Saturday, February 9, 2013

An Open Letter to John Schu, Colby Sharp, Donalyn Miller, and Travis Jonker

Dear John Schu, Colby Sharp, Donalyn Miller, and Travis Jonker, and anyone else who wants to chime in,

Because I have tremendous respect for your passionate efforts to match the right book with the right child, I have a question for you. Okay, several questions.

It seems to me that most teachers and librarians feel quite comfortable matching readers and books of fiction, but much less confident about putting the right nonfiction book in the hands of a particular young reader.

During school visits and conferences or via email, educators ask me for advice about how to do this—more now than ever as Common Core becomes a way of life. I try to offer suggestions, broad guidelines or tips for “selling” the nonfiction books that I love, but I never feel like I’ve helped them as much as I want to.

We know that many elementary kids love collecting and sharing facts. They are drawn to the Guinness Book of World Records, for instance. But what would you recommend as a next step for these students? What kinds of nonfiction picture books would also fascinate them? What upper elementary or middle grade nonfiction is most likely to grab their attention? Or is there a gap in what we offer kids? Do we need a bridge, a stepping stone between the browsable fact books and rich, complex long-form nonfiction? If so, what might that bridge book look like?

Here’s another question: As an adult, I love some of the wonderful narrative nonfiction that is currently getting all the buzz in the kidlit world, but do kids love it? Do kids read it for pleasure or only if it’s a school assignment? And does making it a school assignment mean that children are bound to see these books as broccoli and Brussel’s sprouts rather than chocolate cake?

Forget all the gatekeepers. What are the best nonfiction books from a young reader’s point of view and how can we give them more of that?

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Melissa Stewart


  1. I do a book talk before every Readers Workshop in my third grade classroom. I use the book talk to feature books in my classroom library. I feature nonfiction/fiction about 50/50. Kids LOVE nonfiction. There are so many amazing options out there: National Geographic for Kids, Usborne, Who Would Win Series, Seymour Simon's science books, I could go on and on!

    I would love to see Mr. Schu feature more of these books on his blog to help me grow my classroom library's nonfiction section even more. :)

    Jen Hollis Smith

  2. my kids always viewed books as chocolate cake. They gorged on fiction and fantasy, manga and novels, and nonfiction of all kinds. A story is a story, whether it's about a kid learning to use his magic or a river otter or life aboard a river boat...
    A big part of what kids read and learn to enjoy is having parents who READ in the home. (Well, and turning off the TV, computer, etc.)If parents are eclectic readers, I think kids pick up on that.
    And I can't think of anything better for snow days than to have a stack of books, books on tape (with the book to follow) and steaming mugs of hot cocoa and just lay around on the rug and read and talk about what you're reading and ask questions and write your own stories and ...

  3. This is a great post on a great topic. I need to think more about it, but here is what is popping into my head right now:

    A log of the MG nonfiction books out there seem to be written for teacher and not the students. It seemed like a lot of the nonfiction books that were getting Newbery buzz were on topics that kids might not have a ton of interest in reading about.

    How about a kickbutt book about dirt-bikes? Snowboarding? Spiders? Dinosaurs?

    I know some of these books exists, but just like in fiction, if we are not writing books that kids will want to read, they are not going to read them. If they don't read them, they won't get any better at reading them.

  4. I agree, Jen. So if half the kids prefer reading nonfiction, why aren't half of the trade books published on nonficiton toopics? Because nonficiton doesn't sell as well. After all, publishing is a business. So why don't people buy more nonfiction books for kids? That's the real question.

  5. I agree, Colby. So how can we get the message to publishers? They publish books that they think will win awards because awards = prestige + sales. I feel like kids are getting lost in the shuffle. How can we chnage this?

  6. Hi Melissa, I'm late to the party but thought I would weigh in with a parent's perspective. When it comes to nonfiction and what to recommend, I think you really have to know the child's interest and passions to make a good recommendation. 500 different kids might love a particular "Magic Treehouse" book. Another 1,000 might love "Diary of a Wimply Kid." But a kid who is passionate about mummies, may not want to read a nonfiction book about Mars. However, my experience is that once I know what a child's passion is, I can quickly come up with a lot of great nonfiction recommendations. Maybe nonfiction is harder to recommend because teachers and librarians have to really know the child and his/her interests to make an effective recommendation? Just a thought. Kirsten Larson

  7. Great questions! I'm with you - it is indeed a big jump from browsable fact books to something like BOMB. I like that you, as a nonfiction writer, are thinking about this topic. Often I see students go from Guinness Books to other high interest topics - monsters, cars, UFOs, ghosts. Here are some current popular titles:
    Spooky Cemeteries
    Loch Ness Monster: The Unsolved Mystery
    Swords: An Artists Devotion

    All of these tend to be either short books or a larger book with short stories on the same topic. I think a big part of the whole equation for some students is length of text.

