Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Beyond the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Blended Books, Part 1



Over the past few years, dozens of teachers and librarians have worked with students to sort books using the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system. 

Again and again, they’ve reported that students are excited to think about nonfiction in this way. Children as young as 7 were able to sort books effectively, and most students could easily identify a favorite category. Here are some of their comments:

I like active nonfiction because . . .

“it teaches you to do the things you want to do.” —Gina, fourth grader

“you get to do things while you read. That makes me feel calmer.” —Jack, fourth grader


I like browseable books because . . .

 “you have a lot of choices about how you read. It’s like the potluck dinners at my church.” —Matthew, fourth grader

“I can learn a ton of new, and sometimes crazy, facts. I like to learn new facts so I can share them with family and friends.” Clara, fourth grader


I like expository literature because . . .

“it has facts plus it can make you think about something in a new way.” —Rowan, fourth grader


“it can surprise you. And sometimes it’s like playing a game.” —Ryan, fourth grader


I like narrative nonfiction because . . .

“it has characters and a story that is a real situation! It is like I Survived and other fiction books.”
Miles, second grader

“I’m not a nonfiction type, so it really helps me learn more without having to read constant facts.” Flynn, fourth grader


But one student comment in particular blew us away:

“I think you should add an ‘oddball’ category. It’s for books that are a mix of two or more categories.”  —Austin, fourth grader

Austin is right. While most nonfiction children’s books fit snugly into one specific category, some titles are outliers that feature characteristics of two or more categories. For the next few weeks, I’m going to take a close up look at these “blended books.”

For example, books in the National Geographic Readers series blur the line between browseable nonfiction and traditional nonfiction. 

These titles feature a colorful, eye-catching design with plenty of photos and other text features (browseable), but the main text extends over many spreads, which makes them most appropriate for reading section by section or from cover to cover (traditional). I’ve written thirteen books in this series, and I can tell you from firsthand experience at school visits that kids love them.


For more information about this kind of blended nonfiction, be on the look out for 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books, coming soon from Stenhouse Publishing. 

Next week, we’ll look at books with characteristics of both browsable books and expository literature. Stay tuned. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

What’s “In Media Res”?

In eighth grade, I had an English teacher named Mr. Biggs. We met during fifth period—right after lunch—every day. 

Mr. Biggs loved to share “cocktail information”—random tidbits of information that might one day come in handy as we tried to make small talk at a cocktail party. What I remember most is the enthusiasm with which he shared these tidbits.

Mr. Biggs was enthusiastic about everything—especially the stories we read and analyzed, which is probably why much of what we learned that year remains firmly in my memory. One example is the term “in media res”—a story that starts in the middle of the action and then backtracks to the beginning. 


While most narrative nonfiction for children has a chronological sequence text structure overall, in media res openings are quite common. One of my favorite examples is Bomb by Steve Sheinkin.


Recently, author Heather Montgomery sent me this wonderful piece from Transom in which Rob Rosenthal dissects a radio story that employs what he calls the “e” story structure. Turns out e = in media res, but after hearing Rosenthal’s explanation, I might just prefer his terminology. Sorry, Mr Biggs. 

If you’re interested learning more about how narrative nonfiction can be constructed, I highly recommend you take 26 minutes to listen.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Booktalking Nonfiction


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. 

Not long ago, I saw this list of recommended components for a booktalk:
TitleAuthor
Genre
Main character
Plot bit

And boy, did it frost my britches. 

Why? Because the person who created this list assumed the booktalker was talking about a fiction title. What about nonfiction? It’s important to booktalk these titles too because many kids prefer nonfiction.


So here’s my list of suggested components for a nonfiction booktalk:
Title
Author
Audience
Text structure
Writing style (expository or narrative)
Voice 
Content bit
Art bit

Here’s an example:

“Imagine you woke up one morning and had jackrabbit ears! What would you look like? Would the world sound different? 

“In the expository nonfiction list book What If You Had Animal Ears?, author Sandra Markle uses clear, straightforward text to introduce us to eleven animals with amazing ears. 

“Did you know a jackrabbit’s ears give off body heat to help it stay cool? And a Tasmanian devil’s ears blush red when its excited or upset? There’s so much interesting information in this book, and it’s chock full of captivating photos and fun illustrations that will make you want laugh out loud! 

