Friday, February 15, 2019

Gamification: A Cool Way for Children to Learn by Roxie Munro

Today author Roxie Munro discusses gamification--one technique for infusing fun into nonfiction for kids. Thanks for your contribution, Roxie.

“Life is more fun when you play games,” Roald Dahl once wrote.

Teachers who play are more likely to bring joy into their classrooms, according to a recent study. Learning at its best already has game-like elements that are latent and waiting to be unlocked. Great teachers offer the kind of interactive, discovery-based learning that works so well. For their students, learning already starts to look a lot like a game.

Nonfiction print books aren’t often thought of as being interactive, or using games, but they are and they do. Some authors and illustrators “gamify” nonfiction, making it a fun new way of looking at the subject. The author wraps the content around a concept or a construct, using clever devices to engage children, keep them interested, and impart information in creative ways: lift-the-flap/paper-engineered books, mazes, guessing games, inside-outside concepts, search-n-find, ABCs and counting, puzzles, matching games, hidden objects, and more.

Steve Jenkins (often with Robin Page) makes beautifully designed books using game elements, including What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?, Who Am I?: An Animal Guessing Game, and Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. Guess What Is Growing Inside This Egg by Mia Posada is a guessing game too.

For books on math, numbers, and counting, look at How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti illustrated by Yancey Labat and How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, pictures by Steven Kellogg. Laurie Ann Thompson and Ammi-Joan Paquette’s Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive urges kids to tell fakes from facts, and the classic forever-in-print Science Experiments You Can Eat by Vicki Cobb, recently reissued and revised, often uses play to teach.

My first series of books used inside-outside concepts to inform kids about cities and places (Inside-Outside New York City, Washington DC, London, Paris, Texas, and libraries). Then I started doing maze books about real things. In Mazeways: A to Z, the alphabet letter forms a maze … A for Airport (ever been to Heathrow or JFK? They really ARE mazes!), H for Highway, L for Library, R for Ranch, and so on—you’re playing, but also learning about how places work.

EcoMazes: 12 Earth Adventures uses mazes to explore and understand ecosystems and a finding/counting game to learn about which animals live in the habitats. In Market Maze children see where food comes from and how it arrives at their town greenmarkets.

My lift-the-flap books include Rodeo (the action and rules of the sport), Circus (various acts in motion), Go! Go! Go! (about transportation), and Doors (learn about the space station, a doctor's office, a mechanic's garage, behind-the-scenes of a theater, a firehouse, and more).

Many of my books use a very visual Q&A format.
—In Hatch! an egg or a clutch of eggs is shown. Children try to guess what kind of bird it’s from.
—In Busy Builders children see the giant bug, and then turn the page to check out the unusual kind of structure it makes, and why.
Slithery Snakes presents close-up scaly skin patterns—along with fascinating facts—and encourages kids to figure out what kind of snake it’s from. —In Rodent Rascals, the game-like device is ever-increasing real-life size.
Masterpiece Mix has a seek-n-find game, with 37 famous paintings hidden in the finale.

This is all nonfiction content, structured to encourage play, learning, and engagement.

Many subjects lend themselves to game-like interactive formats. For learning about a person, an animal, a historical period, science, or a place, you can start with a question, and note fun facts that allow the reader to guess who or what you are discussing, before they get to the satisfying answer. Or in a more interactive way, readers can lift flaps, play matching games, find and count things, or solve a maze.  However, “games” have to be logically associated and integrated with the subject, not just put in gratuitously. They must immerse the young reader, not distract.

Engaging in games helps children with concentration, setting goals, problem-solving, collaboration (some allow multiple players), and perseverance. It also gives them an opportunity to celebrate achievement.

Many games (mazes in particular) help children with decision-making and critical thinking skills. Young readers must think ahead and plan steps in advance. Mazes also teach alternate ways to solve problems and judge spatial relationships. They can even help children develop fine motor skills, which can improve their handwriting.

And they’re fun!

Roxie Munro is the author/illustrator of more than 40 nonfiction and concept children's books. Her books have received the New York Times Best Illustrated Award, Cook Prize Silver Medal for STEM, numerous Best of the Year lists (SLJ, Bank Street, Smithsonian, NCSS-CBC, NSTA-CBC, NCTE, more). Recent books include Rodent Rascals, Masterpiece Mix, and Market Maze. Roxie lectures in conferences, schools, libraries, and museums. She lives and works in New York City. Visit

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Behind the Books: Circle Text Structure

Most schools are currently teaching students that there are five nonfiction text structures—description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution. But the truth is that these options are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many, many possibilities, and one of the biggest challenges a nonfiction writer faces is choosing the most effective one (or combination).

One text structure that I think should get more attention is the circle structure. One of the best known fiction books with a circle structure (as well as a cause and effect structure) is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond.
Why is it so popular? Because it's so different, so unsual, and so fun. The clever combination of a cause and effect structure and a circle structure is extremely rare in a fiction title. Nearly all fiction books have a problem-solution text structure.

