Monday, September 30, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 4

For the last few Mondays, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

First, I discussed how starting with a question can help writers come up with a focused topic, which allows for more engaging and creative writing. Then I focused on why writing tends to be stronger when we make a personal connection to the topic we choose and the approach we take. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m going to talk about the importance of an irresistible hook. Simply put, if there’s no hook, there’s no book.

Let’s start by looking at three book covers:
Each of these books has a strong hook—a unique, engaging way of looking at a concept—that’s obvious even in their titles. Before opening the books, kids get curious and start asking questions. Those questions propel them through the book until, ultimately, their curiosity is satisfied.

Shana Frazin (@sfrazintcrwp), a staff developer at Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, liked the way the cover and beginning of No Monkeys, No Chocolate hooked readers so much, that she created this wonderful anchor chart.

It highlights the book’s use of direct address, a question, and words and pictures that focus the reader’s thinking. And of course, the ellipse at the end of the text invites kids to turn the page and keep on reading.

Similarly, the title of An Egg Is Quiet provokes curiosity, and as readers explore all the different ways the author, Dianna Hutts Aston, personifies an egg’s characteristics, they gain a new appreciation for something that might otherwise seem so common and familiar.

The first thing a child (or an adult) does upon reading the title of Never Smile at a Monkey is ask, “Why Not?” Then they open the book to find out.

According to author Steve Jenkins, “Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember was inspired by that phrase popping into my head when I read that macaques sometimes react violently to a human smile (a display of teeth). From the beginning, I knew that I’d base the book on a series of similar admonitions (never clutch a cane toad, never cuddle a cub, never touch a tang).”

The concept for No Monkeys, No Chocolate suddenly popped into my mind, too, but only after I’d been working on the manuscript for years. And that’s one of the struggles of writing expository nonfiction—coming up with just the right way to frame the information can take time.

Writers need to thoroughly digest their research and make their own meaning. It’s so, so important for professional writers as well as student writers to be patient during this process because an irresistible hook depends on writers finding their own unique and intriguing lens for viewing the information.

Friday, September 27, 2019

What Is Literary 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. The original version of today’s post appeared on September 12, 2018.

Both adult and children’s publishers divide fiction and nonfiction books into two broad categories—commercial and literary.

Commercial fiction, written by such authors as Mary Higgins Clark, Gordon Korman, Stephen King, Mary Pope Osborne, James Patterson, and Lauren Tarshis, has mass appeal, and editors expect it to make a substantial profit. These books are fast paced with strong plots and limited characterization. Their themes are usually fairly obvious and the language and syntax isn’t too complex.
In contrast, literary fiction, written by such authors as Kate deCamillo, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Padma Venkatraman, and Jacqueline Woodson, is more likely to receive starred reviews and win awards. These books feature rich, multifaceted stories with well-developed characters, lush language, and complex, timeless themes.
Similarly, commercial nonfiction for children has mass appeal. These active and browseable titles generally sell well in bookstores and mass market outlets (like Target and Walmart) with some crossover to schools and libraries.
Literary nonfiction for children, on the other hand, is more likely to wins awards and is considered higher-quality writing. These expository literature and narrative nonfiction titles sell primarily to schools and libraries with some crossover to bookstores and, occasionally, to mass market outlets.
When educators use the term “literary nonfiction,” they are (understandably) thinking more about craft moves than sales potential. According to The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum (Heinemann, 2016), literary nonfiction is “a nonfiction text that employs literary techniques, such as figurative language, to present information in engaging ways.”  

Because nearly all current state ELA standards are heavily modeled after the Common Core State Standards (even in states that never adopted CCSS), it’s worth looking at that document too. It focuses more on types or forms of writing and lists the following as examples of literary nonfiction:
—some personal essays and speeches
—most biographies/autobiographies
—narrative nonfiction
—some poetry
—some informational picture books

(It’s interesting that CCSS differentiates life stories (biographies and autobiographies) from narrative nonfiction. In the children’s literature community, picture book biographies are generally considered quintessential examples of narrative nonfiction because they tell the story of a person’s life.)

