Friday, September 20, 2019

Language Matters: How We Talk about Nonfiction

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on March 27, 2019.

Recently, I read an article that contained this sentence:

“While writ­ing non­fic­tion, I use every sin­gle fic­tion tech­nique a nov­el­ist uses.”

The author then provides a series of examples of how she includes characters, scenes, conflict, rich language, voice, etc. in her writing.

Sound good?

Not to me.

While I applaud authors who draw back the curtain to reveal their creative process, I’m so, so, SO sick and tired of reading articles in which authors describe how they borrow and make good use of fiction craft moves in their nonfiction writing.

Newsflash, folks. If you are writing nonfiction, any craft technique you incorporate is a nonfiction craft technique. Period.

Well developed characters.
Carefully crafted scenes.
A compelling narrative arc that elicits an emotional response.
Strong voice.
Rich language.
These are NOT fiction techniques. They are writing techniques, and they can be employed in either fiction or nonfiction. Or poetry, for that matter.

Not all nonfiction includes all of these elements, and that’s okay. The truth is nonfiction is much more versatile than fiction. There are so many different kinds of nonfiction, from a recipe scrawled on a napkin to a legal contract to a finely-crafted book that wins the National Book Award.

As writers, we know that words are important. Language matters. When we talk about the craft of nonfiction writing, let’s be more careful. Let’s make sure we give nonfiction the respect it deserves.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

We Need Diverse Nonfiction


In December 2017, I proposed a system for classifying children’s nonfiction that many writers and educators seem to find useful.* The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction divides the wide world of nonfiction into 5 distinct categories—active, browseable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. Here are the main characteristics of each category: 
Click to enlarge

At nErDcampMI in July 2018, I did a presentation about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, and afterward, Terry Thompson, an editor at Stenhouse Publishing, invited me to write a book about it. I’m happy to announce that 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Informational Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, co-authored with Marlene Correia—a professor of literacy education, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2020.

Initially, Marlene and I planned to feature a rich assortment of diverse books and diverse authors, especially BIPOC authors. But as we began searching for titles, we quickly realized just how difficult that would be. 

Even though there has been an encouraging uptick in diverse fiction in recent years, nonfiction has lagged behind. In some cases, far, far, far behind. In fact, we couldn’t find any active or browseable books written by BIPOC authors. 

That’s right, zero. Zilch. Nada.

We identified only three BIPOC authors who write traditional nonfiction, and only four who have written expository literature. These are heartbreaking statistics.

The slightly better news is that we identified about twenty BIPOC authors who have written narrative nonfiction (mostly picture book biographies). But even this isn’t enough. We need diverse nonfiction!

Because publishing houses are businesses, and businesses want to make money, one of the best ways to ensure that more books by BIPOC authors are published in the future is to buy (and ask our local libraries to buy) the few books that are currently available. 

And so, today, I’m highlighting the seven BIPOC authors of traditional nonfiction and expository literature that we were able to identify. If you know of others, please leave their names in the comments, so people can make a point of buying their books too.

Expository Literature
Silvia Lopez is the author of an innovative new book called Handimals: Animals in Art and Nature, which features amazing images of art created by body make-up artist Guido Daniele.


Baptiste Paul is the co-author with his wife, Miranda Paul, of Adventures to School: Real-Life Journeys of Students from Around the World, which describes some of the surprising ways children in different countries travel to school.


Anita Sanchez has written two fun, informative expository nonfiction titles for a middle-grade audience: Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, and Slime: Nature’s Decomposers and Itch! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about What Makes You Scratch.


Traci Sorell makes skillful use of figurative language in her lyrical debut title, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which received the Sibert Medal Honor Award, the Orbis Pictus Honor Award, and the Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award.


Traditional Nonfiction
Christine Taylor Butler has written dozens of wonderful expository nonfiction titles for elementary readers on topics ranging from amphibians and the moon to the Missouri River and the supreme court. (For any editors reading this, Christine would be the perfect choice for trade and mass market leveled reader series.)


Virginia Loh-Hagan specializes in writing high-interest expository nonfiction for middle-grade readers as well as professional books for educators. She is also a popular, high-energy professional development speaker.


Andrea Wang has written a half-dozen traditional nonfiction titles for the school and library market. More recently, she seems to have switched her focus to fiction and narrative nonfiction.

And finally, I’ll end this post with the names of some BIPOC authors who have written narrative nonfiction. Thanks to
Alyson Beecher for her help in compiling this list, which we acknowledge is probably not complete. If you can think of additional names, please leave them in the comments.

Troy Andrews, Tonya Bolden, Joseph Bruchac, Jason Chin, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Anika Denise, Alice Faye Duncan, Margarita Engel, Kadir Nelson, S.D. Nelson, Teresa Robeson, Gwendolyn Hooks, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Ray Anthony Shepard, Javaka Steptoe, Don Tate, Duncan Tonatiuh, Patricia Valdez, Carole Boston Weatherford, Paula Yoo.

