Monday, March 30, 2020

Speaking Up for Science and Social Studies!

At one time, it was routine to integrate ELA lessons and content-area instruction. Then Congressed passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and everything changed.

Suddenly, math and ELA instruction were prioritized, and students started taking standardized tests to track their progress. Because the school day is only so long, increasing the time devoted to math and ELA meant reducing the time for other subjects, most notably science and social studies.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and—big surprise—young adults don’t have the science and social studies knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workplace or as citizens. 


Some educators have been expressing their concern for years. Recently, one of them—Nell K. Duke, a highly-regarded professor in literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan—decided to do something tangible to help raise awareness. She made a YouTube video, which I encourage you to watch.


Like Dr. Duke, I think it’s high time to develop lessons that teach science and ELA simultaneously. Bonus point if you can sneak in some math or social studies too. To find lessons that can get you started, I recommend Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, which aligns with state ELA standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.There’s one volume specifically for grades K-2, and a second volume for grades 3-5. You can also find all the children’s books recommended in Perfect Pairs on my pinterest boards. I hope you find these resources useful.



And for even more ideas, hop on over LitLinks, a blog maintained by author Patricia Newman, winner of the Sibert Honor for Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators that Saved an Ecosystem.

Friday, March 27, 2020

How Infographics Can Help Students Avoid Plagiarism


Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on October 16, 2017.


My book, Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs, is chock full of text features. 

One of my favorites is an infographic that began when I drew this very rough sketch and sent it to my editor.

Let’s face the facts. My drawing skills leave a lot to be desired, but this sketch was enough the give the talented folks in the HarperCollins art department an idea of what I had in mind—a grouping of visual elements that communicate two important ideas:
(1) the tyrannosaur family lived on Earth for 100 million years

(2) while the group's final members were gigantic, fearsome predators (like T. rex), the earliest tyrannosaurs were about the same size as us..

Eventually, my sad little sketch became this amazing infographic:

To communicate these important ideas, the infographic summarizes information presented on many different pages. In other words, the process of conceptualizing it was similar to the process students engage in as they analyze and synthesize their research notes while preparing to write a report. 

Why is this an important realization? Because it can help young writers tremendously. By third grade, children know what plagiarism is. They realize that they shouldn’t copy their sources, but they struggle to evaluate the information they've collected and make it their own. We need to offer students a variety of ways to think carefully and critically about their research notes, and infographics is one tool we can offer them. 


Here's a terrific infographic created by a boy after he narrowed his topic. At first, he was going to write about robots. Then he decided to focus on robots inspired by animal body designs, and finally he decided to write about one specific kind of robot--snakebots. This infographic shows that he's already thinking about how he'll organize his information. He plans to discuss the two different kinds of snakebots (big vs. tiny), what they are capable of, and how they are used to solve human problems.

See how powerful infographics can be?

When students take the time to represent the ideas and information they've read as infographics (or other combinations of words and pictures) during their pre-writing process, they'll find their own special way of conveying the information. Instead of being tempted to plagiarize, they'll write a report that's 100 percent their own.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Browsable Nonfiction

Back in 2017, I proposed a five-category system for classifying children’s nonfiction on my blog, and the response was incredible.

Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. In May 2018, School Library Journal published an article about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. Again, the response was incredibly positive. I’ve spoken about the system at a number of conferences, and later this year, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books, co-written by literacy educator Marlene Correia, will hit bookshelves.

Because so many people want information now, I’m discussing each of the categories and providing an updated list of exemplar books. On March 11, I focused on traditional nonfiction. Today, I’ll talk about browseable books. 

Thanks to Dorling Kindersley’s innovative Eyewitness Books series, the 1990s brought remarkable changes to traditional expository nonfiction. These beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated books with short text blocks and extended captions revolutionized children’s nonfiction by giving fact-loving kids a fresh, engaging way to access information. 

Readers can easily dip in and out of browseable books, focusing on the sections that interest them most, or they can read the books cover to cover. Today, National Geographic, Time for Kids, and the Discovery Channel are all publishing fact-tastic books in this category, and kids love them. In many ways, they are the nonfiction analog to graphic novels.

Due to their wide array of text features, browseable books are well suited for the later stages of the research process, when students are seeking specific information and looking for tantalizing tidbits to engage their audience of readers.

