Category Archives: Nonfiction

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!!

Earth Day 2014: Inspiring a new generation of stewards

There is no power for change greater than a child
discovering what he or she cares about.

Seymour Simon
April 22, 2010
Earth Day 40th anniversary

Prolific nonfiction writer and Earth advocate Seymour Simon creates books that inspire young readers to care for our planet.  Tomorrow, a new generation of stewards will celebrate Earth Day — in parks, classrooms, gardens, libraries, homes —  all around the world.  I’d like to share some powerful resources teachers use to make Earth Day come alive for students and their families:  1) books that motivate middle-grade readers to take action for the environment, 2) how families can support students’ learning, and 3) resources to keep Earth Day “blooming” all year long.

Books about environmental stewardship
So many great books about caring for our world, it’s impossible to list them all!  So I’ve selected six titles that teacher colleagues recommend to provoke middle grade students’ thinking about and active engagement with the environment.

 Global Warming by Seymour Simon.  Earth’s climate has always varied, but it is now changing more rapidly than at any other time in recent centuries. The climate is very complex, and many factors play important roles in determining how it changes. Why is the climate changing? Could Earth be getting warmer by itself? Are people doing things that make the climate warmer? Award-winning science writer Seymour Simon teams up with the Smithsonian Institution to give you a full-color photographic introduction to the causes and effects of global warming and climate change. (Indiebound description)

Water Dance by Thomas Locker.  Travel with author-illustrator Thomas Locker and follow our planet’s most precious resource–water–on its daily journey through our world. (Indiebound description)

 

 Earth’s Garbage Crisis by Christine Dorion. This non-fiction text  focuses on the amount of garbage in the world. It explains the causes of the problem, but then provides actions and programs that are in place today that people are trying to get involved in to help this cause. It also prompts the reader to take action in his/her own community. (Teacher, Faith Kim description)

 

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter. A picture book based on the true story of Wangari Maathai, an environmental and political activist in Kenya and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. (Indiebound description)

 Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays by Molly Bang.  The story of Dianne Wilson, a Texas shrimper, who took on the EPA and the big factories in her town to clean up the bay. She faces a number of hardships in this quest. We will use her story to talk about how anyone can become a good steward of the environment, and what resources help people make a difference. (Teacher, Andrea Kunz description)

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
by William Kamkwamba; ill. by Elizabeth Zumba.  The true story of William, a boy in Malawi who builds a windmill to give his village clean power, and save them from a devastating drought.  William is only a child, whose parents can no longer afford to send him to school, but he also finds a way to make a difference, proving that anyone can be a good environmental steward, if they have what counts on the inside. (Teacher, Andrea Kunz description).

Earth Day at home: Families as learning partners
Learning can be more meaningful and powerful when teachers connect the classroom to issues that directly affect students’ and their families’ lives.  Here are some strategies that middle-grade teachers have used to enlist families in deepening their students’ learning related to the environment.  Two examples below illustrate how families partnered with students to help them consider varied perspectives on environmental issues and to create a concrete action plan of things they can do together at home to help the environment.

1.  Critical thinking about complex issues.  During her unit on environmental stewardship, middle school science teacher, Andrea Kunz pushed her students to consider a range of complex issues that came up as they read and discussed books and articles.  To deepen students’ thinking, she asked them to take these issues home and gather insights and perspectives from their families:

Week 1: Do Humans Help or Harm the Environment?  For the next several weeks, students will be reading and writing about the impact that humans have on their environment.  This is a topic that many people have different opinions about, so to get started, we wanted to involve you in the conversation. This week, we are asking the question: 
Are humans mostly to blame for our environmental problems, or are they solving more environmental problems than they cause?
Talk about this idea with your student: what are your ideas?  What are theirs?  What reasons or events have influenced your thinking?

Week 2: Making A Difference, Taking A Stand
  This week, we are looking at different people who have made a positive impact on their communities by trying to solve a problem in their local ecosystem or environment. There are many ways that people can make a difference, in many areas of life, not just the environment. 

When was a time you stood up for something you thought was wrong?  What happened? 

This is an opportunity for you to share your own experience, so that your student can see that many people can make a difference, or that sometimes we try hard to make a difference and it doesn’t always work out the way we think it will.  Tell your student your story! 

2.  Creating and enacting an environmental stewardship plan. Intermediate teachers Maria Smith and Stuart Potter created family activities that would build students’ understanding of concrete actions they could take to make a difference in the environment.  They started with a simple web of stewardship ideas that each student generated with someone at home.  Students then enlisted family members to help create an Environmental Stewardship Idea/Action Plan for their home. Finally, students led their families in carrying out one idea from their plan over a two-week period.

Resources to keep Earth Day blooming all year!

Finally, two (among the countless multitudes of) excellent online resources on Earth Day and environmental stewardship:

Authors for Earth Day: Supporting conservation through literacy.  A coalition of children’s authors who actively promote reading, writing, and learning about the environment.  The growing list of authors includes MUF’s own Yolanda Ridge!  Check out the A4ED blog to learn more about the authors and their projects.

The Nature Generation An environmental nonprofit that “inspires and empowers youth to make a difference. We reach our nation’s youth through innovative environmental stewardship programs in literature, science and the arts.”  Sponsors of the Read Green initiative to get “environmental books into the hands of children.”  Look into the short list for the 2014 Green Earth Book Awards (winners will be announced tomorrow on Earth Day, so come back soon!).

My thanks to author, science advocate, and environmental inspiration Seymour Simon for his life’s work on behalf of young readers and their world. And heartfelt thanks to the teacher colleagues who generously shared their book and teaching ideas on building strong environmental stewards in honor of this 44th Earth Day:  Andrea Kunz, Maria Smith, Stuart Potter, Hilary Mayfield, and Faith Kim!

 

Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.

 

One Hundred Years Later

This year is the centenary anniversary of the start of World War I, an event that for  most of today’s middle graders ranks as ancient history. World War I for Kids  aims to help young readers understand not only the conflict’s causes but also the enormous, lasting impact it had on the modern world.

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From Indiebound: An educational and interactive children’s guide to the Great War In time for the 2014 centennial of the start of the Great War, this activity book provides an intriguing and comprehensive look at World War I, which involved all of the world’s superpowers during a time of great technological and societal change. Emphasizing connections among events as well as the war’s influence on later historical developments, it leads young readers to fully understand the most important aspects of the war, including how the war came about, how changing military technology caused the western front to bog down into a long stalemate, how the war fostered an era of rapid technological advances, and how the entry of the United States helped end the war. The book explores topics of particular interest to kids, such as turn-of-the-20th-century weaponry, air and naval warfare, and the important roles animals played in the war. Relevant crosscurricular activities expand on concepts introduced and illuminate the era of the early 1900s, including making a periscope, teaching a dog to carry messages, making a parachute, learning a popular World War I song, and more.

To enter a drawing for a free copy of this important new book, please leave a comment below.