Friday, April 13, 2018

Classifying Nonfiction: A Fresh Look at Nonfiction Categories

 A couple of months ago, a reader who’s an educator and well as an aspiring children’s book author pointed out that I’ve been using the term “nonfiction categories” in two different ways on this blog and, as a result, she was feeling confused about the best way to classify nonfiction.

She’s right. I’m guilty as charged. And it is confusing.

The problem is that I think both uses have value, depending on how you’re interacting with the text. To me, the 5-category system is more relevant for readers . . .

. . . and the 4-category system is more important for writers, especially if you’re writing books for children or using children’s books as mentor texts.

Here’s how I think the two systems are related to one another.

—Traditional nonfiction and browse-able books are almost always survey books. They cover broad topics.

—Expository literature is most frequently STEM concept books, though it can be specialized nonfiction.

—Narrative nonfiction is generally life stories or specialized nonfiction focused on historical events.

—Active nonfiction isn’t quite so easy to pigeonhole, but I’m going to say it’s mostly specialized because most of these books help readers participate in a specific activity.

And so perhaps survey books, concept books, life stories, and specialized nonfiction are best described as subcategories that are most beneficial when writers are considering the best way to present information to their readers. Then, as the writers think about the research process, they can switch gears to focus on which of the five major categories (or which combination of those five) is most likely to contain the information they need. 
Maybe the best classification infographic looks like this:

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Writers Aren’t Robots

I’m excited to host award-winning author and poet Laura Purdie Salas, who has an important message for us to consider. Thanks, Laura.

I try not to take it personally, but 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. Here are some examples.

 A Leaf Can Be . . . (Millbrook Press, 2012)
I changed majors a lot in college. I tend to get bored easily, and that’s one reason poetry and picture books call to me. They are small, close, brief examinations of a topic.

Credit: Leyo, Wikimedia Commons
I tend to think about topics broadly and ask, “What else?” For example, A Leaf Can Be . . . began when I read an old poem I had written about Honduran tent bats and their leafy shelters. Some writers might have wanted to delve into that relationship in great detail. But because I like lists and variety, my question was not, “Why?” or “How did they evolve to do that?” It was, “What else do leaves do?”

Another way I am present in my Can Be… books is that I have a deeply felt sense of justice, and I tend to root for the underdog. I find that exploring the wonders of underappreciated things is a common thread in my work.

If You Were the Moon (Millbrook Press, 2017)
This is another list poem (basically) exploring the roles of an everyday (or every night) object. But this topic was more personal for me.

My dad worked as a NASA engineer at Cape Canaveral during my childhood. He talked about the space program a lot at the dinner table, but it was usually more about office politics or chemistry and physics way beyond my understanding.
Credit: NASA
Still, I was awed by our solar system, by space travel, by watching space shuttle launches. In college, I was devastated to witness the Challenger explosion.
When I started this book, I needed facts, of course. But I also wanted to explore my own emotions about space and the moon. And I wanted to present the moon in an accessible way that would leave kids inspired, not confused. I wanted to help kids make friends with the moon, in a way I couldn’t as a kid. So, I compared the moon’s actions to things kids do, like play tug-of-war or miss their friends.

Meet My Family!
This is my brand new picture book, and I feel like it’s been growing wings inside me for more than 40 years.

When I was a kid, my family was very different from my friends’ families. My parents were super strict. Five hours of TV per week, maximum. We kids paid part of the electric bill. Straight As weren’t good enough. We were estranged from most extended family.
On top of that, one of my sisters had a brain condition we now call OCD, and she washed her hands hundreds of times per day. Back then, that was just considered weird—not recognized as a medical condition. 

I'm the small kid with braids in the center.
While visiting schools, I’ve had students write poems about divorced parents, parents they’ve never known, being adopted, and more. Kids often feel such unwarranted shame. My own remembered shame about my family was like an engine driving this manuscript. It’s a nonfiction book about the different structures of animal families. But more importantly, it’s a book that says to kids, “Your family is okay. As long as you are loved, you are okay. You are okay.” I don’t think there’s anything more important that I have to say to young readers.

So all my little quirks, loves, and fears shape the books that I write. I’d love to see more recognition that this is true for most nonfiction books. And imagine all the exciting nonfiction that students will create as we encourage them to infuse all their writing—not just their fiction—with the qualities that make them who they are.