Here are some examples:

The Book of Queens by Stephanie Warren Drimmer

Discovery Channel Sharkopedia: The Complete Guide to Everything Shark by Discovery Channel

Eye Spy: Wild Ways Animals See the World by Guillaume Duprat 

Eyewitness Books: Rocks & Minerals by R.F. Symes

Guinness World Records 2019 by Guinness World Records

North America: A Fold-Out Graphic History by Sarah Albee

Trees: A Rooted History by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski

Time for Kids Big Book of Why by the Editors of Time for Kids

Monday, March 23, 2020

Exploring Active Nonfiction Through the Ages by Tom Bober

At the end of February, school librarian Tom Bober tagged me on Twitter so I could see the great activity his students were doing to think more deeply about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction in general and Active Nonfiction in particular. I knew other educators would want to give Tom’s idea a try, so I asked him to write a blog post.

When I received Tom's piece a couple of days ago, I was delighted because not only is it a powerful activity, it’s something that upper elementary students can easily do at home—right now. Thanks, Tom!

I am a fan of Melissa’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction as a way to help students think about and share the nonfiction they like to read and write. I’m also a believer in using historical documents as jumping-off points. When I was able to combine them in a recent lesson, the learning was powerful.

After reading Gilbert Ford’s book, How the Cookie Crumbled, I became interested in the original chocolate chip cookie recipe by Ruth Wakefield and other cookie recipes from the time. Looking at their structure, the recipes were presented very differently from recipes we work with today. I thought it would be an interesting exploration for my students.

We began with an excerpt from Ford’s book. As I passed around a 1937 cookbook with the original chocolate chip cookie recipe, we brainstormed what ingredients are common in many baking recipes. As students shared their background knowledge, I helped to organize their comments. 

Flour, sugar, and butter were common. Baking soda, baking powder, and yeast were used to help baked items rise. Vanilla, zest, and almond were used for flavors. We labeled “wet” and “dry” ingredients. We listed what we described as “fillers” like chocolate chips or candies.

Then we looked at cookbooks that were on the shelves in our library. I asked the students how all of that information was shared and organized in these recipes. Students pointed out elements that they see in much of the active nonfiction they read:

—Numbered step-by-step directions

—Photos showing what steps look like

—Lists of items needed (in cookbooks, typically supplies and ingredients)

Then I shared several cookie recipes that appeared in newspapers in the early 1900s. I found them by doing a simple search in Chronicling America, a database of more than 16 million digitized and searchable pages of American newspapers dating from 1789 to 1963. My search included the years 1900 to 1920 using the keywords “cookie recipe.” Search results show thumbnails of the newspaper pages with keywords highlighted.

After each student had chosen one recipe, I asked, “How is this recipe structurally different from the ones you might see today?” They pointed back to the list we had created. Most of the historical recipes didn’t have identifiable steps. None had photos. The ingredients were included in the directions, but not listed at the beginning.

Then I gave the students a challenge: Take the recipe from 100 years ago and re-write it to look more like a recipe we would see today—more like active nonfiction. Some worked in pairs or small groups. Others decided to tackle the challenge on their own.

The students quickly realized that there were no supplies listed. They had to determine what those would be through the actions described in the recipe and by using current cookbooks for clues. Other problems were not so easily solved. Some ingredients didn’t have measured amounts. One recipe didn’t provide an oven temperature. 

Noticing those missing bits of information (even if there were no apparent answers) showed me that the students recognized the importance of those details in the current active nonfiction cookbooks they were using as mentor texts. It also revealed their understanding of the structure and organization of that type of nonfiction. It certainly is an experience that we will revisit in the library.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Video Mini-Lessons for Students at Shutdown Schools

Since many schools have been temporarily shut down in an effort to slow the coronavirus’s spread, I wanted to mention some of the educational resources available on my website. 

They include a half-dozen video mini-lessons that look at various aspects of informational writing, including research, text features, text structures, rich language, voice, and revisions.

I also have a variety of other materials, including curriculum guides, readers theaters, read aloud guides, and activity pages. Many of these reading and writing resources can be used even if you don’t have copies of my books.

I wish you all well during this difficult time!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Helping Students Choose a Topic

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on October 27, 2017.

Not long ago, during a school visit in Rhode Island, fourth graders said something that shocked me. According to them, choosing a topic is the hardest part of the nonfiction writing process. Seriously. They found it completely overwhelming.

I’ve heard students and teachers talk about this struggle before, but never so adamantly and with such resignation. And frankly, I was baffled.

