Friday, May 31, 2013

Why I Love School Visits

This year I’ve had some of my most fun school visits ever. Last week, I ended my school visit season with a bang by visiting grades K-3 at Swift River School in New Salem, MA and grades 3-5 at Birch Hill School in Nashua, NH.

The teachers and librarians at both schools had done a great job preparing the students, and that makes a huge difference.

Following my visit, the kindergarteners  at Swift River School created this awesome card for me.
Here's the front.
And here's the inside. I love the froggie, which matches the theme of my presentation.

The last program of the year was with two grade 5 classes at Birch Hill School, and I swear, it was like talking to a group of engaged, thoughtful colleagues. We had a great discussion that ranged from plagiarism, to the pros and cons of doing research on the Internet, to the joys and frustrations of revision. Those kids were amazing!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Behind the Books: What Are Inquiry Books, Interpretation Books, Disciplinary Thinking Books, and Action Books?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been looking at a great new nonfiction classification system developed by a group of educators and children’s book enthusiasts who call themselves the Uncommon Corp.

The group’s system consist of seven categories, and today I’m going to look at four that may take a bit of time and thinking to digest. For the last few years, most of us have lumped all kinds of non-expository nonfiction books into the narrative nonfiction category, even though they may not have truly fit.

Narrative nonfiction tells a story. It has a narrative arc that employs alternating bits of scene and summary to present a topic. If a book doesn’t do that, it isn’t narrative nonfiction, but it may not be expository or data either.

The Uncommon Corp has teased apart everything we’ve tried to heap in the narrative nonfiction pile and found four groups that they think (and I agree) should be considered on their own terms.

How did nonfiction offerings become so diverse in such a short time?  Because authors have been experimenting. The excitement of narrative nonfiction made authors giddy, and they began to play. They began to think about structure as adaptable, depending on the facts available and the story they wanted to tell.

Why has this tinkering been embraced by publishers? There are two important reasons.
-- By the mid-2000s, straightforward, kid-friendly information was widely available for free on the Internet. That made books written in a straightforward way less marketable.
--The No Child Left Behind Act 2001 caused schools to change how they spent money. Many school librarian positions were cut, and book budgets were slashed.

Suddenly, the demand for nonfiction books decreased, and publishers had to find new ways to make their books stand out. In other words, competition fueled innovation.

As authors searched for ways to make their writing as engaging as possible, four new kinds of books emerged, and now they finally have names.

Books in the Disciplinary Thinking (Experts at Work) category reveal how scientists and historians ask questions, evaluate evidence, and form theories.

In Inquiry (Ask and Answer) Books, the author begins with a question and then takes readers along on the journey to find answers.

To write Interpretation (Point of View) Books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. As I said in a previous post, I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action Books invite kids do more than sit in a chair and read. Some include activities or experiments, and some are a call to action. They encourage kids to go out and do something that will make a difference in the world.

So that’s it. My four-part explanation of how nonfiction for kids has evolved over the last couple of decades and why I think this new classification system perfectly encapsulates the current state of the genre and all it has to offer.

What do you think of the New Nonfiction Taxonomy?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: How does static electricity tell time?
A: With a shock clock.

Q: Why did the scientist bury the battery?
A: It was dead.

Q: When does a battery go shopping?
A: When it’s out of juice.

Q: Why do scientists study electricity?
A: To learn about current events.

Q: Why did the people put sunflowers in their garden?
A: They wanted their own power plants.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Shockingly Silly Jokes About Electricity and Magnetism.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Behind the Books: Narrative Nonfiction for Kids

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been discussing a great new nonfiction classification system developed by a group that calls themselves the Uncommon Corp. Look at last week’s post for more about two of those categories (Data and Expository). Today I’m going to focus on narrative nonfiction.
If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve questioned whether narrative nonfiction really deserves all the attention and praise that has been lavished on it in the last few years. Sure, there are some great narrative nonfiction books being published, but based on what I hear from educators, I don’t think all kids connect with them.

I also think that because the “gatekeepers” have put so much focus on narrative books in recent years, some of the other great nonfiction titles being published haven’t received as much attention as they deserve. And I believe that does young analytical thinkers a disservice.

Narrative nonfiction began to pop up in adult books as early as the 1960s and 1970s. Some people cite Truman Capote's In Cold Blood as the first book in which a narrative arc was sustained throughout an entire nonfiction work.