    There are a number of Sibert winning books that don't circulate like I wish they would. It would be daunting for many students to start a book like BOMB. However, that book has something that makes my life easier - an amazing first page and a half. I read that to students and the book circulated ever since. That book was written like a spy novel, with plenty of intrigue. That's a style that's appealing. To put it bluntly, the more they can look and feel cool, the more students will read them. That can be a tall order.

    Student interest in nonfiction is so tied to their personal interests - I think because of this, readers advisory in nonfiction tends to be "what are you interested in?", more than fiction, where librarians might be trying to sell a good story. I think the trouble is in finding an appealing topic that hasn't been done to death and writing a thrilling story.

    If there was anything like a bridge from Guinness, it would probably be something with brief chapters on high interest topics. Things like that exist - most of the time as series nonfiction - but those books are often pretty cookie cutter, and are hardly ever given any critical praise.

    Not sure if I answered any questions, but those are my thoughts on the matter - thanks for getting this discussion going!

  8. We are currently reading, evaluating, and writing nonfiction texts--particularly Seymour Simon and Nic Bishop. My students love the unique visual images that accompany their texts and the unusual facts both authors include in their books.
    As my students' confidence and interest in nonfiction grows, I see them branching out to try new books. The kids are passing around National Geographic's Kids Everything books right now. My students recognize more nonfiction authors and series now, which gives them increased confidence when selecting books in the school library, too.
    As much as I love books like Bomb and Amelia Lost and others, these books don't seem to have wide appeal. I agree with other commenters here that nonfiction is tied to readers' interests or curiosity.

  9. Isn't that how we as adults look for non fiction to read, too? We look to find answers, we look for what we're curious about. Kids aren't any different.
    I know I teach high school and that leads me to different kinds of conferencing opportunities with my students, but I listen for clues and then I plant the seed. ("Hey, if you really think this topic is interesting, you might want to check this essay/book/magazine/article/website out.") Nothing makes me happier than when they come back to talk about it more.
    Looking at the 1st grade reader in my house, he seems to be fascinated with knowing EVERYTHING. Since someone else mentioned Magic Tree House, I'll share that he went on a spree reading through the non fiction companion books for them. (Brilliant idea to do that, really.) He is a sucker for library displays - he grabbed a huge picture book about scorpions because he knew the cover would gross me out. (It did.) I listen to his clues (and so do his dad and grandparents) and non fiction reads about the things that are going on around him seem to kind of show up. (Looking for a good book to explain how bones heal since my cousin broke her leg.)

  10. I also believe that students are often drawn to the visual cover, but then abandon the book because it may be too difficult. We need to make sure we are teaching students how to read non-fiction.

  11. I think a lot of middle school students (6th-8th grade) are reading to escape, so I do see the amount of nonfiction reading drop yearly for this group. Also, nonfiction reading is often more of an assignment. I love nonfiction myself, but the topics on which the "literary" nonfiction books are written are often not ones that interest my students. There might be two students a year who really want to read Yellow Death or I'll Pass for Your Comrade. Straight chunks of unbroken text are the biggest killer-- if a nonfiction book is more than 100 pages, it's very difficult to sell!

  12. That's a interesting comment, Ms. Yingling--"reading to escape". That may well be a distinction between younger children and tweens/teens. I wonder if there are things to do to make MG more enticing. Shorter chunks of text? Fewer pages/shorter texts? Create literary texts with more engaging topics? What would those topics be?

  13. Try writing books that have interesting facts or figures...think Malcolm Gladwell for kids. This type of a format could really hook kids to books. I know that there are really many teachers looking for high-quality texts that they can place in the hands of readers, but many have to resort to the opposite that come from programs. Finding the niche could really transform non-fiction reading in schools and at home.

    -John Scovill

  14. I am late to this but I do think that the more teachers are aware of the great variety of nonfiction that is available and the more they share it the more students will pick it up. I find that some types work well with younger children such as the National Geographic readers because there is engaging text but also things like jokes or fun facts. Books like How they Croaked or other books that have chapters/sections on different subsets of a topic are nice because you can read out of order or just a few sections at a time and circle back which is nice for readers that may not want to read nonfiction like you would a novel. I know humor grabs students and finding how the text connects with a students daily life or current culture seems to have an appeal as well. But ultimate like Donalyn said the more students are familiar with nonfiction authors the more confidence they will have in searching out books in the library.

  15. I still welcome comments, so thanks for your thoughts, Alyson. I completely agree with you. The good news is that I can see a significant difference in how teachers and students think about an interact with nonfiction since I first wrote this post. Common Core has its issues, but it has made educators and students more aware of what today's nonfiction has to offer.