For me, ideas are everywhere. They come from books and articles I read, conversations with other people, places I visit, and experiences I have. Why, I wondered, wasn’t the same thing true for young writers?

It took a while, but I finally figured out the answer. Kids weren’t paying attention—at least not the way I do. I’m always on the hunt for ideas, and when I get one, I write it down. Then I tack the piece of paper on the Idea Board in my office. Some of those ideas lead nowhere, but others turn into books.

Young writers can mimic this process by having an Idea Board in their classroom. Alternately, they could write ideas on the last page of their writer’s notebook. 

If a teacher assigns students an umbrella topic, such as the Revolutionary War, students can use the ideas they’ve recorded to brainstorm narrowly-focused topics, such as what soldiers ate during the Revolutionary War, what kind of clothes soldiers wore during the Revolutionary War, or medical practices during the Revolutionary War.

There could also be a classroom idea jar for struggling students, or children could participate in ABC brainstorming to home in on a specific topic. 

Do you have other ideas that could help young writers select a topic for a report?

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Traditional Nonfiction

Back in 2017, I proposed a five-category system for classifying children’s nonfiction on my blog, and the response was incredible.

Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. In May 2018, School Library Journal published an article about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. Again, the response was incredibly positive. I’ve spoken about the system at a number of conferences, and later this year, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books, co-written by literacy educator Marlene Correia, will hit bookshelves.

Because so many people want information now, for text next five weeks, I’ll be discussing each of the categories and providing an updated list of exemplar books. Today, we’ll start off with traditional nonfiction.

Not long ago, there was just one kind of nonfiction for children—traditional survey (all-about) books that provide a general overview of a topic. They feature a description text structure, an expository writing style, and concise, straightforward language. Thanks to the invention of desktop publishing software, these books, which are often published in large series, are now more visually appealing than they were in the past. 


Traditional nonfiction is ideal for the early stages of the research process, when students are “reading around” a topic to find a focus for their report or project. The straightforward, age-appropriate explanations make the information easy to digest, which is helpful to students who are just beginning to learn how to synthesize and summarize information as they take notes. 

The other benefit of these books is that they provide age-appropriate information on almost any topic you can think of. Why is this so important? Because the best way—sometimes the only way—to turn an info-kid into a reader is by handing them a book on the exact topic they find fascinating. 

A child who’s passionate about monster trucks may toss aside a finely-crafted book about the history of automobiles, but if you give that child a traditional nonfiction title all about monster trucks, they’ll devour it and ask for more. When teachers and librarians understand and respect all 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, they’re better equipped to help a broad range of children find true texts they’ll love.


Here are some examples of traditional nonfiction:

About Birds by Cathryn Sills

Behind the Scenes Gymnastics by Blythe Lawrence

Galaxies, Galaxies! by Gail Gibbons

Weather by Seymour Simon

Golden Retrievers by Sarah Frank

Monster Trucks by Matt Doeden

Mountain Gorillas: Powerful Forest Animals by Rebecca Hirsch

The Supreme Court by Christine Taylor Butler

Monday, March 9, 2020

Has Nonfiction Reached a Tipping Point?


While nonfiction and fiction have always received equal respect and recognition in the adult publishing world, the same hasn’t been true for children’s literature. 

During the 29 years I’ve worked in children’s publishing, first as an editor and now as a writer, nonfiction has been the underdog of the industry. Book reviewers and award committees have never seemed to fully appreciate the talent and hard work required to create finely-crafted true texts.

But things are finally changing—and fast.

In recent years, a growing number of educators have begun to realize that some students have a strong preference for nonfiction, especially expository nonfiction. Others enjoy narrative texts (fiction and narrative nonfiction) and expository nonfiction equally. 



Compare the stats above to the data for 1,000+ gatekeepers I surveyed in 2018. These are the educators and librarians who control the book collections children have access to:


This systemic bias is reflected in the kinds of books that win some of the most coveted honors in children's literature.


Because ELA standards now require students to read more nonfiction than in the past, publishers have begun offering more narrative nonfiction titles.
At first, they did so cautiously with some trepidation, but when those books sold well, publishers took notice. They began seeking out a greater number and a greater variety of true texts, with both narrative and expository writing styles.




Because the shift has been so slow and steady, it was initially hard to detect the growing momentum, but suddenly, it’s undeniable. 