*Initially, I was using a family tree as a visual model for the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system, but as I thought more about it, I realized that analogy didn’t quite work.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 2

Last Monday, I began talking about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify them as they read and include them as they write.

The first key characteristic of expository writing that sings is a narrowly-focused topic. Broad topics lead to general writing that lacks passion and excitement, but specific topics allow writers to really dig in and be creative (while still adhering to the facts). One of the easiest and most authentic ways to develop a narrow topic is by starting with a question.

For example, my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying began with one sentence in a magazine article: “Hummingbird eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world.”

When I read those words, my mind exploded with questions. Birds have eyelashes? And they’re made of feathers? Exactly how small are they, and what do they look like?

All these questions eventually led me to a bigger question: How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? Feathers: Not Just for Flying answers that question by providing sixteen examples.

The seed for Can an Aardvark Bark? was planted during a family trip to Disney World when my nephew was 9 and my nieces were 7 and 5.

One day we decided to take a break from the rides and visit the Animal Kingdom, where we saw two adorable cotton-top tamarin monkeys. The informational plaque on their cage told us the monkeys’ natural habitat and range, what they eat, and the sounds they make. It said they bark.

My nieces and nephew were skeptical. But then, as if on cue, the monkeys started vocalizing. That night my nephew asked a great question: “Do you think there are a lot of different animals that bark?” Researching that question with him eventually led me to write a book about a wide variety of animal sounds.

My upcoming book, Summertime Sleep: Animals that Estivate, began with a trip to the library in 2011. I spotted a 250-page book about hibernation and asked myself, “Is there really that much to say about hibernation?” As I read the book, I came across a single paragraph about an animal behavior I’d never heard of—estivation.

After reading that paragraph, I had SO many questions. I NEEDED to know more about how and why a wide range of animals, from snails and salamanders to fish and hedgehogs, rest all summer long. I can’t wait to share all the cool things I discovered when the book is published.

To help students develop a spirit of inquiry:

—Encourage them to be open to new ideas and information all the time. When I read the “hummingbird eyelashes” tidbit, I was working on another book, but I still paid attention. I was on vacation when we saw the barking monkeys, but I didn’t let that experience slip away.

—Model ways students can keep track of questions they have or things they’re curious about. I am constantly tacking things, like the “hummingbird eyelashes” article, to the idea board in my office.

You could have an idea board or a Wonder Wall in your classroom, or students could keep track of their questions and ideas on the last page of their writer’s notebook. When it’s time to do a nonfiction writing project, students can look through the questions and use one of them to fuel their own journey of discovery.

Even if you give your students an umbrella topic that compliments your curriculum, such as the Revolutionary War, a list of questions is still a valuable tool. Students can use them to brainstorm alone or with a buddy. If they notice a commonality to their questions, they can see if there’s a way to apply that to the umbrella topic.

For example, if a child has lots of weather-related questions, maybe s/he could write about weather during the Revolutionary War. Since it was an exceptionally snowy period in history, that would be a great topic. If a child gets excited about numbers, maybe s/he could create a series of infographics comparing statistics related to different battles or the two different armies.

When natural curiosity guides the research and writing process, and when children are encouraged to zero in on what they find most fascinating, their final piece is bound to burst with passion and personality. Why not give it a try?

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Community of Experts

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay, which is perfect for the beginning of the school year, originally appeared on October 20, 2017.

By now, we all know that students write most enthusiastically when they choose their own topic. But this can cause some research dilemmas. What if your library doesn’t have suitable sources on the topics they select? What if the reading level of websites is too advanced?
Professional nonfiction writers often have trouble finding information too. Even a nationwide or worldwide search may yield little information on a specific topic. For example, when I was working on No Monkeys, No Chocolate, I was frustrated that no one had ever written about the animals that interact with cocoa trees.

While writing an upcoming book about prehistoric creatures, I encountered a lot of conflicting information—even in scientific papers. Some days I felt so confused because I couldn’t tell which sources were the most reliable.

What do I do when I hit snags like these? I ask an expert. And there’s no reason your students can’t do the same thing.

Over the years, I’ve built relationships with scientists in various disciplines. These researchers are always happy to help me track down little-known resources or identify the leading theories among scientists in a particular field.

Your school can create a similar community of experts. Everyone is an expert in something. By surveying parents at the beginning of each school year, you can discover what they’re passionate about and whether they’re willing to answer questions on that topic from a child doing a report. You can also identify community workers who would be willing to assist students. It’s a great way to help students understand how professional writers go about their work.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's International Rock Flipping Day!

We all know that September 11 is the anniversary of one of the worst days in U.S. history, but the date also has a more fun side. It’s International Rock Flipping Daya time to celebrate all those critters that live under rocks as well as the natural curiosity that inspires us to take a closer look at the world around us.

