Monday, December 10, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Patricia Newman

In my Sibert Honor acceptance speech for Sea Otter Heroes, I mentioned a teacher who once defined nonfiction as the facts and fiction as the heart. I’ll be honest; she hurt my feelings.

Written like a mystery, Sea Otter Heroes explores the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know. Marine biologist Brent Hughes connected the dots to discover endangered sea otters are responsible for the health of a seagrass ecosystem. Seagrass sequesters carbon, provides a nursery for our food supply as it matures, and calms the waves that pound our coastlines. Now consider the new White House proposal to gut the Endangered Species Act. Without protection, sea otters and the benefits they provide could be lost to us and future generations. I want my readers to understand the effects of our actions.

My books—part biography, part science adventure—tell inspiring true stories of scientists who make a difference. I hope these stories empower children and show them their voices matter, which the Common Core might tempt readers to identify as the author’s purpose. But my purpose goes beyond “persuade, inform, or entertain.” Just as fiction authors write about themes that resonate with them, so too do nonfiction authors. My themes first have to light my fire with a personal connection, a narrative, and a Wow! factor.

Standing in front of the soon-to-be
completed performing arts center. The
blue arrow points to me.
I was raised to care for myself, my family, and my community. My husband calls me a professional volunteer. Building a performing arts center at my kids’ former high school is my latest project. Time commitment:  ten-plus years.

Hopping my way to victory
on July 4th sack race
As a kid, I spent a lot of time outside. I played kickball in the street, hiked, ice skated, built snow tunnels, rode my bike, fished, planted trees, and sailed on Malletts Bay (hello fellow Vermonters). I collected bugs and pressed fall leaves for my season-deprived friend in Florida. I even read outside.

Me (right) examining the skull of a long-dead
elephant with a guide in Kenya
Outside was part of me. Clearly there’s a connection between my love of the outdoors, my urge to volunteer, and my string of environmental titles. But there’s more to it. Like fiction, nonfiction comes from emotion. For me, that usually means feelings of injustice and confusion. Injustice over problems such as mountains of marine debris or elephant and rhino poaching. Confusion over how my time (and money) might be most effective.

My challenge is to simultaneously tell the truth, inspire, and offer hope for myself and my readers. In my books hope is synonymous with science.

I used to volunteer for the San Diego Zoo, and traveled to Kenya on a safari led by one of the zoo’s geneticists. During the trip I became fascinated by elephants’ social relationships and cognitive capabilities. Eavesdropping on Elephants explores the value of listening to them in order to save them from extinction. I’ve added QR codes to the narrative to bring kids into the forest to see and hear the elephants as the scientists did. The closer kids get to the wild the more they will care.

As a zoo volunteer, I understood how zoos promote conservation, but many people don’t. Zoo Scientists to the Rescue braids together three fascinating success stories about endangered species and the zoo scientists who protect them. The scientists go to incredible lengths to save orangutans, black-footed ferrets, and black rhinos, but they started out as kids who loved animals. Readers identify with that. One mother wrote to say, “My son is now more than ever convinced that he wants to study lit a fire in him with this book. For that, I am grateful!”

Ultimately, my books meet an emotional need within me. But if they also resonate with readers, I know kids have found the heart I’ve woven through the pages.

Patricia Newman writes books that inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as SEA OTTER HEROES, EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS, and NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE encourage readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Her author visits are described as "phenomenal,” "fantastic," "mesmerizing," "passionate," and "inspirational." Visit her at

Friday, December 7, 2018

“It reads just like fiction.”

I’m delighted to see a noticeable uptick in the number of nonfiction books being reviewed online by educators. That’s progress! Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart—and the hearts of so many young readers.

But as an unabashed nonfiction lover, perhaps even a nonfiction cheerleader, the joy in my heart instantly plummets, becoming a twisted knot in my stomach, whenever a nonfiction book review includes the words, “It reads just like fiction.”

What exactly does that mean?

I think the reviewer is intending these five words as a compliment, but let me ask you: What’s wrong with a nonfiction book reading like nonfiction? After all, that’s what it is.

Don’t we want kids to take pride in who they are?

Don’t we encourage students to celebrate their differences?

Shouldn’t we treat the books they read with the same respect?