For me, the tipping point came during the month of February. First, more than 800 published and aspiring nonfiction authors signed up for Nonfiction Fest, an online learning event coordinated by the Nonfiction Chicks. Then at the SCBWI International Annual Winter Conference in New York, every editor I spoke with was buzzling about nonfiction. And finally, at the end of the month, a nonfiction conference co-sponsored by the SCBWI and the Smithsonian Institution sold out in just 4 minutes. That’s right, 4 minutes! 

There’s no doubt about it. This is the golden age of children's nonfiction. 


And here’s the most exciting part. As far as we’ve come over the last 30 years--from just one kind of nonfiction to five distinct categories, the wonderful world of nonfiction still has more to offer. Much more. There’s plenty of room for growth and innovation, so let’s get to work!

Friday, March 6, 2020

My Biggest Revision Secret


Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are you’ve read previous posts about my biggest revision secret, but it seems like a good time for a quick reminder. 

What’s the secret? After I finish a rough draft, I let it “chill out.” In other words, I don’t start revising immediately. I take a break from the manuscript.

Why is this such an important part of my writing process? Because I have a lot in common with young writers. When I finish a draft, I think to myself: “Phew, am I ever glad to be done! I worked long and hard on this draft, and I think it’s pretty good. In fact, maybe it doesn’t need any revisions at all.” 

If the voice in my head is saying: “It’s good enough. It’s good enough,” am I going to notice parts of the manuscript that need work? No way.

But if I take a break. If I spend two days or two weeks or even two months working on something else, I can come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and an open mind. In other words, I’m ready to revise. I’m ready to re-envision the writing.

Obviously, students can’t take a 2-month hiatus from every piece of writing they do, but why not let their writing chill during lunch and recess or over a weekend or during a week of school vacation? And wouldn’t it be great if, near the end of the school year, young writers could revisit a couple of pieces they wrote in September or October.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Developing the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction

Like most scientists, I’m always looking for ways to make sense of the world around me. Back in 2012, I recognized that children’s nonfiction had gone through tremendous changes since I entered publishing as a young editor in the early 1990s. In an effort to understand those changes and the current state of nonfiction for kids, I started sketching a visual model, and I ended up with a family tree.

I wasn’t really satisfied with my tree, but I posted it on my blog to see if I’d get any feedback. A couple of months later, I had some new ideas, so I revised the tree and posted it. The comments I received broadened my thinking, and I kept on pondering.

Then, in 2013, I learned that a group of highly-respected educators who called themselves the Uncommon Corps had developed a Nonfiction Taxonomy. I was fascinated by their ideas and blogged about them too. Although this classification system never caught on, I began an ongoing dialogue with several members. Marc Aronson, Sue Bartle, Mary Ann Cappiello, and Myra Zarnowski have all influenced the way I think about nonfiction.

Over time, I slowly collected category names that appealed to me. From the beginning, I knew that narrative nonfiction would be one of the categories. Developed in the 1960s and 1970s by such celebrated adult authors as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, this style of writing first appeared in children’s titles in the mid-1990s.


In 2012, Jennifer Emmett, Senior Vice President at National Geographic for Kids, introduced me to the term “browseable books” at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators nonfiction writing retreat in Silver Bay, New York. It was the perfect label for books inspired by Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Book series.

In 2015, I wrote an article differentiating traditional nonfiction titles from a newer kind of nonfiction book with a narrowly-focused topic, innovative text structure and format, strong voice, and rich engaging figurative language for A Fuse #8 Production, a highly regarded children’s literature blog maintained by librarian Betsy Bird and hosted by School Library Journal. After reading the piece, Terrell Young, a Professor of Children’s Literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, suggested the label “expository literature.” We published an article defining and describing the new term in 2018.


I first came across the term “active nonfiction” in 2017 while reading an article in Publisher’s Weekly. It was used by Kristen McLean, Director of New Business Development at Nielsen Book/Nielsen Entertainment, while reporting on Nielsen BookScan data at the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Children’s Institute Conference. I was so excited by this new label that I immediately grabbed a piece of paper and sketched a new family tree. For the first time, I was satisfied. It seemed complete and logical and truly useful. 

When I posted the visual on my blog, the response was astonishing. Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. School Library Journal. Invited me to write an article about the classification system for their May 2018 issue.

Over time, I realized that a tree model wasn’t the most effective way to represent my ideas. I developed a new visual model and began referring to the classification system as the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. 

