Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Expository Nonfiction: Some Students Prefer It!

Last fall, I wrote a series of blog posts with one goal in mind: To raise awareness about research into children’s nonfiction reading preferences. Why? Because the results are surprising.

In recent years, narrative nonfiction has been basking in the limelight. It receives more starred reviews, garners more awards, and ends up on more classroom and library bookshelves than expository nonfiction  because gatekeepers—the adults who make up the children’s literature community—tend to have a natural love of stories and storytelling. That’s why they chose jobs as librarians, literacy coaches, reading specialists, editors, book reviewers, etc. rather than accountants or engineers.

To prove my point, here are the results of a survey I conducted at a summer conference for educators.
These results are supported by an analysis of American Library Association’s Youth Media Award winners since 2001 (when the Sibert Award for Informational Books was first given).  
But a growing body of research shows that many children think differently. They prefer reading books with an expository writing style.
Rather than craving an emotional connection with the central figure in a book, these info-kids read with a purpose—to understand the world and how it works. They’re captivated by fact-filled books that include patterns, analogies, concepts, and calculations. For these students, expository nonfiction is the gateway to literacy.

But that’s not all we can glean from the research. It turns out that expository nonfiction also builds content knowledge, leads to success in school, and prepares students for those dreaded standardized tests.

To explore these topics in greater detail, I’ve teamed up with Marlene Correia, director of curriculum and assessment for the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District of Lakeville, MA and past-president of the Massachusetts Reading Association. Over the last few months, we’ve created two handy dandy infographics.

The first one (shown above) highlights 5 Reasons to Share Expository Nonfiction with Students. The first reason—Some Students Prefer It! —is what I blogged about in depth last fall and is summarized with the visuals above.

Over the next few weeks, Marlene and I will be discussing the other four points—one per week—in greater detail on Wednesdays.

On Fridays, we’ll share ideas related to our second infographic 5 Ways to Share Expository Nonfiction with Students. Here’s a sneak peek.

We hope you’ll come back on Friday to find out more.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Barb Rosenstock

The question I get asked most at school visits is, “Why do you write biography?” Early on, that question caught me off-guard—the “why” of it never occurred to me.

Barb and Grandpa Stan
To know why I write biography, you’d have to have met my grandpa, Stan. He was the kind of Chicago character who spent his life connecting people to jobs, tickets, schools, charities, and each other. He understood where people came from, and where they wanted to go. He knew how to keep a confidence and when to reveal. He connected people through stories—hilarious, tragic, or tender. He told people’s stories better than anyone I have ever met.

I loved listening to his stories, and I was a voracious reader as a kid; but “author” was a job for fancy people in New York or Paris. As an adult, I worked in corporate marketing, had a family, and read a good deal to my sons. They too tended to like stories about people—explorers, inventors, and athletes. Although there has always been great children’s nonfiction, most of the biographies I read to my sons (going back about fifteen years) disappointed me.

None of them sounded like my grandpa’s stories. Few of them seemed connected to real kids’ struggles or larger themes. They were essentially illustrated encyclopedia entries. So instead of reading the books as they were written, I used what I’d learned from my grandpa to turn the facts into stories my sons would love. At some point, I transitioned to writing.

At a school visit
When I visit schools as an author, I find that most teachers and students make false assumptions about the process of writing biography. First off, they assume I have some “file of famous folks” in a desk drawer. They believe I go to the list, choose a person, do some research, and plug facts about the subject into some sort of formula. But biography isn’t a formula (birth+3 facts¸death =fame). It’s a way of thinking about art or science or sports or any topic through the lens of understanding who did what, why, and how.

Why do teachers and students have these misconceptions? Because that’s how students often write reports in school. But that’s not how professional writers work.

For me, the process of choosing a subject is much more complex and deeply rooted in who I am. In fact, I don’t typically start with a person at all. I begin with an idea or a memory or an experience that has personal meaning to me. Here are the personal connections that launched a few of my titles:

Fearless: The Story of Fearless Driver Louise Smith: I built go-karts as a girl.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library: In 8th grade, I wandered off on a field trip to Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home).

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art: Until I was 8 years old, I thought numbers had personalities.

Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music: A friend’s grandfather played mandolin at her birthday party. 

Otis & Will Discover the Deep: The Record-setting Dive of the Bathysphere: As a child, I was fascinated by a TV cartoon called Diver Dan.