Laura Purdie Salas thought books appeared by magic when she was little. She read non-stop, but the library had a bottomless supply of books to feed her hunger. As a children’s author, she knows there’s a lot of work involved in bringing books to the world—and still plenty of magic, too!
Laura is a former 8th-grade English teacher, a former copyeditor (who has nightmares about errors on menus and signs), and a former magazine editor. She will never be a former reader. Laura is the author of many poetry and nonfiction books, including Water Can Be…, BookSpeak!, and Meet My Family! You can meet Laura at her website,, where you can also access her blog and her e-letter for educators or learn where to connect with her on social media.

Monday, April 9, 2018

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Kristen Picone

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Kristen Picone
Melissa Stewart is one of my author heroes and her blog has provided an endless amount of resources and ideas that I have been able to apply to my classroom instruction. I’ve been following along with Monday’s “5 Faves” posts and, by Tuesday, my bank account usually feels the effects. Being invited to contribute is an honor.

From the moment I agreed to write this post, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how I would possibly narrow down my list of favorite expository nonfiction to just five titles—a problem I have often when someone asks me for a book recommendation! 

I began this journey by sifting through my nonfiction book bins. I pulled out titles. . . lots of them. I brought them home, spent the weekend sorting, re-reading, and analyzing. I read through all of the previous “5 Fave” posts. Then I did the same all over again the following week. As I sit here writing this, I am still unsure which five are going to make my list, but what I do know is I want to include titles that have not yet been included in other lists. Hopefully, some of these books and/or authors will be new to you, but will soon find a home in your classroom libraries!

A Warmer World: From Polar Bears to Butterflies, How Climate Change Affects Wildlife by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Jamie Hogan (Charlesbridge, 2012)
How many times a week do our students see or hear something about global warming on the news, on social media, or around their dinner tables? This book is a great place to start to help kids understand how climate change impacts animals around the world.

An introduction provides an example of how the golden toads of Costa Rica have been impacted by climate change and goes on to explain the science behind climate change. Following the introduction, the reader will find headings, such as “Wildlife in a Warmer World,”  “Higher and Cooler,” “Changing Seasons,” and “Warmer Water,” to name just a few. After an introduction into each heading, information about the impact on specific animals is noted on what looks like a piece of paper ripped from a notebook. Each double-page spread includes illustrations of the animals mentioned in their natural habitats, along with tags that label each animal in the art. A conclusion at the end focuses on our future in a warmer world and is followed by backmatter, including a glossary and other website/book sources to explore. This could be a mentor text in lessons on writing introductions/conclusions, format choices, and use of subtitles.

Lives of Athletes: Thrills, Spills, and What the Neighbors Thought by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997)
Like all nine of the books in the series, Krull profiles a diverse cast. In this case, twenty athletes, including Jim Thorpe, Duke Kahanamoku, Gertrude Ederle, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph, Pete Maravich, and Bruce Lee. While well-known names like Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, and Pele may be what draw students in, they will keep reading because these biographies are chock full of little-known facts.  A framed drawing of the featured person begins each biography. Krull includes a tagline (i.e. Looking Good Without Clothes—  Johnny Weissmuller) before each name, followed by a birth/death place and date. Below that, the reader will find a quick blurb of sports accomplishments (i.e Record-breaking American swimmer, winner of five gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, later famous as Tarzan).

This is a book that students can dip in and out of, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Many of the athletes were new to me and reading more about their personal lives than their athletic fame made me feel like I had the inside scoop! After the text of each biography, Krull includes a bulleted list of each person’s Athleticisms, highlighting his/her sports accomplishments. Backmatter includes a Selected Bibliography. As a biography writing mentor, this book can be used to help students focus on aspects of a person’s life that haven’t been written about before, lessons on taglines, and each individual biography can be used to teach structure and format.

Curious Critters by David FitzSimmons (Wild Iris, 2011)
From my experience as a mom and a teacher, kids tend to be drawn to animal books. Curious Critters is eye-catching, with a close-up photograph of a gray tree frog against a stark white background on the cover. Each page includes a beautiful photo, along with information about the critter. Some are written in prose, some in verse, and all are written from the unique perspective of that particular critter. Twenty-one critters are represented, including Ohio crawfish, jumping spiders, goldfish, red flat bark beetles, eastern screech owls, and Chinese praying mantises. FitzSimmon’s backmatter includes additional information about each critter, a page of life-size silhouettes for kids to match along with an answer key and color-coded grouping guide, and a glossary.  

If you like this book, there is also a Volume Two, as well as various Curious Critter board books with critters that are native to various states in the U.S. As a mentor text, this book has many possibilities for younger and older students. Lessons might include writing from different perspectives, first-person point of view, onomatopoeia, descriptive word choice, word placement, sentence variety, ellipses...the list goes on and on.