Please remember that the language we use affects the way children think about the world and about themselves. It’s so, so important to honor and encourage the reading choices of all students.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

20 Great Expository Nonfiction Read Alouds

The following list includes some of my favorite expository nonfiction titles that are perfect for sharing in 10 minutes or less.
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine and T.S. Spookytooth (Millbrook Press, 2013)

Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014)

Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor (Paulsen/Penguin Random House, 2015)

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006)

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson and Gennady Spirin (Holt, 2013)
A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg (Greenwillow, 2017)

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian and Barbara Hirsch Lember (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000)
Just One Bite by Lola M. Schaefer and Geoff Waring (Chronicle, 2010)
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward and Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2014)
Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (Candlewick, 2017)

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell (Boyds Mills Press, 2014)

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith and Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree, 2011)

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018)

Rodent Rascals by Roxie Munro (Holiday House, 2018)

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (words & pictures, 2017)

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

With a Friend by Your Side by Barbara Kerley (National Geographic, 2015)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Sandra Neil Wallace

I have a secret to share, and it’s the reason why I write nonfiction. I want to know what makes people afraid. More importantly, I want to know why, despite extreme fear that may include the possibility of death—they face that fear and go on to lead brave lives.

I’ve come to realize that this motive is personal—that I’m looking for a blueprint on life in the hopes that I haven’t strayed and that I can become the best human being I can be. (Even though there’s this fear inside me that I might fail.)

This obsession began when I realized that my family background involved trauma and some of the worst kinds of fear. Some of my relatives never recovered from this past. Others—despite carrying emotional scar tissue—went on to lead fulfilling and brave lives.

BABE CONQUERS THE WORLD: The Legendary Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Calkins Creek, 2014)
That curiosity to study people who remain resilient in their quest, regardless of the obstacles thrown in their path, attracted me to write about pioneering athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

In researching Babe, I learned about her detractors—including male sports reporters who didn’t believe that women should compete in track and field.
Reporting on the
Those sexist views churned up the anxiety and vulnerability I’d felt as an ESPN sportscaster in the 1990s when my male colleagues didn’t believe that a woman should report on the NFL, the NBA or the NHL. They did everything possible to silence my voice in hopes that I would quit. I didn’t.

Neither did Babe. Seeking Babe’s own voice in the personal letters she wrote throughout her career, I discovered her vulnerabilities and her courage. I was able to channel my own vulnerability into the narrative.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How ERNIE BARNES Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2018)
Choosing a subject for my first picture book biography was easy. I’d learned of Ernie Barnes while working as a sports announcer. I never forgot his unwavering self-confidence in the face of adversity, his strength in maintaining his identity as an artist while playing in the NFL, and his resourcefulness in navigating both worlds, refusing to adhere to stereotypes.

Years after leaving ESPN, when I read that he had died, my heart sank. Why hadn’t I written about him right away? The truth was, I didn’t know if I was “visual” enough to write in the picture book biography format. Instead, I spent years crafting long-form nonfiction with book lengths ranging up to 352 pages.

Ernie Barnes, courtesy of The Ernie Barnes Family Trust
But when I stumbled on an article about Ernie’s artwork from the Los Angeles Olympic Games, I knew I had to write his story. This time, my nonfiction backlist gave me the courage to try the picture book biography format. And I soon realized that broadcast journalism nurtured in me a deeply visual sense mechanism. I think in pictures and scenes, much like a cinematographer.

Ernie thought in pictures, too. He saw life as a canvas in motion connecting humanity. I see story as a propulsion of bold, litmus-test moments spiraling toward truth. Picture book biographies resonate with me because they form an immediate connection with the subject’s soul. Writing them can often consume as much time as lengthier nonfiction, because each word in a picture book is weighted as heavily as an entire sentence or paragraph in long-form nonfiction.

FIRST GENERATION: 36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018)
My newest book, First Generation, co-written with Rich Wallace, is my most personal nonfiction book yet.

The jumping-off point was my own journey toward citizenship in 2016 and the ostracization of so many immigrants and refugees with whom I took the oath during our swearing-in ceremony. I wanted their stories to be front and center, but I also needed to examine my own feelings around citizenship, being first generation, and the daughter of a refugee and concentration camp survivor from the former Yugoslavia.