As you can see, my topic choices are influenced by what I want and need to write about. The biography subjects are just the way I present an idea I’m passionate about.

That’s why no two biographies are the same. Even when two (or more) authors write about the same person, each one brings something different, something unique to the process. A finely-crafted biography offers much more than a Wikipedia entry because, at its heart, is an idea the author has carried deep inside (sometimes for years). The author combines that idea with accurate research to craft a creative product that contains parts of the author’s story within the subject’s.

I write biography, not because of who my subjects were, but because of who I am. I wish each child in every classroom the same opportunity to discover their own interests, backgrounds, and experiences—to use their own stories to connect to others.

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. She’s the author of award-wining nonfiction and historical fiction picture books including the 2015 Caldecott Honor title The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpr√©. 2018 titles include: Blue Grass Boy with Edwin Fotheringham, The Secret Kingdom with Claire Nivola, Otis & Will Discover the Deep with Katherine Roy and Through the Window with Mary Grandpr√©. She lives near Chicago with her family and two big poodles.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Rethinking Your Book Collection

Take a moment to evaluate your classroom or library book collection. Do you have enough nonfiction titles? Experts recommend a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction.

How diverse is your nonfiction section? Does it include a healthy selection of expository nonfiction? Experts recommend that at least 66 percent all nonfiction titles should have an expository writing style that explains, describes, or informs rather than a narrative writing style that tells a true story or conveys an experience.

(Why is it important to have more expository nonfiction? Because narrative nonfiction  appeals to the same group of readers who love fiction. Libraries need plenty of books for the 42 percent of students who prefer expository nonfiction.)

Sadly, studies evaluating U.S. classroom libraries show that only 17 to 22 percent of all titles are nonfiction, and that only 7 to 9 percent have an expository writing style.

While similar statistics aren’t available for school libraries, according to 2016 report from the National Education Association, only 61.9 percent of elementary schools have a full-time state-certified librarian/media specialist. As a result, it’s likely that many school libraries do not have a well-balanced, up-to-date collection. 

In recent years, children’s book publishers have published many wonderful picture book biographies with a narrative writing style. Because they’ve received starred reviews and won awards, they have ended up on bookshelves across America. Some students love these books, but others don’t. So to re-balance your collection in a way that makes sense in terms of student reading preferences and how the books can best be used in a school setting, I’d like to suggest striving for the percentages included in this table:
(This table assumes that your school has a makerspace with plenty of active nonfiction. If this is not the case, aim to add a bit more active nonfiction to your collection.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

What Is Literary Nonfiction?

Over the summer, I shared the Nonfiction Family Tree at conferences for writers and educators, and one question came up again and again: “What is literary nonfiction?”

And the answers is . . . it depends who you ask.

According to children’s (and adult) book publishers, there are two broad categories of the nonfiction market:

1. commercial nonfiction, which has mass appeal. These books sell well in mass market outlets (like Target and Walmart) and bookstores with a bit of crossover to schools and libraries.

2. literary nonfiction, which wins awards and is considered higher-quality writing. These books sell primarily to schools and libraries with some crossover to bookstores and occasionally mass market outlets.

When educators use the term “literary nonfiction,” they are (understandably) thinking more about craft moves than sales potential. According to The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum (Heinemann, 2016), literary nonfiction is “a nonfiction text that employs literary techniques, such as figurative language, to present information in engaging ways.”  

Because nearly all current state ELA standards are heavily modeled after the Common Core State Standards (even in states that never adopted CCSS), it’s worth looking at that document too. It focuses more on types or forms of writing and lists the following as examples of literary nonfiction:
—some personal essays and speeches
—most biographies/autobiographies
—narrative nonfiction
—some poetry
—some informational picture books

(It’s interesting that CCSS differentiates life stories (biographies and autobiographies) from narrative nonfiction. In the children’s literature community, picture book biographies are generally considered quintessential examples of narrative nonfiction because they tell the story of a person’s life.)

As I was creating the Nonfiction Family Tree (which focuses on children’s nonfiction books exclusively and doesn’t include essays, speeches, letters, journals, textbooks, brochures, catalogs, etc.), one of my goals was to help publishers and educators learn to speak a common language, so that publishers can better understand the kinds of nonfiction books that ALL students want and need.

