Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Behind the Books: Thinking About Back Matter

Common Core has made educators much more focused on back matter in nonfiction books, and that’s a good thing. Source notes, bibliographies, and further reading lists are the perfect places for curious young readers and report-writers to begin exploring a topic that interests them. By grades 4 or 5, students should be thinking about examining an author’s sources.

But what about nonfiction picture books? When an author has just 32 or 40 pages to work with, how much space should be sacrificed to back matter? And should the back matter consist of the same sorts of research-assisting information as books for older readers? 

I do think that a page or two of back matter is often a good idea even in picture books. It’s the perfect spot for background information that provides context for young readers with limited knowledge of the world. A general note about the author’s process is also helpful because it pulls back the curtain to reveal how professional writers work. And that can inform students’ own writing habits and techniques.

Should a picture book author also include source notes or bibliographies? IMHO, no. Why waste the precious space when the young audience lacks the skills to follow the research trail.
For example, for my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying, the research came from personal observations of birds all over the world (which kids can’t repeat), from interviews with scientists (which kids can’t repeat), and from articles in science journals (which kids lack the skills to read).

For No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the information came from observing cocoa trees in Costa Rica, from reading journal articles, and from picking the brain of co-author, Allen Young. Dr. Young is the world’s leading expert on cocoa tree growth and fertilization. Again, kids can’t repeat this kind of research on their own. So rather than wasting valuable real estate listing all the articles I read and scientists I spoke with, it seemed best to simply explain my process in a few sentences. 

In some cases, it might make sense to include age-appropriate materials that can expand upon a book’s general topic. But not for the two books I mentioned above. There are no other books or websites that focus on non-flight uses of feathers or the microhabitat of a cocoa tree—for adults or for children. And if a second or third grader wants a general book about chocolate or feathers, let them type the words into an internet browser or a library database themselves. The results of their own exploration will be much more satisfying.


  1. Interesting that this should be your topic today. As I was working on my Wednesday post, Aston's new A Nest is Noisy has no back matter page but the Chronicle Website has a teacher's guide which does provide some additional information. That can be an option for when you want to provide some more for teachers and readers but not use precious space.

  2. That is a good option. Another possibility is to include info on the author's website or blog. But I really think unpacking my research and writing process is more valuable for elementary readers than listing specific sources. I love the author and illustrator notes that Jen Bryan and Melissa Sweet wrote for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.

  3. I agree Melissa - I really like to share how the author/illustrator came to write the book. The "behind the scenes" story and learning is always really interesting for children and will lead them to research other things as it strikes them. It is also great modelling for students about being curious, critical and interested in their world.

  4. Yes, understanding the process--its joys and its frustrations--can really help young writers.

  5. This leads me to a question: I thought that picture book text often targets the younger crowd, but serves as an intro for older kids. Then the back matter adds resources/biblio info for older kids who want to read more. I do like the addition of the author's note, as well.

  6. For No Monkeys, No Chocolate, Feathers, and many other NF PBs, the research is beyond what the students can do. Elementary students can't read scientific journal articles, and they shouldn't contact scientists. If I used books written at a student's reading level, I might include them, but at least so far, that hasn't been my experience. My picture books, most science picture books, are about finding ways to share sophisticated concepts with children in a way that is fresh and appealing. So I'm generally not overlapping with other books written for children.