There aren’t many children’s book authors who have written close to two-hundred nonfiction books and not a single fiction title, so it’s no surprise that one of the most common questions children ask me during school visits is if I’ll ever write fiction. For years, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”
I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. You see, in my professional life, I’m surrounded by people who prize stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.
I remember praising the format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend who is a celebrated children’s book author kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden. That comment, and others like it from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an oddball, like I was all alone in a world that valued narratives.
But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked THE question, I finally decided to be honest.
I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”
And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. A half dozen other students joined him.
“Me too,” they were saying. “We agree.”
I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.
I now know that those students are what Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari call “info kids.” While many educators think of nonfiction, especially expository nonfiction, as broccoli, info kids think differently. To them, expository text on topics that interest them is like chocolate cake.
My hope is that my advocacy will help educators gain a deeper understanding of all that today’s nonfiction has to offer, so that they can stock their bookshelves and enhance their instruction with the kinds of books that all students find delicious.