So my use of “literary nonfiction” accommodates all the definitions. It includes finely-crafted texts that tend to win awards, sell best to schools and libraries, and make ideal mentor texts. It may be narrative nonfiction, including many kinds of life stories (biographies/autobiographies/memoirs); poetry; or expository/informational books with a strong voice, innovative format and text structure, and rich, engaging language.

My other goals in creating the Nonfiction Family Tree were to showcase how diverse expository nonfiction is and emphasize how important it is to develop school and classroom libraries that include a diverse array of nonfiction books from all five categories. I’ll share more specifics about that on Friday.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Melissa Stewart

Last year, award-winning children’s book author Laura Purdie Salas wrote this wonderful post for Celebrate Science. I especially love this quotation:
“. . . there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out. The reality is very different. I think my personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I end up writing.”

When I posted a link to Laura’s essay on Twitter, the response was incredible. Dozens of nonfiction creators replied, “Me too!” Because I wanted to hear and share their stories, I’ve invited thirty-three award-winning children’s book authors and author-illustrators to post here on Mondays throughout the year.

Again and again, what you’ll hear is that crafting nonfiction involves much more than just cobbling together a bunch of facts. The books we choose to write and the perspectives we choose to explore are often closely linked to who we are as people and our experiences in the world. Nonfiction writers—all writers—have to dig deep. If we don’t, our writing will fall flat, and no one will want to read it.

Our passion for a project, our author purpose, is what drives us to dedicate years of our lives to a single manuscript. It spurs us on despite the obstacles and setbacks, and of course, through the inevitable criticism and rejections.

Today, I’m going to begin the series with the story behind Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (illus. Stephanie Laberis, Peachtree, 2018)—a book that began on a chilly December morning in 2013.

I’d been thinking about and researching animal superlatives (biggest, strongest, fastest)—and then anti-superlatives (smallest, slowest, weakest)—for a long time, but I didn’t really have a vision for the book I wanted to create.

But, as I lay in bed, waiting for the alarm to go off, these words popped into my mind:

“Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.

But this book isn’t about them. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone finally paid attention to them?”

I jumped out of bed, ran to my desk, and scrawled those lines in my notebook. I couldn’t believe it. In one flash of inspiration, I had the book’s beginning and its hook and its voice. It felt like a gift from the universe, and it was.

But it came with a catch.

As I typed the words into a computer file later that morning, I realized that a dark part of my subconscious was rearing its ugly head. That creative hook, that unique perspective hadn’t come out of nowhere. They were born out of the severe bullying I’d endured as a child. Writing this book would mean revisiting some painful memories, and that scared me.

So I shut the computer file, and I didn’t open it again for 6 months. By that time, I had made peace with the part of my past that would drive the creation of this book. And I got to work . . . because that’s what writers do.

It’s hard to believe that the description of a western fence lizard’s hunting strategy could be autobiographical, but it is. I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so that little lizard is kind of my hero.

See how its “weakness” is actually the secret of its survival success? I think that’s an important message for kids because we all have our weaknesses, and I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.

In the end, Pipsqueaks is a book about animal adaptations and about celebrating the traits that make us different and unique. It’s my way of offering hope to children who are being bullied right now.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Underdogs in the Classroom!

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs has now spent 6 days in the world, and so far, it’s been getting terrific feedback from kids and adults.

Because the book can enhance science lessons and also works well as a gentle lead in for discussions about accepting others and celebrating differences, it’s a great addition to elementary classrooms.
To make it even more useful, I’ve created four different educational resources full of teaching ideas. I hope you’ll check them out.

There’s a read aloud guide that’s perfect for #classroombookaday. It includes questions to guide reading and activities students can do to reinforce the science and character building content.

There’s a teacher’s guide with science activities that support NGSS as well as a range of fun ELA and art activities.

There’s a readers theater script that students will love practicing and performing. It includes 21 roles at a range of reading levels, so every student can successfully participate. Readers theater is a powerful ELA activity because it gives students an authentic reason to practice reading the same text over and over.

And finally, there’s a groovy mega map that shows where the animals in the book live and provides some vital stats about each creature. Kids will love poring over it and sharing the info with friends.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Four Questions with Jonathan Willson

Today, I am delighted to pass along some fascinating ideas related to student preference for expository nonfiction from Jonathan Willson, Director of Teaching and Learning, Moorhead Academic Center and History Department, The Taft School, Watertown, CT. Jon is a recipient of the New England History Teachers’ Association 2018 “History Teacher of the Year” award for secondary school teachers. He is also married to New York Times bestselling nonfiction author Sarah Albee.