The first evidence I’ve found of narrative nonfiction in children’s books dates to the late 1990s. The form slowly built steam during the 2000s, and in recent years, it’s been all the rage.

What I like about the new classification is that it names, and in so doing, legitimizes six other kids of nonfiction books for kids. It shows us all that kids (and authors) have lots of options. We should all explore those options and appreciate that they exist.
I hope that authors like Candace Flemming and Steve Sheinkin and Elizabeth Partridge continue to produce engaging true narratives for young readers, but I’m really excited that this new system recognizes other forms and invites readers and authors to branch out.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Having Fun with Common Core: Comparing Texts

When I began this strand of my blog, I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough to say to fill a whole school year. Turns out, I do. In fact, I could probably start all over again and include more great books that have just come out or that I’ve just discovered.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s look at CCSS ELA Reading Informational Text #9. It’s all about comparing texts (at the lower grades) and integrating ideas (at the upper grades).

Integration of Knowledge & Ideas #9


Grade 1

Grade 2

With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic

Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic.

Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.

Integrate information from two texts on the same topic to write or speak about a subject knowledgeably.

Integrate information from several texts on the same topic to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

At grades K-1, I’m suggesting comparing fiction and nonfiction titles on the same topic. Here are two great pairs:

The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder (illus Lynee Cherry)
Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale
Birds by Kevin Henkes (illus. by Laura Dronzek)

For grades 2-3, here are titles in which both books are nonfiction, but the approach is quite different:
When the Wolves Returned by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (photos Dan and Cassie Hartman)

The Wolves Are Back by Jean Craighead George (illus. Wendell Minor)

The Tale of Pale Male by Jeanette Winter

City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy

The goals for grades 4 and 5 have to do with integrating texts, rather than just comparing them, so I’ll talk about that in my next Monday post.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Fun: A New Friend

Last week, I enjoyed four glorious days in the Poconos Region of Pennsylvania as a mentor for the Highlights Foundation's annual Science Writing Boot Camp.

I worked with three talented students and enjoyed hanging out with an all-star faculty that included Highlights Science Editor Andy Boyles, photographer and former Ranger Rick Editor Gerry Bishop, highly-respected Canadian science writer Jude Isabella, and Move Books editor Eileen Robinson. But my favorite new friend was so adorable that I just had to share a photo.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Behind the Books: A Closer Look at Data & Expository Nonfiction for Kids

Last week, I introduced a great new nonfiction classification system developed by the Uncommon Corps. Now I’m going to take a closer look at two of their categories—Data (Facts First) and Expository (Facts Plus).

Once upon a time, all nonfiction for kids (and adults) was expository. These books presented facts and offered explanations in a direct, straightforward way. Text flowed uninterrupted for pages at a time with occasional B&W photos decorating the pages. Let’s face it. Sometimes the writing was pretty dry and stodgy by today’s standards.

But nonfiction has evolved tremendously over the last 20 or so years. I entered publishing in the early 1990s, so I’ve had a front row seat to all these changes.

I have vivid memories of pasting up a book called Animal Skeletons in 1995. It was a great book, but pasting it up was a royal pain in the neck because it had so many illustrations of (what else) animal skeletons.

Pasting up involved cutting out blocks of text and images, slathering the backs with rubber cement, and creating the pages by hand. I remember there was a lot of tissue paper involved, and making changes was to be avoided at all costs. This labor intensive process really limited the creativity involved in designing and laying out books.
But technology saved us! Desktop publishing software came on the market in 1987.
It caught on in the U.S. around 1992, and publishers had fully transitioned by 1996.

Before most American publishers were up to speed, the Brits took us by surprise. Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Books entered the U.S. marketplace in 1991. And by the late 1990s, these Data (Facts First) Books had revolutionized children’s nonfiction.

All publishers began using subheads liberally and including sidebars to breaking things up. Most elementary-level books were printed in full color and, of course, designers went to town.

Join me next week for more of the story.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Having Fun with Common Core: Supporting Points

The main idea of CCSS ELA Reading Informational Text #8 is encouraging kids to notice how authors support their points. While it’s true that writers can state and support their points in a wide variety of ways, one popular strategy in nonfiction picture books is to state it directly on the first spread and then support it with a different example on subsequent spreads.

Integration of Knowledge & Ideas #8


Grade 1

Grade 2

With prompting and support, identify the reasons an author gives to support points in a text.