I’m excited to have co-written a book with Marlene Correia about this system and how it can improve ELA instruction. Be on the lookout for 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books later this year. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing mentor texts for each of the five categories over the next few weeks.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Author Presence Spectrum: A Way to Understand Nonfiction’s Expansion

Today’s post, written by author Tracy Nelson Maurer, presents the Author Presence Spectrum that Tracy and Ann Henkens Matzke developed to explore the range of fiction and nonfiction children’s books available today. What do you think?

Full disclosure from an author of more than 100 children’s nonfiction books: I didn’t like nonfiction when I was a kid. I thought it was boring. 

That was a (very) long time ago—and nonfiction has evolved and expanded, especially since the 1990s, to become truly engaging, compelling, and memorable for readers. 

Why do I think nonfiction books are better now? Because they reveal more author presence—apparent author influence or subjective creativity—in presenting information. 

The Author Presence Spectrum, which author Ann Henkens Matzke and I developed in 2013, provides a way to analyze books to gain an understanding of how the author’s presentation of facts as well as the reader’s expectations work together to support a higher level of creativity.
The far-left side of the nonfiction spectrum (yellow) reflects minimal author presence. The books here might include dictionaries, encyclopedias, or other reference materials. The nonfiction authors behind these books strive to project objectivity. They’re arguably creative, but their creativity is not readily apparent, and readers do not expect it. 

By contrast, at the right side of the nonfiction spectrum, readers anticipate true stories and welcome the storyteller’s creativity. These nonfiction authors play with voice, point of view, narrative arc, and other elements.

Notably, the Author Presence Spectrum exists in fiction, too (orange). Because writers and readers generally approach fiction and nonfiction differently, our tool includes two spectrums. The fiction spectrum nudges up to nonfiction, beginning with fact-based fiction—stories built from the real world (e.g., Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Alicia Williams’ Genesis Begins Again). The fiction-end of the spectrum flows toward fantasy and science-fiction where authors invent entire worlds (e.g. M.T. Anderson’s Feed).

The space between fiction and nonfiction spectrums ripples with controversy where fact blends with fiction. 


Think about this: In the author’s note for Island: A Story of the Galapagos, Jason Chin writes that the “specifics of the story are educated guesses and should not be taken as fact.” Yet, readers will find the book shelved among the 508.866 Science and Natural History books in the nonfiction section.

Lee Gutkind, author of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, advises that nonfiction should contain nothing imaginary—no fudging on dialog, setting, chronology, etc. He explains, “The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.” 

To him, narrative nonfiction books—those with a high degree of author presence—are “true stories well told.” And that’s where nonfiction ends. Anything else is simply not true and, therefore, fiction. 

But John D’Agata, known for his essays and books about writing essays, claims that truth alone matters—how you reach the truth can be less than historically accurate or precisely factual.


One of my biographies falls in that questionable space between nonfiction and fiction. In Noah Webster’s Fighting Words, I wrote about Noah Webster’s first American dictionary in third-person with a light tone that reflects some author presence. 


Then, based on biographical facts and a psychological analysis, I added fun but fictional first-person comments from Noah Webster’s ghost. The book gained humor and playfulness, making it much more interesting for young readers and still true to Webster’s story.

Nodding slightly to Lee Gutkind, I think informational fiction children’s books like mine should not hide what’s made up. Young readers lack the skills, experience, and knowledge necessary to critically evaluate these texts. For example, in my book, the ghost’s comments appear in red and in a different font from the main text.

Incorporating signals so the reader knows to expect fictionalized elements helps ensure understanding. Without those signals, readers might misinterpret facts or blindly accept misinformation. Children’s authors can even use their author presence to illuminate how they’re blending fact and fiction. 

Certainly, the idea of author presence isn’t new and this spectrum concept has its faults. However, analyzing books using the spectrum has shown me that most nonfiction books that I love to read now (and I do love to read them!) reveal a lot of author presence. The spectrum also helps to confirm for writers of nonfiction that readers may welcome our presence as we present facts in engaging, compelling, and memorable ways.

Tracy Nelson Maurer has written more than 100 books for children and young adults, including the picture-book biographies John Deere, That's Who! and Samuel Morse, That’s Who! Both books are Junior Library Guild selections and received the National Science Teaching Association’s “Best STEM Book” award. Tracy holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and she continues to study children’s books when she’s not writing them.