“At the end of the book, you’ll find out what makes your ears so special. Trust me. This is a book you won’t want to miss.”

Why not invite your students to create a booktalk for their favorite nonfiction title?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Active 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’ve been discussing each of the categories and providing an updated list of exemplar books. You can scroll down to read the earlier post. Today, I’m finishing up by discussing active nonfiction

Active nonfiction has been around since at least the 1980s, but thanks to the maker movement, these books have really hit their stride in recent years. And now, with the Coronavirus causing school shutdowns, Nielsen BookScan data show that this kind of nonfiction is leading juvenile book sales. 

Active nonfiction titles are highly interactive and/or teach skills that readers can use to engage in an activity. Written with an expository writing style, these field guides, craft books, cookbooks, books of scientific experiments, book-model combinations, etc. are richly designed and carefully formatted to make the information and procedures they present clear and accessible.

These books, which are currently extremely popular with young readers, are the perfect addition to school and library makerspaces. And they're perfect for lessons like this one developed by school librarian Tom Bober.

Here are some recently-published examples:

Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain by Jennifer Swanson

Code This! Puzzles, Games, Challenges, and Computer Coding Concepts for the Problem Solver in You by Jennifer Szymanski

Cooking Class Global Feast! 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook

Hair-Raising Hairstyles that Make a Statement by Rebecca Rissman 

The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes by Doug Stillinger

National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America by Jonathan Alderfer 

Ralph Masiello’s Alien Drawing Book by Ralph Masiello

Wildlife Ranger Action Guide: Track, Spot & Provide Healthy Habitat for Creatures Close to Home by Mary Kay Carson

Monday, April 13, 2020

Thinking About the 5-Paragraph Essay


Lately, the 5-paragraph essay has been getting a bad rap. After all, there’s really nothing wrong with an essay composed of an introduction, a conclusion, and three paragraphs that explain and/or support a main point sandwiched in between. In fact, it can be an effective way to structure a piece of nonfiction writing.

But it’s certainly not the only way. And therein lies the problem. While students should have the opportunity to practice explaining ideas and composing arguments in 5 paragraphs, they should also learn and practice lots of other ways of writing. 

So now that we’ve agreed the 5-paragraph essay isn’t evil—in fact it can really come in handy—I’d like to point out that sharing nonfiction children’s books with a list text structure can be a great way to show students that some authors use a similar format as they write.   

What exactly is a list book? It has an expository writing style, and the main idea is presented on the first double-page spread. Then each subsequent spread offers one (or more) examples that support that idea. In most cases, a list book has a concluding spread that links back to the opening or offers a fun twist on the topic, leaving readers with a sense of satisfaction. 


Sound familiar? A list book is basically a 10-ish paragraph essay (depending on how the book is designed and how many double-page spreads are devoted to backmatter). 


When students create a spread-by-spread book map of a list book, its similarity to a 5-paragraph essay quickly becomes clear, showing students that this kind of writing is authentic. It's more than just a classroom construct or a test-prep activity, it’s a kind of writing that professional writers have used—and in some cases modified in innovative ways—to create some of kids' favorite nonfiction picture books. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Three Tips for Writing Teachers

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 November 14, 2016.

Recently, a teacher tweeted me with this question:

"When kids revise, their changes may not be improvements. How can we lead them to make their manuscripts better?"

That’s a great question, but it’s not something that can be answered in 140 characters. And in fact, I’m not sure there is an answer—at least not one teachers will like.

I think that the only honest answer is that revision is messy, and sometimes our attempts to re-envision our writing are complete and utter failures. That’s why writing is hard.

As I describe in this Revision Timeline, creating the picture book No Monkeys, No Chocolate was a 10-year journey. When I share this timeline with students, the first question the ask is: “Does it always take so long to write a book?"

No, it doesn’t. (Thank goodness) But for most of the picture books I write, the journey from inspiration to publication is far longer than most people expect. Here are some stats:

Can an Aardvark Bark? . . . 7 years

Feathers: Not Just for Flying. . . 8 years

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs . . . 7 years

A Place for Butterflies . . . 5 years

Seashells: More than a Home . . . 6 years

Under the Snow . . .  5 years

For each of these manuscripts, I wrote draft after draft after draft. And I openly admit that some of those drafts were worse than the ones that came before them. 