MS: Welcome, Jon. Thank you for reading the post I recently wrote for the Nerdy Book Club blog. As a grade 9-12 teacher and administrator, why did it resonate with you?

JW: When I saw your post, I’d just finished reading a pamphlet, produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality, called “Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know” because I’m mentoring a new teacher this year. It includes six “proven practices that promote learning for all students, regardless of grade or subject.”


The first recommended teaching practice, one with mountains of research to support it as all these practices have, is pairing graphics with words. So when I saw the student reading preference data in your post, I thought, This is cool: Since expository text often includes a wider variety of visuals (photos, charts, diagrams, infographics) than narrative writing, the results of these reading preference studies reinforce the recommended teaching practice.
Why is that cool? Because often what students say they prefer is not consistent with the “mind, brain and education” (MBE) research. For instance, many of my AP U.S. History students tell me they like  to prepare for the May “APUSH” exam by re-reading as much of the text and their notes as they can. But MBE research shows that re-reading is an inefficient study technique compared to, say, retrieval practice or writing responses to sample questions.

So, back to the academic study results cited in your post: When you can teach in a manner consistent with how most students say they prefer to learn when reading, that’s a happy alignment. It’s certainly how I’ve taught History and Social Studies for thirty years: content in the form of still or moving images, maps, graphs, tables, and a mix of primary sources in addition to engagingly written, nonfiction text.  

MS: It looks like that NCTQ pamphlet breaks down the six suggested teaching strategies into three subgroups. What are they?
JW: Yes, there are three student learning categories. The first category is taking in new information, the second is connecting new information to old to deepen understanding, and the third is remembering. And each category includes two proven pedagogical practices.
MS: So “pairing graphics with words” is the first practice of the first category (taking in new information). It looks like the second practice in that category is “linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.” How is it relevant for teachers looking to incorporate expository nonfiction into their classrooms or curriculum?

JW: To answer that question, I’ll shamelessly draw from one of my wife’s books. Because chemical elements are invisible, they’re abstract to many students. But a student who reads Sarah Albee’s Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines comes across the story of the “radium girls” in both text and image form.

These young women were hired after the World War I to paint watch dials with the element radium, which everyone thought was safe. The radium made the watches glow in the dark, so people could easily see the time at night.
While working, the women inhaled and ingested lots of radium. Only after they began breaking bones and even dying, it became clear radium was poisonous. It’s a tragic story that links the abstract (a dangerous chemical element) with the concrete (the suffering of the women) via effective expository text. You might even use it to teach another abstraction: the need for government regulations.

MS: So are all six of the “proven practices” in the pamphlet applicable to expository nonfiction reading and teaching?

JW: The linking of students’ free reading preferences with evidence-based teaching strategies can get tricky when we get to the “remembering” category. Recalling content is a critically important part of learning because typically new learning builds upon old.

But how much do teachers want to hold students accountable for recalling what they’ve read independently, even if it is in school? If the answer is “highly accountable,” then teachers could certainly apply the two suggested “remembering” practices: distributing practice and assessing to boost retention. But if the point of free reading is mostly to encourage students to read books they find interesting, then the answer may be “not too accountable.” In that case, teachers might decide to apply the remembering strategies elsewhere. But they can still remain confident their students will recall the content of books they themselves chose to read.

MS: These are very interesting ideas, Jon. Thanks so much for giving educators something to think about and perhaps try out in their own classrooms.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Hooray for Underdogs!

I’m so excited because tomorrow is the publication date for Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs—a book that I’ve been working on since 2013. That’s right, five years.

Why did it take so gosh darn long? I’ll be sharing that story in a blog post after Labor Day. Today is more about celebrating the fact that it’s finally out and available to kids across North America.

If you haven’t seen the book’s trailer, I invite you to take a look.

I can’t thank Lesley Burnap and her 2017-2018 third grade class at Coolidge School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts enough for agreeing to participate in the video. Their enthusiasm for the project left me gobsmacked. We had so much fun together.

I was thrilled that I received early copies of the book before the school year ended and I could give each child a signed copy
Like all of my books, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs has a science focus. It describes how animals’ unique characteristics and behaviors help them survive in their habitats.

