Monday, January 20, 2020

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This fabulous picture book won the NCTE's Orbis Pictus Award back in November. Will it also win the Sibert Medal at the ALA Youth Media Awards Next week? We'll soon find out.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Overlooked Benefits of Expository Nonfiction

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay, written by the uber-talented award-winning author Jess Keating, originally appeared on November 15, 2017.

As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I experience a lot of variety when it comes to readers. Some kids prefer stories and narrative, while others embrace facts and figures. Both are equally valid, but as a society, we often send the message that stories and storytelling are the key to connecting with others. How do we connect with friends or share parts of ourselves? We tell stories. It’s something we’ve been doing since the dawn of humanity.


But what about the kids whose strengths don’t connect them like this? 

When we portray narrative as the most powerful way of connecting to each other, we’re leaving out a lot of kids. To dig into this, we need to look at the hidden benefits of expository nonfiction. To avoid generalizing kids and their tastes, I’ll use myself as an example.

I was a “nonfiction” kid. STEM-focused. Analytical. I loved facts and figures, and clear diagrams labeling what something was, how it lived, and so on. Don’t get me wrong—I loved stories (and still do!). But stories aren’t as easy to share, especially when you’re learning the ins and outs of your social world. If you’ve ever seen someone fumble the punch line of a joke (or done so yourself!), you know that even short narratives have their dangers. Some kids intuitively grasp narrative and become storytellers from a young age. But what about the rest? 

In contrast, expository nonfiction is easy to share. And when something is easy to share, it has incredible social benefits.

Think of how you feel when you’re attending a cocktail party, or some function where you don’t know a lot of people, but want to make a good impression. That’s what it’s like every day for kids, especially at school. The stakes are high. They want and need to connect socially, but for those STEM-focused, “facts and figures” kids, narrative is easy to botch. It can also require long stretches of time, uninterrupted. 


Enter expository nonfiction, to save the day. Well crafted expository nonfiction is all punch line:

“Did you know sea cucumbers breathe out their butts?”

This is a fact I share with many kids, and their response is instantaneous: they love it. But more than that, it becomes immediately apparent that they want to share it. It’s neat. It’s fun. It’s just edgy enough to sound cool. For those kids, this simple, goofy fact is more than a fact: it’s social ammunition. It’s a doorway to open a conversation, make an impression with another kid, or catapult to a belly laugh with someone. 

It’s a way to express some part of themselves, or their personality, that’s handy, simple to share, and extremely adaptable. Different kids will embrace different subjects, and that’s perfect. There should be enough expository nonfiction to fit every kid’s personality and interests.

By giving kids quality expository nonfiction, we give them access to more than just facts: we give them confidence. Confidence to start a discussion or join in on one. Confidence to connect with someone who has a similar mindset. A solid tidbit that embodies a kid’s personality can be just as engaging as a new outfit, fancy shoes, or a well-timed story shared around the lunch table. 

As a child, I felt a rush of excitement when I learned some new fact or figure. That fact was mine. I owned it. I couldn’t wait to share it, and more than that, I felt like I was participating in real science, just by knowing something and passing it along. It’s a remarkable feeling for a kid. 

Confidence is great, but what else? We’re also sending another important message when we share expository nonfiction with students. We’re telling kids that facts alone can be enough. No window dressing, no intros or poignant endings. We’re saying that facts can be wondrous enough to be meaningful. Truth, at its core, is more than enough and deserves our attention.

This might seem like a small point, but consider that this is how many kids see the world. By not focusing enough attention on expository nonfiction, are we tacitly telling kids who connect with it that their strengths and perspectives don’t matter?   

By invalidating or underestimating expository nonfiction, we also invalidate and underestimate the kids that speak this language: the language of facts, figures, statistics, and patterns. Every kid should feel like the lens through which they see the world is valid, and better yet, exciting. Expository nonfiction validates kids as seekers in their world, and encourages them to pursue their goals (particularly in STEM fields). It shows kids that their worldview is valuable, and just as worthy of attention and interest as that of any other kid.