Identify the reasons an author gives to support points in a text.

Describe how reasons support specific points the author makes in a text.

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Describe the logical connection between particular sentences and paragraphs in a text (e.g., comparison, cause/effect, first/second/third in a sequence).

Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.

Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

For grades K, you can get kids started with a fun, easy book: Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page.
For grades 1 and 2 try:
A Rainbow of Animals by Melissa Stewart

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)

A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)

A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)

For grade 3, good choices include:

Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
Wings by Sneed Collard

For grades 4-5, I recommend:

Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Born to Be Giants by Lita Judge

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? By Steve Jenkins

Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why did the toad play a trick on the daddy longlegs?
A: It’s easy to pull its leg.

Q: Who’s a scorpion’s favorite musical performer?
A: Sting.

Q: Why was the tick mad at his friend?
A: There was bad blood between them.

Q: How did the mites spend their Saturday night?
A: Dancing cheek to cheek.

Q: What did the pill bug say to his friend when he spotted a bird?
A: Let’s roll.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Creepy, Crawly Jokes About Spiders and Other Bugs.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Behind the Books: A Whole New Nonfiction Family Tree

Recently, I had the great privilege and pleasure of being a guest lecturer for an online course taught by renowned children’s book author and editor Marc Aronson for Rutgers University. The class is called Nonfiction and Common Core, and the students are working toward their master’s degree in library information science.

We had some great discussions, and I probably learned more from those bright, engaged students than they learned from me. But the absolute highlight was getting a sneak peek into the entire curriculum, which included a lesson called “Nonfiction Taxonomy.”

Taxonomy? Hmm. Sound a whole lot like one of my pet projects—developing a nonfiction family tree, doesn’t it? So I plunged into that lesson craving insight.

 It turns out that Marc and his Uncommon Corps colleagues have developed a brand new, totally amazing system for classifying children’s nonfiction. It’s basically accomplishes what I had in mind with my nonfiction family tree, but the Uncommon Corp is light years ahead of my feeble attempt to get a handle on the broad range of nonfiction currently being published for young readers.

The Uncommon Corps has come up with seven broad categories for classifying nonfiction for children and they have graciously given me permission to share it here.

Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there's nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.

As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author's approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn't. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.
Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to look more closely at each of these categories in the next few weeks. But before I go, I wanted to show you how I would place these seven categories on my brand-spanking-new nonfiction family tree.

The branching is based on commonalities I see between the various kinds of books and how they may have evolved in reaction to advances in technology and market conditions. As always, my tree is a work in progress, but I’m feeling better about it all the time.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Having Fun with Common Core: Interpreting Visual Elements

Of course, photos and artwork aren’t the only kinds of visual elements students are going to encounter in life, so the CCSS for ELA Reading Informational Text #7 goals for upper elementary focus on maps, charts, graphs, and more.

Integration of Knowledge & Ideas #7

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Use information gained from maps, photos, and other illustrations and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding where, when, why, and how key events occur.

Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (charts, graphs, diagrams) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.

At grade 3 and 4, some good choices include my A Place for . . . books, which have maps on the end papers and diagrams scattered throughout.  Mosquito Bite and Sneeze!, both by Alexandra Siy & Dennis Kunkle, feature a stunning array of micrographs as well as images of kids.
For grade 5, look for books with a solid table of contents and index. Examples include:
Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Amelia Lost by Candice Flemming
Titanic by Deborah Hopkinson
We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson

Friday, May 3, 2013

Friday Fun: Why I Love School Visits

Last week I had a terrific visit with the students and teachers at Griswold Elementary School in Connecticut. The minute I walked into the school, I knew it was going to be a great day. Everywhere I looked I could see signs that the kids were well prepared and enthusiastic about my visit.

The hard-working second graders did a great job getting ready for the When Rain Falls Readers Theater that began each program, and we had a blast together during special sessions just for them. The kindergarteners and first graders were familiar with a wide range of my books and had so many wonderful questions.

The highlight of the day was receiving a lovely homemade card from my new friend Morgan. Here’s the front. I especially like that she included page numbers in the book.

And here’s the inside:
Clearly, Morgan put some serious time and effort into this card. She had to find a photo of herself and glue it in. Thank you, Morgan. I'm going to hang it on my inspiration wall.
And thanks so much to Mrs. Hershey and Mrs. Salina for making it a great day for everyone.