But  the book also has a subtle message about respecting and celebrating the things that make us all different. That’s why I’m delighted that Jilian Heise, founder of #classroombookaday, included Pipsqueaks on her list of Back-to-School Picture Books to Build Community. I love the groovy visual she created, don’t you?

To celebrate the publication of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, I'll be signing at various venues in events around Boston. Here's the schedule:
 I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Q&A with Deborah Hopkinson: Writing D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History

In this fascinating interview, award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson shares some of the strategies she used in crafting her wonderful new narrative nonfiction book, D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History.

MS: You’ve written about World War II before. Was there a particular reason you decided to write about D-Day?

DH: At author visits, I like to ask students what they want to read about. D-Day was at the top of the list of suggestions. It’s not the first time readers have steered me to a subject: they helped me choose Titanic too. Another topic they’ve suggested is the Black Death, which I’ll be working on next year. I can’t wait: I know virtually nothing about the Middle Ages.

I guess some people find this odd, but I once attended a lecture by David McCullough. He said his academic friends always tease him about taking on subjects he knows nothing about. But that’s what motivates me. I love exploring and learning new things.
MS: D-Day begins like a novel. Before the Table of Contents, there’s a short section about a paratrooper being dropped at night. Why did you choose to start this way?
DH: The invasion of Normandy was an incredible feat of planning and organization. I want readers to appreciate the vast scope, but also realize that it was experienced by individuals.  Beginning with David Kenyon Webster’s incredible story helps, I hope, to bring the reader directly into the event and the emotions of young soldiers, many of whom were facing combat for the first time.

Of course, I also hope this will help “hook” readers who may not normally pick up nonfiction. And, thanks to the generosity of David Kenyon Webster’s family in allowing me to quote from his book, Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich, we get to know him as a character. In later sections, we follow his preparations for this moment, and then what happened after he landed behind Utah Beach in the darkness.

MS: D-Day includes a number of breakout sections. What purpose do they serve?

DH: I think of narrative nonfiction as operating on different levels. It’s almost as if you’re canoeing on a river. There’s the main narrative flow, and then there are little side inlets you can take to explore the banks.

In D-Day, breakouts called Dispatches include a variety of first-person accounts, from a Frenchwomen, to a Panzer commander, to an African American steward on a landing craft.  Reader’s Invasion Briefings provide historical context such as background on World War II and the strategy behind the invasion plans.

MS: Your books are known for having a lot of back matter. Do you read back matter yourself?

DH: I love back matter, and I’m always encouraging students to read source notes. But since I’m well aware not everyone shares my passion, lately I’ve been trying to find ways to move it into the main narrative. In D-Day, although there are Internet resources and links to museums or audio first-person accounts in the back, we’ve also included these links as snippets in the text called Look, Listen, Remember.

I also like to have fun with back matter. In DIVE! we called it the “After Section,” playing with the idea that the book was like a submarine. In D-Day, it’s called the “Quartermaster’s Department.”
MS: There were two U.S. landing beaches, Utah and Omaha, which form the core of your book. Why did you approach the story of each beach in a different way?

DH: Paratroopers were dropped inland behind Utah Beach in the early morning darkness of June 6. Many soldiers wandered alone, disoriented, trying to find their units, and so my narrative follows their experience.

The beach landings at Omaha were plagued by problems. Here, to try to convey the chaos and confusion, I employed a cinematic technique by starting not with just one soldier, but a myriad of voices recounting those harrowing, deadly landings.

MS: What do you hope readers will take away from the experience of reading D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History?

DH: There’s no way that any one book can capture an event like D-Day. I think of my book as an introduction to a lifetime of reading.

I’ve met young readers who know more than I ever will about World War II. I just hope I don’t disappoint them.

Deborah Hopkinson’s new books include D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History, Under the Bodhi Tree: A Story of the Buddha, Carter Reads the Newspaper, and How I Became a Spy, A Mystery of World War II London. You can follow her online at and  @deborahopkinson.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Welcome Back!

I’m still in summer mode, so it’s hard for me to believe the school year has begun in many parts of America. Gesh! Why does summer seem so short?

I’ve got some great, meaty posts kicking around in my head for Celebrate Science this year, but to get us warmed up, I thought I’d start the same way I did last year. I just love this quotation:

“Reading is like breathing in. . .

. . . Writing is like breathing out.”

Okay, folks, let’s get ready to rumble.