Another hidden benefit of quality expository nonfiction lies in its essence: with it, we say that some things are knowable. To an adult, this isn’t that big of a deal. But think back to when you were a kid. How much of your life was really knowable? With friend dramas, teachers, parents, difficult school subjects, and the stressors of life, what could you depend on no matter what? Suddenly, a solid truth feels like a hug. 

Life can be tough and uncertain for a lot of kids, and solid facts and figures can provide a foothold in an otherwise rough climb. With STEM-focused expository nonfiction, we’re showing kids that something can be trusted and learned through a reliable method. Chimpanzees use tools. Earth orbits around the Sun. Every known thing builds a picture of reality that can help stabilize a tumultuous inner world.

Not all kids will relate to this, but for those who do, there’s a quiet confidence to be found in knowing how trees release oxygen for the rest of us to breathe. Expository nonfiction can be a social tool, a validating perspective, and an emotional balance.

I meet expository-loving kids every day. Sometimes they’re quiet. Sometimes they’re class clowns. But all of them deserve to feel like their strengths and world view are valuable. Representation matters, in all facets of the word. By including expository nonfiction on our bookshelves, we’re one step closer.

As a zoologist turned middle grade and picture book author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. She is the author of the award-winning and quirky ‘World of Weird Animals’ series, which kicked off with Pink is for Blobfish, the picture book biography Shark Lady, and middle-grade novel series Elements of Genius. Jess has a Master’s of Science, a love of nerdy documentaries, and a pile of books threatening to take over her house. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sibert Smackdown! There’s Still Time

The American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards are a little less than 2 weeks away. I can’t wait to find who the winners will be, can you? 

As a nonfiction lover, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal is my favorite award of all. And that’s why I started the Sibert Smackdown four years ago. It’s a fun activity for students in grades 3-8. And there’s still time for you and your school to participate. 
Check out this post for all the details, including my list of recommended titles. I hope you’ll join us. Please use the Twitter hashtag #SibertSmackdown to share what you and your students are doing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Delightfully Disgusting Sneak Peek

I’m excited to kick off 2020 by sharing something I’m pretty excited about—the cover AND three spreads from my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses. 

This book has been a looooong time in the making--23 years in all, so I can’t wait for it to officially enter the world on June 23, 2020. With 112 pages of fascinating information, it’s perfect for summer reading. 

I’m thrilled with the amazing photos National Geographic was able to track down. And I love the design. It’s so colorful and dynamic. I think kids (and adults) will love it.

Here’s the publisher’s description:
Get ready to be totally grossed out as you discover the incredibly icky ways animals eat, make their homes, and defend themselves.

From ants to zebras, you’ll discover some seriously strange animal behaviors. Slurp up soupy insides with houseflies, spit sticky saliva to build nests with birds, and fend off predators with poop-flinging caterpillars and farting snakes. And that’s just the tip of the dung pile! These yucky habits may seem surprising to us, but they’re totally normal for these animals. In fact, their survival depends on them.

Lively text, incredible photography, and all kinds of fun features make this book a must read for curious kids. Ready to chew some fingernails with cockroaches? Dive into the disgusting world of animals!
And the good news is that you can pre-order it now.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My 10-ish Favorite STEM Books of 2019

Today I'm finishing up my posts for 2019 with my annual list of favorite STEM books.
This year’s list includes two titles from my #SibertSmackdown list:

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

And ten additional titles:

Beware of the Crocodile by Martin Jenkins

Did You Burp? How to Ask Questions . . .or Not! by April Pulley Sayre adn Leeza Hernandez

Handimals: Animals in Art and Nature by Silvia Lopez, illustrated by Guideo Daniele

Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born by Miranda Paul and Jason Chin

Trees: A Rooted History by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays! I'll be back with more posts in 2020.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 11

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format, text scaffolding, and text density, text structure, voice, language devices. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m going to conclude this series by talking about point of view.