We are all familiar with the Dem Bones song, right?
The head bone is connected to the neck bone.
The neck bone is connected to the shoulder bone . . .”

Ziefert uses the lyrics of this song to take readers on an in-depth look at our skeletal system. The introduction includes an image of an x-ray and suggests that readers run their hands along the bones being described on their guided tour of the bones in their bodies. The top of each of the following pages includes the lyrics to the song, followed by information about that particular bone. To appeal to the child audience, Ziefert uses humor and examples that kids can relate to.  Amanda Haley’s cartoon illustrations, with embedded x-ray images, add to the humor and the kid-friendly nature of this book. The conclusion reminds readers that though you can’t see your bones with binoculars, a doctor can use an x-ray to see your bones. It also reviews the healing process of a broken bone. The backmatter includes a labeled cartoon skeleton.  

When I used to teach 5th grade science, I would use this book during our Skeletal System unit. Now that I only teach ELA and social studies, this book has become an excellent mentor text. The fact that Ziefert used the song as the lead-in to each bone can be a style mentor for writers. Mini-lessons might also include introductions/conclusions, how illustrations can add to the text of the book, and how to add humor and voice to expository writing.

Animal Dads by Sneed B. Collard III (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000)
Sneed B. Collard writes a few expository texts that I like to use as writing mentors. In this book, he focuses on the role of dads. The book begins with a page with just text: Dad’s do many things. The pages that follow have main text that highlights something dads do (main idea) and secondary text that describes of an animal dad that fulfills that role (supporting details). For example, on the They build us homes to live in page, the secondary text explains how sickleback dads build nests out of pieces of plants for the female sicklebacks to lay their eggs. This format stays consistent throughout the book, sharing information about twenty different animal dads. Steve Jenkins’s cut paper collage illustrations work beautifully with the text.  The book ends the way it begins, with a page of just text on a dark background, which reminds us: Dads do many things. Dads are many things.

As a mentor text, this book can be used to show students how to use a concept to drive their writing, rather than doing an “all about” piece. The short introduction and conclusion can be used to compare/contrast with other introductions and conclusions.
Terrific Tongues! by Maria Gianferrari (Boyds Mills Press, 2018)
I feel compelled to add this bonus fave. Gianferrari introduces readers to some of the amazing things animal tongues can do. The text follows a repetitive pattern: If you had a tongue like a sword, you might be a ...turn the page and you find out which animal fits that description. The illustrations created by Jia Liu work perfectly with the text and include a hilarious monkey that shows up in each image. Gianferrari brings it back to the reader at the end, reminding us about the terrific things our own tongues can do. Backmatter includes more information about the tongues of each featured animal even some that aren’t.
As a writing mentor text, I will pair this one with Animal Dads and books from Melissa Stewarts’ Animal Bodies Up Close series to reinforce creative styles and structures, while focusing specifically on one particular theme.

Well, I did it!  I chose five (+1), though I sit here with a stack of other expository texts in my lap and spread out on the floor, and I just can’t help myself. Here are a few more I just have to mention:
Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III (Charlesbridge, 2012)
What If You Had Animal Ears!? by Sandra Markle (Scholastic, 2016) and all the other books in this series
How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Thank you, Melissa, for giving me the opportunity to share. Maybe I’m better suited for a “Fave 15” series.

Kristen Picone is a self-proclaimed book nerd, always has been and always will be. She teaches 5th grade ELA/SS in Kings Park, NY, in a classroom that is filled to the brim with books of all kinds. Teaching is not just her job, it’s her passion! When she isn’t opening boxes of new books that have arrived on her doorstep, she can be found planning for the next nErDCampLI, or lost among her many TBR towers.  Reading to kids of all ages is Kristen’s absolute favorite thing to do, particularly while snuggling up with her favorite book-loving 8 year old. Kristen can be found on Twitter at @Kpteach5 or through her class account at @KPStars5. She often tweets book recommendations using the following hashtags: #nErDCampLI and #BookJourney.

Friday, April 6, 2018

In the Classroom: How Much Nonfiction?

While Common Core is now on its way out as states develop their own ELA standards, some of its most important goals are not being forgotten. Initially, the idea of devoting significantly more instructional time to reading and writing nonfiction was unpopular with many educators. But over time, they've come to see the benefits of incorporating more true texts into their lessons. As a result, the new standards being developed by states are preserving the emphasis on nonfiction. And that’s a good thing.

