Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Booktalking

Booktalking can be a great way to get students excited about the books available in a library or classroom collection. When booktalking a fiction title, you might begin by saying something like “it’s a paranormal romance presented from multiple points of view” or “it’s a contemporary realistic novel with an unreliable narrator.” These descriptions give students a general idea of what they’ll encounter without giving away the book’s plot.

Do you approach nonfiction booktalking in the same way? Probably not. Chances are you focus on what the book’s about. Sure, the topic of a nonfiction book is important. But so is the plot of a novel.

The reason we focus on a nonfiction book’s topic is because we don’t know how to do anything else. That’s because there’s no widely-accepted categories to provide a broad overview. But there should be, and I don’t think it would be that hard to come up with a system that works most of the time.

Earlier this school year, I blogged about nonfiction types (survey, specialized, concept, biography/autobiography), styles (expository, narrative, persuasive), and structures (description, sequence/order, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, and problem & solution). Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about voice and point of view. Why not use them as a starting point for booktalking nonfiction?

For example, if I were booktalking Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee, I might say “it’s an expository survey with a chronological structure; a lively, humorous, conversational voice; and a second-person point of view.

Because Bugged is a book for middle-grade readers, it’s perfectly reasonable that students could have been introduced to all the terms I’ve used above, just as they’ve been introduced to the meaning of “multiple points of view” and “contemporary realistic novel.” My description of Bugged lets readers know that the book is full of fascinating facts explained in context and that it will be fun to read.

This sort of terminology can also be used in written book reviews to give potential readers a stronger sense of how the information is presented. Of course, the trick to the success of this approach is getting everyone up to speed on the terminology.

What do you think? Could it work?


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on book talking nonfiction, which I do think we need to do more of. I find that I change up my style depending on the audience (teachers, kids, parents, etc). I usually try to find a hook that will catch their interest for Cinder by Marissa Meyer I don't usually have to say more than cyborg Cinderella and I have their interest. With nonfiction, I look for what might draw them in...which may be simply - This has some great ick stuff. I know that isn't very academic but once I have them hooked we can move on. On Monday, I shared Feathers with a group of teachers and in that situation, I did want them to see how the similes jump out and so I read part of it and guided them to the structure and style. I am still pondering how to best use all the stuff in your post(s) to strengthen using nonfiction with teachers and students. Keep
    it coming.

  2. I find that my son and his peers all want to know "what it's about." They don't care in the least about how it's written. They want to know something from the story that will hook them.

    Personally, I find it easy to write the type of booktalk you're discussing, but I would find it impossible to say this out loud unless I had memorized it. That said, with the kids, I'd end up telling them what it's about no matter how I prefaced it. What matters to the kids is story. A writing class would be more interested in how a story is constructed, POV, etc.

  3. You're so right, Melissa. We tend to only talk about topic when we introduce n/f books. I will try some of your ideas!

  4. I've received great feedback here, via emails, and on social media. It seems like elementary educators are most interested in emphasizing content and perhaps voice. I agree. As you'll see in next week's post, I think young children's booktalks and general thinking should focus on content.

    Thanks to CCSS, starting in gr 3 they are learning about text structures and writing styles, so by middle school, I was thinking they'd be ready to think about how a piece is written as part of a booktalk. Yet, MS respondents weren't so sure. That's great feedback. Thank you.

    HS educators, on the other hand, seemed very supportive of my ideas, and my fellow writers were thrilled to have this new way of thinking about nonfiction texts. Many of them aren't too familiar with CCSS, so these were all new ideas to them.

    One group who really doesn't seem to be represented in my PLN (I'll have to work on this) is college-level English educators. How are they teaching nonfiction? Are there methods evolving? Are they influenced by CCSS? I just don't know the answers to these questions, but I should try to find out.