All you have to do is go outside and look under a rock or two. Then record what you see by drawing, painting, taking photographs or writing about it. (If you live where there might be poisonous creatures under there, like scorpions or snakes, you might want to use a stick to flip the rocks.) When you are done, carefully return the rock to its original position.

It’s fun and easy and you just might meet some pretty cool critters.


Monday, September 9, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 1

Back at the end of 2017, I proposed a system for classifying nonfiction that many writers and educators seem to find useful. Initially, I was thinking of it as a family tree, but that analogy didn’t quite work, so now I just call it the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction.

This system divides the wide world of nonfiction into 5 categories—active, browseable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. You can read more about it in an article I wrote for SLJ.

 
Even though many children’s book publishers are currently focused on narrative nonfiction—books that tell a true story or convey an experience, these books are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great nonfiction for kids. In fact, four of the five categories in my classification system have an expository writing style. These books explain, describe, or inform.

Studies show that roughly 40 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction, while another 30 percent enjoy expository and narrative writing (fiction and nonfiction) equally. Research also shows that about 40 percent of the books elementary students check out of the school library to read for pleasure are expository nonfiction.

Since expository nonfiction is the type of text students will be asked to write most frequently in school and in their future careers, it makes sense for educators, writers, and publishers to understand the key characteristics of finely-crafted expository writing and provide students with mentor texts that exemplify those traits.

That’s why, for the next few Mondays, I’ll be sharing posts with book recommendations and suggestions for teaching students to craft high-quality expository nonfiction—informational writing that sings.

As I’ve written here, to create finely-crafted nonfiction, it’s critically important to choose a focused topic. One of the best ways to do that is by starting with a question, so, next week, I’ll continue this blog series by discussing ways to help students formulate and keep track of questions.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Happy 10th Anniversary, Celebrate Science!

It’s hard to believe, but I began this blog 10 years ago this week. I’ve been posting three times a week (during the school year) ever since. That's more than 1,100 posts in all!

Over the summer, I took a look at many of my earlier posts. There are some topics that I’ve written about many times, and others that I wrote about just once or twice and then abandoned. In some ways, my thinking about writing and nonfiction in general has changed and expanded and evolved over time, but some of the ideas I had a decade ago still seem to hold true.

And so on Fridays, this year, I’ve decided to resurrect and update some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think continue to be informative to people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today I’m going to begin this process by sharing my very first posts from September 2, 2009. It’s as true now as it was then.




Aha Moments!
It was 1996. My first children’s book had just been accepted for publication, and I was headed to East Africa to do research for a second book. Life was good.

As friends and family heard about my success, I received a flood of phone calls. They congratulated me, of course. But they also asked some unexpected questions.

“So now are you going to write a real book? You know, one for adults.”

“It’s nonfiction? That’s great. But wouldn’t you rather write fiction?”

These questions confused me. They made me wonder and worry. Was I headed down the wrong path? Was writing for children a waste of time? Was nonfiction less important than fiction?


Luckily, my journey halfway around the world gave me the perspective—and the answers—I needed.

One night around a campfire at the edge of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, our group leader said she was fascinated by aha moments—seemingly small experiences that change the course of a person’s life. She asked the circle of scientists if they could recall such events from their own lives.

When my turn came, I described exploring a wooded area in western Massachusetts with my dad and brother when I was around eight years old. As we hiked, my dad asked lots of questions:

“Why do stone walls run through the middle of the woods?”

“Why do sassafras trees have three kinds of leaves?”

“Why don’t chipmunks build their nests in trees like squirrels?”

He wanted us to think about our surroundings, and he knew a guessing game would be more engaging than a lecture.

As we reached the top of a hill, my dad stopped and scanned the landscape. Then he asked if we noticed anything unusual about that area of the woods.

My brother and I looked around. We looked at each other. We shook our heads.
 
But then, suddenly, the answer came to me. “All the trees seem kind of small,” I said.

My dad nodded. He explained that there had been a fire in the area about twenty-five years earlier. All the trees had burned and many animals had died, but over time, the forest had recovered.

Why was that an aha moment? Because I instantly understood the power of nature. I also realized that a field, a forest, any natural place has stories to tell, and I could discover those stories just by looking.

As the firelight flickered across the African savanna and I described my childhood insights, heads nodded all around me. I was among a group of new friends, kindred spirits who understood my fascination with the natural world.

They knew why I didn’t write fiction. They knew why children were my primary audience. And suddenly, so did I. It was another aha moment.

Now, many years later, I’ve written more than 180 children’s books about science and nature. Some people still ask me why I’ve never written a book for adults. Others want to know if I’ll ever write a novel. But these questions no longer bother me.

I know that my personal mission, the purpose of my writing, is to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with children of all ages. If one of my books inspires a child to lift up a rock and look underneath or chase after a butterfly just to see where it’s going, then my job is done.