Friday, December 19, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.
She thinks I'm famous enough to be featured on currency. LOL!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Behind the Books: Thinking About Nonfiction Structure, Part 1

I’ve blogged about structure many times. About 5 years ago, I tried to come up with my own categories. I was constantly revising my ideas.

Then Common Core came along and presented educators with six distinct groupings—description, sequence/order, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, and problem & solution. I’ve tried again and again to sort existing books into these categories with mixed success.

In the end, what I’ve realized is that while these categories may reflect the structures (at least some) educators think students should learn to write, they aren’t necessarily in line with the nonfiction children’s books being published.

For example, right now narrative nonfiction is king in the kidlit world. It wins most of the awards, so editors are eager to publish more. Who can blame them? They work for companies with owners or stockholders who want to make money, and for the most part, award-winning books sell more copies.

So we have lots and lots and lots of narrative nonfiction. In fact, narrative nonfiction is so plentiful and diverse that I divide it into five subcategories. And yet all narrative nonfiction is just one subgroup within CCSS’s “sequence” category.

Think about it. All narrative nonfiction has a sequence structure. The books present information as a sequence of events. There are also some expository books written with a sequence structure, so I think it’s safe to say that something like two-thirds of all nonfiction trade books have this one structure.

Sequence Books

Chronological narrative

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Buried Alive by Elaine Scott

The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley

Marvelous Mattie by Emily Arnold McCully

Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

Pop: The Invention of Bubble Gum by Megan McCarthy

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley


Episodic narrative

Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Brave Girl by Michelle Markel

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

Braided narrative
Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson

Circle narrative
Coral Reef by Jason Chin

A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Journey narrative
If Stones Could Speak by Marc Aronson

Lost Treasure of the Inca by Peter Lourie

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery

Saving the Ghost of the Mountain by Sy Montgomery

Bugged: How Insects Changes the World by Sarah Albee

Dessert Designers: Creations You Can Make and Eat by Dana Meachen Rau 

Get Outside by Jane Drake and Ann Love

Here Is the Tropical Rain Forest by Madeleine Dunphy

The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes by Doug Stillinger

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart

Older Than the Stars by Karen C. Fox

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos

I’m going to talk more about the other five CCSS-structure categories and provide sample titles in January. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS 2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.

Try these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Behind the Books: Classifying Nonfiction Is Messy

Since October, I’ve been talking about ways to classify nonfiction in an effort to help both readers and writers understand the wide array of exciting, dynamic books currently on the market and how those titles can inform writing instruction.
After thinking deeply and reading widely, I currently see four main types of nonfiction (survey, specialized, concept, biography/autobiography) and three styles (narrative, expository, persuasive). I have sorted lots of great books according to this system, and I think that doing so has been a useful exercise. I’ve learned a lot while doing it.

But here’s something important to consider. If someone else tried to sort the same books into the same categories, they might not get the same results. And beyond that, some other smart, knowledgeable people would probably disagree with my two-tiered, seven-category classification system.
At first, this worried me a lot. I really believed that if I could come up with the right system, anyone should be able to use it and get the same results. I know that’s the kind of system educators would like, too. Afterall, it’s easier to teach.

Luckily, I came to my senses while attending a great presentation given by author-educator Cynthia Jenson-Elliott at the SCBWI annual summer conference in Los Angeles.

At the beginning of the session, Cindy suggested a nine-category grid for classifying nonfiction. Ugh. I felt overwhelmed and anxious, but at least some of the category labels were familiar—narrative nonfiction, concept, biography/autobiography, persuasive. I trusted Cindy, so I decided to open my mind and see where she was headed.

Cindy had lugged about 100 books to the session and pre-sorted them into her nine categories. Our task was to choose a pile, examine the books, and decide if we agreed with where she had placed them. If not, we should explain why on a sticky note and move the book to the pile we thought made more sense. Afterward, a few people had a chance to defend their choices to the group.