Common Core recommended that 50 percent of the books elementary students read and study should be nonfiction. And in high school, students should be reading 70 percent nonfiction. But I’m not sure those percentages make sense developmentally.

Young children are naturally curious about the world around them. They want to explore and understand EVERYTHING. If you think about it, that’s their job—to soak up information about the world like sponges. And nonfiction can help them do that.

But teens are different. Their number one priority is to find their own place in the world. And novels are often better at helping them achieve that goal. Reading MG and YA fiction allows young people to put themselves in the shoes of the characters and see how they deal with the obstacles in their lives, how they navigate the world.

So while I believe students of all ages should read what they want to read in their free time, perhaps the Common Core percentages should be flip-flopped when it comes to reading instruction—70 percent nonfiction in elementary school and 50 percent high school. That would still allow young people to be ready for college and the workforce, but it would also allow individual teens to discover the person they want to be.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Behind the Books: If There’s No Hook, There’s No Book

Back in January, I wrote this brief post about the importance of the hook in an expository nonfiction picture book. After reading that post, several people asked me to write about his topic in more detail. Your wish is my command.

The hook is the spark that ignites the reader’s curiosity and inspires them to keep reading. Shana Frazin, a staff developer for Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Readers and Writers Project, created a terrific anchor chart pointing out the specific craft moves I used to build the hook in No Monkeys, No Chocolate.

I describe the evolution of the hook for Can an Aardvark Bark? and its interplay with the book’s text structure in this interactive timeline.

Sometimes the hook makes a complex concept or process more relatable to young readers. It shows how the information in the book connects to a child’s everyday life or experience in the world. Examples include:

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine and T. S. Spookytooth

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Scwartz

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Nicole Wong

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis (coming in September)

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
In other cases, the hook gives readers the opportunity to think about a familiar topic from a unique perspective. It may encourage them to question what they thought they knew. It may even lead them to reconsider their view of how the world works and their place in it. Examples include:

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen

Give Bees a Chance by Bethany Barton

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fischman and Isabel Greenberg 
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Willams

A Leaf Can Be by Laurie Purdie Salas and Violeta Dabija

One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley

A Rock Is Lively by Dianna Aston Hutts and Sylvia Long

Weeds Find a Way by Cynthia Jenson-Elliott and Carolyn Fisher
Finding just the right hook for an expository nonfiction book takes time and patience and persistence. Seriously. Sometimes it takes me years. The process involves digging deep and thinking about a topic from many different angles. And it requires the ability to see the world from a child’s point of view.

In all likelihood, your search for a hook will lead to one dead end after another, but it’s worth the effort. When you finally stumble onto the perfect hook, all the pieces will suddenly fall into place. You’ll know exactly what your manuscript needs to be and how to achieve your vision. And the result will be a captivating book that only you could have written.

Monday, April 2, 2018

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Kathie MacIsaac

When I was asked to share five expository nonfiction titles, I did what comes naturally…I started doing research. I looked at what I had recently read and what other readers had suggested. I browsed lists of nonfiction recommendations. Once I was satisfied, I headed to the library shelves with my list of titles and brought home a huge stack of books to explore. These are the five books I want to share with you.

Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look The Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
I’m a big fan of books written by Steve Jenkins, but I particularly love the way this book is presented as conversations between interviewers and animals. The illustrations are big and bold, and the short text will appeal to younger readers.

Frozen Wild: How Animals Survive in the Coldest Places on Earth by Jim Arnosky (Sterling, 2015)
I love reading about the polar regions, and this book does an excellent job describing the differences between the Arctic and Antarctica and how the animals that live there survive the harsh climate.

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine (Millbrook, 2014)
There’s a great deal of humor in this book, and the illustrations will make you laugh while you learn how animal skeletons differ from our own and the purpose of those differences.

It’s Spit-acular!: The Secrets of Saliva by Melissa Stewart (Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010)
When you mix together a topic that many kids find gross, a wealth of interesting facts about saliva, and the excellent writing of Melissa Stewart, you have a winning combination for a book that is sure to appeal to many kids (and adults too)!

Best Foot Forward: Exploring Feet, Flippers, and Claws by Ingo Arndt (Holiday House, 2013)
The photographs in this book are fascinating! Feet have so many different functions that are explored in these pages. I would also guess that many of us have never seen the bottom of an elephant’s foot or the ribbed toes of a gecko, and so there is much to learn here.

Kathie MacIsaac works in the children’s department of a public library in Manitoba, Canada, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Awards (MYRCA) Committee, part of the team that operates the MG Book Village website, and is passionate about sharing her love for middle grade literature.