I knew right away what emotions and experiences to look for in researching our subjects, so for this book, curating was in my DNA. Yet, being a collective biography, we needed to achieve the heft of story through brevity and in what I call, bio-sketches.

To get at the core of the story, our mission statement revolved around one simple question: If we’re in a cafeteria sitting next to an eleven-year-old, what is it about the person we’re writing about that the child will never forget?

A powerful and unexpected research tool became photographs. My mother cherishes the few images that my grandmother brought with them on their boat journey from Europe, and we discovered the same attachment with many of our subjects. So, we selected for each person two moments in time or two images—like on Instagram—that defined their lives, which I talked about in an interview with School Library Journal.

Growing up, I didn’t talk very much about my family’s traumatic past. The truth is, the laughter from my classmates, when they heard my relatives speak English with heavy accents, stung—a lot.
I'm the kid on the right, sitting on
my great-grandmother's lap
Today, it’s a privilege to shine a light on the truth and on my life. I know that I am who I am because of the strength and perseverance of my relatives and their unwavering will to survive. Ultimately, First Generation lets immigrant kids know that they are valued and appreciated. For kids whose families have been here for a long time, it helps forge connections by seeing how much we have in common, like the need to be safe, to belong, and to be loved.

Nonfiction takes courage, honesty, transparency, and a tenacity to uncover the truth. There is no hiding behind a subject. We dig deep into research and our souls and present true stories to the most valued audience on the planet: young readers.

Will Wrobel Photography
Sandra Neil Wallace grew up in a home where several languages were spoken, so oral storytelling became a tradition and perhaps the reason she became obsessed with interviewing people and writing down their stories. Her nonfiction books for young readers span all ages and focus on people who break barriers and change the world. As the daughter of a refugee and concentration camp survivor, Sandra was the first generation in her family to attend university. She became a reporter, anchoring the network news before shattering the glass ceiling in sports television as the first woman to host an NHL broadcast on national TV.
Sandra’s nonfiction titles have been selected as an NCTE Orbis Pictus winner, ALA Notable Books, the Chicago Public Library's "Best of the Best", Booklist's Editors' Choice, and Bank Street College's Best Children’s Books of the Year. She became a U.S. citizen in 2016 and advocates for social responsibility as a member of the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership and advisor to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College. She lives in New Hampshire and Maine with her husband, author Rich Wallace.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Sibert Smackdown 2018/2019

The Sibert Smackdown is an activity intended to build enthusiasm for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, which is given each year as part of the American Library Association’s annual Youth Media Awards. It focuses on picture books because they are more manageable to read in a school setting.

Here’s how it works.

Students in grades 3-8 read the nonfiction picture books on your class’s Mock Sibert list. You can use the list I’ve compiled below or you can create your own list. My list includes titles that have strong kid appeal, will promote good discussions, and can be used as mentor texts in writing workshop. They reinforce the research techniques and craft moves included in most State ELA standards.  
Adventures to School: Real-Life Journeys of Students from Around the World by Miranda and Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Isabel Muñoz

All that Trash: The Story of the 1987 Garbage Barge and Our Problem with Stuff by Meghan McCarthy


Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went From the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Katherine Roy

Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth by Carrie Pearson, illustrated by Susan Swan

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorrell, illustrated by Frané Lessac

Will some of these books be named on Monday, January 28, 2019, when the Sibert Medal committee announces its winner and honor titles at the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony? Who knows, but I do have a pretty good track record.

You may also want to consider titles on the Mock Sibert list created by Alyson Beecher or the narrative and expository Mock Orbis Pictus lists created by Michele Knott.  Anderson’s Bookshop has also created a Mock Sibert list that includes picture books as well as middle grade titles.

After reading your Mock Sibert titles, students choose their two favorites and use this worksheet, which you can download from my website, to evaluate and compare the books before they vote. The worksheet features a kid-friendly version of the criteria used by the real Sibert committee.

I also suggest using the guidelines developed by former Sibert judge Melody Allen. They are available here, here, and here.

I’d also recommend reading this post, which describes how some educators have modified or enhanced the Sibert Smackdown! in the past. It’s so important to create learning experiences that are perfect for your particular students.

I’d love to hear how your students are progressing, and so would other participating teachers and librarians. Please use the Twitter hashtag #SibertSmackdown to share what you are doing.

Happy Reading!