 A LOT of books moved around during this activity. Some moved back and forth, back and forth, as people disagreed. It was fascinating, especially because some of the books we were sorting had been written by participants.

At the end of the session, Cindy gathered us all together for two final thoughts.

1.    It can be challenging to classify books because some cross or blend categories. Teachers need to get used to that messiness.

2.    Ironclad classification is less important than identifying how a particular book can be used most effectively as a mentor text. A teacher’s goal should be to build a collection with a few books that are good models for teaching similes, a few that can be used to show strong verbs, a few that make excellent use of alliteration, etc.

These ideas may seem obvious. But for me, it was the right message at the right moment. It felt liberating.

Does that mean there’s little or no value trying to classify books? Absolutely not. There’s much to be learned from the process—even if the results aren’t satisfying. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS 2-LS2-2. Develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants.

Try these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.
Frog life cycle

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Behind the Books: Looking at Nonfiction Types and Styles Together

If you’ve been following my Wednesday posts for the last few weeks, you know that I’ve been thinking about various ways of classifying nonfiction and how the categories are related to an author’s intention(s) as he/she is writing a book.

Just to recap . . . According to my current way of thinking, there are four nonfiction types—survey, specialized, concept, and biography/autobiography. And there are three nonfiction writing styles—narrative, expository, persuasive.

So here’s a question: How are these nonfiction types and writing styles related to and/or influenced by one another?

Here are my thoughts, and I fully admit that they are still evolving.

When creating The Guinness Book of World’s Records or The Time for Kids Big Book of Why, the goal was to share snippets of information that kids would devour. These books cover a lot of ground and are meant to appeal to a wide swath of upper-elementary kids, including reluctant readers. So the publishers developed survey books with a fast-fact expository style.

I think it’s safe to say that all survey books have an expository style. At least I can’t think of any that don’t. Can you?

When I was writing Feathers: Not Just for Flying, my goal was to describe the surprising ways some birds use their feathers and to explain how their unusual feather-related behaviors help them survive in their habitats. My topic was focused, but I’d be sharing information about many different birds. The best choice was a specialized book with a facts-plus expository writing style.

Do specialized books always have an expository style? No way. My book A Place for Butterflies is a specialized book with a persuasive style, and Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery is a specialized book with a narrative style.

Remember the ten specialized books I shared back on October 15? Here they are sorted by writing style:

Specialized, Expository
My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

Specialized, Narrative
Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

Plastics Ahoy! by Patricia Newman

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell

Specialized, Persuasive
Energy Island by Allan Drummond

Frog Song by Brenda G. Zuiberson

When I was writing the three companion books When Rain Falls, Under the Snow, and Beneath the Sun, I had a dual purpose in mind. (1) I wanted readers to understand an abstract concept—that an animal’s body features and behaviors help it survive in its environment. (2) I wanted the books to work as bedtime stories.

To achieve my first goal, a concept book was the obvious choice. Many (most?) concept books have an expository style, but for my books to work well at bedtime, a narrative style would work better. After much trial and error, I discovered that showing the passage of time and crafting an ending that linked strongly back to the beginning created a satisfying circle, making the books read like stories.

Remember the ten concept books I shared back on October 15? Here they are sorted by writing style. Interestingly, both of the Concept, Narrative books below feature circle stories, just like my three books. I think this is a reliable pattern.

Concept, Expository
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine

Just a Second by Steve Jenkins

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals’ Lives by Lola Schaefer

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

Concept, Narrative
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

Last but not least is the biography/autobiography category.

Because these books are the story of a person’s life, they are generally written with a narrative style. Creating scenes helps readers feel like they know the main character and understand his/her actions. But some biographies/autobiographies are also meant to persuade readers. These books have a combination narrative-persuasive style. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone is a perfect example.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS 1-LS3-1. Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.

Try these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS 1-LS1-2. Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help offspring survive.

Try these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs: