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.

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