Circle structures are more common in nonfiction. Some of great examples include:

A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long

Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN by Michelle Cusolito and Nicole Wong

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Nicole Wong

Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop

Redwoods by Jason Chin

A Rock Is Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre and Kate Endle

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart and Constance Bergum

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre and Steve Jenkins

Warbler Wave by April Pulley Sayre

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart and Constance Bergum
Some of these books have a narrative writing style, while others have an expository writing style. But many students (and adults) would be tempted call them all “stories.” Why? Because the reader begins and ends at the same place, which is very satisfying and has a similar feel to the denouement of a typical narrative.

As a result, expository titles with a circle structure appeal to a broad range of readers. They feel comfortable and familiar to narrative lovers, and yet, they still have the expository characteristics that appeal to analytical thinkers—fascinating facts, main ideas and supporting details, patterns, comparisons, concepts. So consider adding some books with a circular text structure to your collection and sharing them as read alouds. Students will thank you.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Laurie Wallmark

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Laurie Wallmark. Thank you, Laurie.

Writers are often told to write what they know. As far as I’m concerned, we should write what we’re passionate about. We can always research (and who doesn’t like research?) a topic, but if we’re not interested in it—boring!

Which brings me to why I write about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Doing so lets me combine two of my passions—STEM and equal opportunity for all.

Me in third grade
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved science and math. In college, I majored in biochemistry, which allowed me to take courses in math, physics, biology, chemistry, and of course, biochemistry. I was in science-nerd heaven.

I also took a few computer courses (there wasn’t yet a computer science major) and found a new love—programming. But how could I combine my new and old loves? Much to my delight, I found out there was a profession called scientific programming. Woo-hoo!

After college, I received a master’s degree in Information Systems and worked in programming for many years. Now I teach computer science at my local community college.

But what about my other passion, wanting to provide equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? As a child, I was convinced I could only become a scientist if changed my name to Marie Curie. After all, she was the only woman scientist I had ever read about. Through my writing, I can show girls (and boys!) that STEM is for everyone.

There are so many unsung women in STEM whose stories deserve to be told. How do I decide which ones to write about it?

Since I’m a computer scientist, who better to write about than Ada Byron Lovelace—the world’s first computer programmer? Notice, I didn’t say the first woman programmer. Ada was the first person, male or female, to write code for a computer.

At the time I started doing research for the book (about 2007 or so), no one, other than a few other computer geeks like me, had ever heard of her accomplishments. I’m happy that my book, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston, 2015), has played a part in changing that.

You can tell by the title of my next book, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE (Sterling, 2017), that I still had more to say about women and computers. Grace was the first person (again, not the first woman) to use words, instead of just “1”s and “0”s, to write computer code. This made it possible for non-technical people (like kids!) to program them.

For my third book, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (Sterling, 2019), I decided it was time to consider women other than computer scientists. Hedy was a glamorous movie star AND she co-invented the technology that helps keep Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth from being hacked. I was drawn to Hedy’s story because it shows kids they don’t have to give up their other interests to be good at STEM.

I love bringing to life stories about women in STEM. The book I’m working on right now is a woman mathematician. Will I ever write biographies of men or people not in STEM? Who knows? But I do know, my books will always be about someone whose accomplishments have been overlooked—someone whose story deserves to be told.

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s debut, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston, 2015), received four starred reviews and many national awards. GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE (Sterling, 2017), earned a Kirkus star and made several “best of” lists. Her next book, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (Sterling), releases in 2019. Laurie has an MFA from VCFA and teaches computer science. Find Laurie at and @lauriewallmark.

Friday, February 8, 2019

NF 10 x 10: In the Ocean

I created this post as part of the annual Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10 (#nf10for10) event started by Cathy Mere (@CathyMere) and Mandy Robek (@mandyrobeck) in 2013.

In honor of my upcoming book Seashells: More than a Home, I’m featuring
ten ocean-themed nonfiction titles.

Coral Reef by Jason Chin

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Clare A. Nivola

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by √Čric Puybaret

Ocean Alphabet Book by Jerry Palotta, illustrated by Frank Mazzola, Jr.

Seashells, Crabs, and Sea Stars: Take-Along Guide by Christiane Kump Tibbitts, illustrated by Linda Garrow

Seashells: More than a Home by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannan
Shell by Alex Arthur, photographed by Andreas Einsiedel

What Lives in a Shell?  by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, illustrated by Helen K. Davie

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Creating Picture Book Biographies with Third Graders

I read lots of scientific papers as I do research for the children’s books I write. I also read plenty of journal articles written by academic educators as I strive to gain a deeper understanding of nonfiction craft.
But rarely do I come across an article so extraordinary that I feel compelled to share it here. Today I’m reviewing an article that I think every elementary educator should read. It’s that good.
“Portraits of Perseverance: Creating Picturebook Biographies with Third Graders” (Language Arts, January 2019) describes an amazing 6-week learning experience developed and implemented by Erika Thulin Dawes and Mary Ann Cappiello, two Professors of Language & Literacy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and Lorraine Bronte Magee, a third grade teacher and graduate student at Lesley, with assistance from award-winning children’s book creators Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet.