The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system (which focuses on children’s nonfiction books exclusively and doesn’t include essays, speeches, letters, journals, textbooks, brochures, catalogs, etc.) differentiates between commercial categories and literary categories because one of its goals is to give authors, editors, agents, book reviewers, awards committee members, librarians, literacy educators, and classroom teachers a common lexicon for discussing the wide and wonderful world of nonfiction for kids. Only then can publishers understand the kinds of nonfiction books that ALL students want and need.

Because most editors gravitate toward narratives, publishers are currently putting a lot of emphasis on narrative nonfiction. I hope they will soon become aware of the research indicating that around 40 percent of young readers prefer expository nonfiction and realize that four out of the five categories in the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system have an expository writing style.

And based on that knowledge, I hope publishers will:
(1) begin acquiring more expository literature, especially books about history and social studies topics and titles written and illustrated by people from traditionally marginalized communities
(2) look for creative ways to incorporate what kids love about active and browseable nonfiction into books with the elements of finely-crafted nonfiction prose.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

What's a Pseudo-narrative?

In fiction, first-person narration is powerful because it allows readers to see the world from the main character’s perspective. In recent years, some authors have tried to bring this same kind of intimacy and engagement to our understanding of historic figures by writing biographies in first person.

 In books like I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer and Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh, notable figures from the past seem to tell their own stories. But in fact, white male authors are inventing the text by putting words in the mouths of people of a different gender and, in one case, of a different race. And that makes these books informational fiction—not nonfiction.

Informational fiction is based on documented facts, but it takes creative liberties, such as made-up dialog or imagined scenes, in an effort to make the book more engaging. 

Informational fiction also includes “pseudo-narratives.” These fact-based books have an expository writing style but resemble a narrative because the information is reported by a fictional narrator, such as an animal or inanimate object or a person other than the author. Here are some examples:

Beavers: The Superpower Field Guide by Rachel Poliquin

The Deadliest Creature in the World by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Hey, Water by Antoinette Portis

I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos

One Proud Penny by Randy Siegel

Sun! One in a Billion by Stacey McAnulty

In some cases, these books are an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers, but they should not take the place of nonfiction books in your classroom or library collection. It’s critically important that students develop the skills necessary to recognize what’s real, what’s true, what’s verifiable and what’s not.


Monday, September 23, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 3

For the last couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

Last week, I discussed how starting with a question can help students come up with a focused topic, which allows for more engaging and creative writing. You can scroll down to read that post.

Today, I’m focusing on why nonfiction writing tends to be stronger when we make a personal connection to the topic we choose and the approach we take.

As I mentioned last week, Can an Aardvark Bark? was inspired by a question my nephew, Colin, asked me during a family trip to Disney World. In this case, my personal connection to him motivated me to find a concept worth exploring in my mountain of research. Without Colin’s interest, I doubt I would have spent 4 years searching for just the right way to present the information.

As I was writing a section of my upcoming book ICK! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses about the surprising relationship between flesh flies and harlequin frogs, I was thinking of the twisted fairytale I had just helped my niece write for school. Here’s what I came up with:

The Fly and the Toad
Once upon a time, there was a fly and a toad. Think you know how this story ends? Think again.

In this twisted tale, a female flesh fly deposits her newly-hatched larvae on a harlequin toad’s skin. The white, wormy youngsters wriggle and squirm as they burrow into the toad’s body. Then the maggots devour their victim from the inside out.
The end.

Actually, it’s the end for the toad, but not for the larvae. With their bellies full, the maggots turn into pupae. And a few weeks after that, they emerge as adults.

Starting with the same basic facts, I’ve worked with fifth graders who wrote some terrific pieces that were 100 percent their own because they put a piece of themselves into their manuscript.

One boy focused on karma (as in, it’s about time flies got their revenge), because that idea was important to his family and upbringing.

A girl wrote a fun piece entitled Not Your Average Flesh Fly, inspired by her family’s favorite restaurant—Not Your Average Joe’s.

Another girl compared the flies to her cat. She explained that flesh flies are smaller than a toad and her cat is smaller than she is, but in both cases, the smaller animal has adaptations that allow it to “defeat” the larger one.

Pretty clever, right?

This is an activity that can work in any intermediate classroom. When students use a personal connection to frame their facts, they have some skin in the game, and the result is more interesting, more unique writing.

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.