, and other book lovers to think about nonfiction. It stretches the way we think about current books and future possibilities, and I think that’s extremely valuable.

 

Do you think certain topics lend themselves to certain categories? Yes. I think narrative nonfiction works very well for biographies and books about historical events. These topics naturally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With enough research, an author can craft the alternating scenes and summary architecture that characterizes narrative nonfiction. When writing about science, math, or the Arts, narrative nonfiction may not be an option. Even if it is, it may not be the best choice. For a broad overview of any topic, expository usually works best.   Two great examples are Bugged: How Insects Changes History by Sarah Albee and 9780802734228_p0_v4_s260x420 A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano.     If writers think about these categories at the beginning of a project, I think they may have an easier time coming up with a great way to approach a topic and a solid structure for their book. It provides some options, so we aren’t just shooting in the dark.  

 

Which one do you think is most popular with kids? Why? Data books are clearly the most popular with kids. Most school librarians will tell you that titles like The Guinness Book of World Records is almost constantly checked out. Elementary-aged readers love fascinating facts, so Data books can be good for hooking beginning readers. But many educators worry that these books don’t do much to help kids build their reading skills. Right now, thought leaders like Jonathan Hunt and Marc Aronson feel that we need a new breed of book that forms a bridge between Data books and long-form nonfiction that students are expected to read in middle school and high school.

 

Which categories do teachers tend use in their classrooms? In recent years, teachers didn’t use much high-quality trade nonfiction in the classroom at all. But the hope is that Common Core is changing that. Right now, teachers are struggling to learn about nonfiction, and they are building their classroom libraries. Luckily, most school librarians have been singing the praises of the new nonfiction for several years now, so they are becoming trusted advisors in schools where they exist. We need more school librarians!

 

Any tips for readers about how to find fun, engaging nonfiction books? Here are some lists to keep an eye on. They include great nonfiction titles from all seven categories:

  • AAAS/Subaru Prizes for Excellence in Science Books
  • ALA Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
  • CRA Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award
  • Cook Prize for STEM Picture Book
  • Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List
  • Cybils Nonfiction for Middle Grade & Young Adult
  • Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books
  • NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
  • NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

 

How do you see the world of nonfiction changing for the future? That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I really know the answer. My hope is that we’ll see more nonfiction being published for children. Although I think many editors are now more open to reviewing nonfiction submission than they were in the past, what I hear is that they aren’t yet acquiring significantly more nonfiction manuscripts. This may be because many editors are still trying to get up to speed on the market. They need to familiarize themselves with what’s out there and gain an understanding of the characteristics of best-selling and award-winning nonfiction. Some editors may also be in a wait-and-see mode, wondering how long Common Core will stick around. There is a lot of controversy regarding the testing associated with CCSS, but the standards themselves are sound. Still, educators are famous for a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality. They tend to move in completely new directions every decade or so, abandoning previous ideas rather than revising them.

 

Of all the books you have written, do any stand out as having been really fun to write? Perhaps they were about a topic that you loved or in a format that you enjoyed.  I guess I’m still an elementary-aged fact-lover at heart. One of my favorite books to research and write was Animal Grossapedia because it’s so chock full of amazing examples of how animals use pee, poop, vomit, slime (mucus), and spit to catch food and stay safe. But what I also really like about this book is that as kids read example after example, they gradually come to the book’s central idea—that animals have an amazing array of adaptations and behaviors that make it possible for them to survive in the world. So I’m sharing an idea that’s a central tenet of biology, but in a package that they find irresistible. To me, that’s a successful book.

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Thanks so much for helping us to understand the wild and wonderful world of nonfiction, Melissa!!

To learn more about Melissa see her website at www.melissa-stewart.com.  Melissa also has a great blog called “Celebrate Science” where she focuses on cool nonfiction books, how she writes them, and talks more about the classification and structure of nonfiction books. Check it out here:  www.celebratescience.blogspot.com

 

**** Jennifer Swanson is the author over 20 fiction and nonfiction books. She is a science nerd at heart and loves to learn new and fun science facts which is why her shelves are filled with books!!