Traditionally, nonfiction for children was written with third-person narration, but in recent years, people have begun experimenting. Today second-person narration is becoming increasingly popular in expository nonfiction.

As you read the following excerpt from Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, notice how addressing readers with “you” makes the information relevant to their lives and their world:

"Right now there are more microbes living on your skin than there are people on Earth, and there are ten or even a hundred times as many as that in your stomach."

Now take a look at a few lines from Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine:
"Can you imagine how you’d look if we added some bones to your spine?
What if your vertebrae didn’t stop at your rear end?

What if they kept going? YOU’D HAVE A TAIL!

Tails are made of vertebrae. Lots of animals have tails. They wag on happy dogs and sweep side to side to help alligators swim through the water."

According to Levine, as she crafted her manuscript, she looked for ways to “make learning interactive, relevant, and fun.” She thought about how “children enjoy being addressed directly and being active participants in responding to questions that make them think, especially about silly possibilities.”

When you think of nonfiction with a first-person point of view, personal narratives like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka or The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert probably come to mind. But authors are also trying some innovative ways of utilizing first person narration.

One of my favorite examples is Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth. It’s an expository autobiographical meditation in which Roth explores her own creative process by comparing her artistic technique to the way a male bowerbird constructs a beautiful, extravagant nest to attract a mate. The book’s structure and format is absolutely brilliant, and the artwork is stunning.

To help students gain a better understand of how authors use point of view, read aloud and discuss portions of Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons, Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me, and Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson. Then organize students into small groups and give each team a packet of sticky notes and three to five expository nonfiction books with various points of view. Possibilities include:

Birds of Every Color by Sneed B. Collard III

Earth by the Numbers by Steve Jenkins

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt LaMothe

Trees: A Rooted History by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell
Then invite students to classify the books by point of view and label each one with a sticky note.

When the teams complete this task, encourage each group to rotate to a different table, leaving their books behind. Students should review the books at their new table and discuss how the previous group classified the books. If they disagree with the previous group, they should add a second sticky note explaining their rationale.

Repeat this process until each group has reviewed all the books. Then have a brief class discussion about books that have multiple sticky notes on them.

Friday, December 6, 2019

No More All About Books!

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s post originally appeared on May 18, 2018.

For many years, all-about books have been the go-to informational writing project in elementary classrooms across the U.S. But I think it’s time to re-consider that assignment. Before I explain why, here’s a little bit of background.
In December 2017, I introduced the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, a system for classifying the wide and wonderful world of nonfiction books for children. It received such a great response that Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) invited me to create this video for his blog and SLJ invited me to write this article for their May 2018 issue. I’m currently writing a book about it with literacy educator Marlene Correia. It’s due out in Fall 2020.

For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on two categories—Traditional Nonfiction and Expository Literature. Traditional nonfiction provides a general introduction to a broad topic. These survey (all about) books, which are often published in large series, feature clear, concise, straightforward language and usually have a description text structure.

Traditional nonfiction books can be a great place to start the research process because they provide an overview of a topic, but they aren’t the best mentor texts for producing engaging, finely-crafted informational writing. For that, expository literature, which emphasizes depth rather than breadth of coverage, is a better choice.

This has nothing to do with how talented the writers are and everything to do with the inherent differences of writing about a broad topic versus a focused one. Simply put, broad topics limit a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich, engaging text.

When writers take an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept, they can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content. They can experiment with voice and language devices. Because writers of traditional nonfiction must cover a huge amount of information in a limited number of words, they don’t have the same kind of opportunities to delight as well as inform.
When we ask children to write all about books, we’re giving them a handicap right off the bat. Students will be most successful when they choose a topic they’re passionate about and zoom in on a specific question or unique perspective that allows them to use the nonfiction craft moves they’ve learned to the best of their ability. Let’s give our young writers a chance to shine.