For this immersive genre study, third graders explored the craft and process of award-winning picture book biographies with a focus on character, context, theme, and backmatter. Their investigation included an in-depth look at four titles by Bryant and Sweet.
Then the children interviewed contemporary local subjects (town historian, high school athletes, authors, musicians, etc.). and wrote picture book biographies about their subjects. The class also interviewed Bryant and Sweet about their creative processes via Skype, and the two creators provided feedback on the students’ final drafts.
There are so many reasons I love this project!

—It gives teachers an innovative, engaging way to delve into nonfiction during their narrative writing unit. Currently, the curriculum in many schools calls for students to write personal narratives, an activity that many children dislike.

—Picture book biographies celebrate the lives and accomplishments of a diverse array of people. They also offer tie-ins to content area curriculum by serving as portals to the past and/or authentically modeling the process of doing science.

—Students have an opportunity to learn about members of their community and develop interview skills, which will serve them well in the future.

—Students learn that writing high-quality nonfiction is about much more than cobbling together facts they’ve plucked from books or encyclopedic databases. Research is a treasure hunt that can and should involve many different ways of gathering ideas and information. At its best, it’s a creative, self-driven process.

—The instruction in this unit focuses on “mentor processes” in addition to mentor texts. As a result, students get a sneak peek at the creators’ pre-writing activities. They also come to understand that a biographer’s selection of key moments to include in the narrative are influenced by his/her own personality, passions, beliefs, and view of the world.


I’d love to see more meaty, in-depth learning experiences like this one as part of the curriculum in schools all across the country.

Dawes, Erika Thulin, et al. (2019). Portraits of perseverance: Creating picturebook biographies with third graders. Language Arts, 96: 3, 153-166.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Nancy Castaldo

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Nancy Castaldo. Thank you, Nancy.

I often show a photo during my school visits of me as a little girl holding something very special, a little nonfiction book about planting seeds, called What Shall I Put In The Hole That I Dig? I loved that book so much that I still have it on my shelf.

That little girl grew up to write THE STORY OF SEEDS: FROM MENDEL’S GARDEN TO YOUR PLATE, AND HOW THERE’S MORE OF LESS TO EAT AROUND THE WORLD. I really dug deep (sorry) into my childhood curiosity to write that one.

When I learned that seeds were going extinct, just like animals, it woke up that long ago passion inside of me to learn more, like a dormant seed that was just waiting to germinate so many years later. In fact, I was surprised at my obsession for the topic.
I spent eight years, on and off, researching it until it was published. It was as if the idea for that book was just waiting to sprout until I grew up.

The subject of SNIFFER DOGS was not as much of a surprise to me as SEEDS was. There was nothing dormant about it. Dogs and I go way back. As an only child, my dogs were like siblings, and the first job I ever wanted was to be a veterinarian. In my early pursuit of that dream I took a pre-vet 4H class and volunteered in a local animal shelter. I’d bath and walk the dogs to socialize them for adoption.

I spent days with dogs, many of whom were rescues, during my SNIFFER DOG research. Hour and after hour was spent getting to know them, photographing them, and sharing their stories.  It was pure joy! And, it wasn’t just the dogs that made it fun, the handlers were pretty awesome, too. Creating that book was the culmination of so many things I love—dogs, photography, science, and writing. My dog, Gatsby, was even included in the pages.
Every book means something special to an author/illustrator. We put a little of ourselves into each creation. BEASTLY BRAINS: EXPLORING HOW ANIMALS THINK, TALK, AND FEEL is also rooted in my childhood.

I was fortunate to have a curious mom who filled her bookshelves with titles about all sorts of nonfiction subjects. One of her favorites was dolphins. I don’t know if there were any books published about dolphins that we didn’t have. I pored over those books and the family copies of National Geographic. As a middle school student, I used them for report research. As an adult children’s author, I went back to them to begin my research for BEASTLY BRAINS. The book is dedicated to my mom. She was the first person to make it clear to me that animals feel, think, and communicate.

We are all the product of our childhood. The books and media we are exposed to help shape us into the adults we will become. I am the daughter of parents who encouraged my curiosity. I was also  influenced by the books I read and the movies I watched, including Bambi, Doctor Doolittle, and The Jungle Book. The child in me who wanted to roam the jungle like Mowgli, talk to the animals like Doctor Doolittle, and protect animals, like Bambi, is in my head as I write.  After all, I’m still writing for that nature-loving kid.  

Nancy Castaldo didn’t become a veterinarian, but she certainly used her science degree. She has been writing books about the planet for over twenty years, including the Green Earth Book Award winner, THE STORY OF SEEDS. When Nancy isn’t creating STEM titles, she is often outdoors with her camera or blogging about other great books for STEM Tuesday or her own blog, Naturally Speaking. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter at @NCastaldoAuthor.