When it comes to writing, not every attempt is an improvement. Not every idea pans out, and you know what, that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Like I said, writing is hard. 

But it’s also important. For more and more people, being able to clearly express ideas and information in writing is a critical job skill. And that’s why I think the best thing a writing teacher can do is:

Be a Coach
A good coach knows how to help players improve by giving them the right advice at the right moment. Writing teachers can do this by building a classroom collection of mentor texts and handing students titles that will address the specific writing elements they’re struggling with. 

For nonfiction, the collection should include books with:
—various formats and text structures
—different writing styles (narrative and expository)
—different voices (lyrical, lively, and various options in between)

—strong verbs
—rich use of language devices (alliteration, onomatopoeia, similes and metaphors, etc.)

Coaches also teach strategies by going over past games play by play. Writing teachers can use old student work to showcase how those writers chose a clever format or used voice well or included strong verbs.

Be a Role Model
Time and again, when I do writing workshops in schools, I see that the classes that do the best are the ones where the teacher participates. She pays attention to what I’m saying. She takes notes. She asks questions. And most importantly, she writes right alongside her students. 

As she writes, she verbalizes the things that are challenging her. She asks her students for advice and suggestions. She encourages them to consult with one another. She shows them that writing is a struggle for everyone, and yet, it’s something that is worthy of her time—and theirs.

Be a Cheerleader
When students feel frustrated or defeated, writing teachers can spur kids on. They can encourage young writers to keep trying by sharing examples of their own setbacks and successes. They can also share the trials and tribulations that professional writers discuss on their blogs or social media. 

When students see that the adults around them struggle with writing, that it's just part of the process, they can learn to move past the frustration they feel and experience their own successes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Expository Literature

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. You can scroll down to read about traditional nonfiction, browseable books, and narrative nonfiction. Today I’m focusing on expository literature.

When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school funding priorities changed. School library budgets were slashed, and many school librarians lost their jobs. Around the same time, the proliferation of websites made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available without cost, which meant traditional survey books about volcanoes or whales or the Boston Tea Party were no longer mandatory purchases for libraries. 

As nonfiction book sales to schools and libraries slumped, authors, illustrators, and publishers began searching for new ways to add value to their work, so they could compete with the internet. The result has been a new breed of finely-crafted expository literature that delights as well as informs.

Besides being meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts, expository literature features captivating art, dynamic design, and rich engaging language. It may also include strong voice, innovative point of view, carefully-chosen text structure, and purposeful text format. 

Unlike traditional nonfiction, expository literature often presents narrowly-focused or specialized topics, such as STEM concepts, in creative ways that reflect the author’s passion for the subject. For example, in the traditional nonfiction book Butterflies by Seymour Simon, children learn all about the graceful insects. The book has a standard format in which each double-page spread features one page of text and one full-page photo. The author employs a description text structure and uses concise, straightforward language. 

But the expository literature title A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston focuses on a butterfly’s most amazing characteristics. The book has an innovative format with two layers of text, stunning art, and a dynamic design. The author presents the information with a wondrous, lyrical voice and makes expert use of such language devices as imagery and personification, inviting readers to think about and appreciate butterflies in a whole new way.  

Because expository literature titles are so carefully crafted, they work especially well as mentor texts in writing workshop. They can also help students recognize patterns, think by analogy, and engage in big picture thinking.

Here are some examples:

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth

Homes in the Wild: Where Baby Animals and Their Parents Live by Lita Judge

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner

Rotten: Vultures, Beetles, Slime and Nature’s Other Decomposers by Anita Sanchez

Seashells: More than a Home by Melissa Stewart

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives Who Inspired the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

Monday, April 6, 2020

Where’s the Expository Social Studies?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I frequently discuss the importance of sharing a diverse array of expository and narrative nonfiction with young readers. While most educators tend to connect strongly to narratives, a growing body of research shows that as many as 42 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction.

But what I probably haven’t stressed enough is the content-area disconnect related to nonfiction writing style. 

Fact 1: A person’s life and a historical event have a built-in timeline.

Fact 2: Nearly all narrative nonfiction has a chronological sequence structure.

These two facts make biographies and event-centered social studies/history books ideally suited for a narrative writing style. As a result, it’s hard to find the books for info-kids who love learning about the past.

I hope publishers will start acquiring more expository literature social studies titles soon. But because lots of kids want these books right now, let’s take a look at the few exceptional titles that already exist.

One author to be on the lookout for is history lover Sarah Albee. She has written a number of books that look at world history through intriguing lenses, including sanitation (Poop Happens! A History of the World from the Bottom Up), disease-causing insects (Bugged! How Insects Changed History), fashion (Why’d They Wear That?), poison (POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines), and I bet there are more great titles on the way.




In all these books, Sarah combines an expository writing style with a playful, humorous voice that her middle-grade audience can’t resist. What’s the secret to her success? Expert use of such language devices as puns, rhyme, alliteration, and surprising phrasing, which makes her work perfect as mentor texts for writing workshop.

Author-illustrator Gene Barretta has created some wonderful nonfiction picture books that blend expository writing with a clever compare and contrast text structure and fun, cartoony art to share the ideas and inspiration of three famous inventors (Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonard DaVinci, Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin, and Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives) and two well-known presidents (Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare). 

For example in Lincoln and Kennedy, each left-hand page presents facts about Abraham Lincoln, while the facing right-hand page offers corresponding information about John F. Kennedy. As a result, readers notice fun patterns as well as startling similarities between the two men’s lives. The book’s ending forges a connection with readers by introducing the term “legacy” and asking children to think about how they plan to exist in the world. I hope Gene has more great expository social studies titles in the works.

One 2020 title that I’m very excited about is The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner. Perfect for an election year, this book pairs an expository writing style and a clever, innovative sequence text structure to highlight that, at any given time in U.S. history, there is one president running the country and many future presidents preparing for their roleeven though they don't know it. And in fact, right nowtoday!there are at least ten future presidents alive in America. They might be playing basketball or drawing a picture, solving math problems or even a reading booklike this one. What a wonderful way to empower kids!

Can you think of other social studies titles that make use of an expository writing style? If so, please share them in the comments below.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Is Write What You Could Teach Good Advice?

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 April 27, 2016.

Sometimes when I visit schools, I discover that teachers are asking young writers to choose nonfiction topics “that you could teach someone about.” For instance, an avid soccer player might write about the rules of soccer. I have just one word for that kind of writing . . . BORING.

Why would a child want to rehash something he or she already knows backward and forward when there’s a wide world of ideas and information out there just waiting to be discovered? 


Think about it this way. I could teach someone how to make a sandwich just the way my husband likes it. I could explain how to wash windows so they don’t streak or how to make “hospital corners” when I change the sheets on a bed. I could describe how to sort trash according to my transfer station’s rules. But why would I want to write about any of these things? I’d be bored, and so would my readers.

I write about science because I’m fascinated by the natural world. When I’m engaged in the world, I’m constantly encountering things that make me ask questions. And to satisfy my curiosity, I want to know more, more, more. Learning more gets me so excited that I’m dying to share my new knowledge with other people. That’s what fuels my writing.


Kids are no different from me. When they focus on ideas and information that they care about, when they conduct research to satisfy their own curiosity, they will craft lively, interesting writing just brimming with passion. And, really, that’s the goal of nonfiction writing—crafting prose that our intended audience wants to read.



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Narrative 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. You can scroll down to read earlier posts about about traditional nonfiction and browseable books. Today I’m focusing on narrative nonfiction.

In the mid-1990s, children’s authors began crafting narrative nonfiction—prose that tells a true story or conveys an experience. Narrative nonfiction appeals to fiction lovers because it includes real characters and settings; narrative scenes; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the events and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while speeding through parts of the true story that don’t require close inspection.



Narrative nonfiction, which typically features rich, engaging language and a chronological sequence text structure, slowly gained momentum during the 2000s. Today, it’s the writing style of choice for biographies and books that focus on historical events. It may also be used in books about animal life cycles or scientific processes, which have a built-in beginning, middle, and end.

Because narrative nonfiction titles often lack headings and other text features, they aren’t as useful for targeted research as other kinds of nonfiction, but they can help young readers get an overall sense of a particular time and place or a person and their important achievements.

Here are some examples:

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Joan Proctor, Reptile Doctor by Patricia Valdez

Karl’s New Beak by Lela Nargi

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Denise 

Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America by Gail Jarrow

Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill by Heather L. Montgomery

Two Brothers, Four Hands by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration by Loree Griffin Burns