Monday, March 1, 2021

Resources for Educators: Text Structures


 More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view.

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 

On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.

Under the Text Structures link, you’ll find recommended books by text structure, information about common text structures not mentioned in most state standards, a article discussing the similarities between choosing a text structure and shopping for a pair of pants, and 5 activities that will give students practice moving from one text structure to another as they try to find the best structure for a particular piece of writing.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: One Amazing Thing

Today I'm continuing to share strategies from the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing that students can use to choose topics they’re excited about for nonfiction writing projects. You can scroll down to read some of the earlier suggestions.

One of the fifty authors who contributed an essay to Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep is Jess Keating. She also provided a fabulous idea-generating technique that she calls “One Amazing Thing.”

Each morning, students draw an empty box in their writer’s notebook, write the words “One Amazing Thing” above it, and then close their notebook. Throughout the day, they should be on the lookout for one thing that catches their attention or sparks their curiosity. It could be an object, an action, a snippet of conversation—anything at all.


The act of making space for an amazing thing will raise your students’ awareness of the world around them. All day long, their subconscious brain will be looking for a way to fill that little box.

After doing this activity for a few weeks, students may see some trends among the things they notice. Identifying these commonalities can help students discover what matters to them, which can assist them in choosing topics they’re excited to explore and write about.

Choosing a topic is an important first step in the nonfiction writing process, but for their prose to shine, it’s equally important for students to find a focus they’re excited about. Next week, I’ll begin providing suggestions for helping students narrow their topic and identify a unique approach.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Fiction or Nonfiction? What Kids Really Like to Read

On December 11, 2020, the article “Will My Grandkids Still Love Me If I Buy Them Nonfiction?” by Jay Mathews appeared in the Washington Post. Author Cynthia Levinson posted it on the NF Fest Facebook forum, sparking a lively discussion.

When Cynthia returned to the conversation a few hours later, she wrote, “I posted this in the hopes that we could respond. Anyone interested?” Jen Swanson and I jumped at the opportunity.

First, we drafted a letter to the editor of the Washington Post (which was never published). Then we queried Publisher Weekly to see if they’d be interested in publishing a response. They said “Yes,” and we got to work.

When our article Hey, Grownups! Kids Really Do Like Nonfiction,” appeared in PW on January 7, 2021, it received a terrific response. In fact, the Washington Post ended up reprinting the article on January 26, 2021.

Laura Backes of the
Children’s Book Insider invited us to discuss the article and all things nonfiction on the CBI Kidlit Distancing Social on February 2, 2021. Lionel Bender, Editorial Director of the UK-based book packager Bender Richardson White saw the program and contacted us to share his perspective “as a producer of children’s illustrated nonfiction for more than 40 years and as a person who has always had a strong preference for nonfiction.” Here’s what he had to say.

I believe that everyone involved in buying books for children should focus more attention on nonfiction. The impact these books have on children’s lives is tremendous. Here are some points I’d like the U.S. children’s literature community to consider.

Many Children Prefer Nonfiction to Fiction
Research shows that many children prefer nonfiction. Others enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally. Their reading choices are influenced by what is available to them, their age, what they are given and by whom, how attractive the books look, what interests them, and what is in fashion or “cool.”

The Top-20 lists that Mathews cites in his Washington Post article indicate readership or sales of individual titles. In those comparisons, fiction will always win because these titles are more heavily pushed by book outlets and more widely covered by reviewers, increasing their sales. Note that in national book award and prize competitions where children vote, nonfiction titles often win.

The Growing Popularity of Nonfiction Books
In the past two decades, children’s interests have changed significantly to the extent that they prefer and choose nonfiction more than ever before. Figures from Publishers Weekly and Nielsen BookScan show the sales of children’s nonfiction print books have been growing constantly and significantly for several years.

Print and digital books are completely different sensory experiences and educational tools, particularly for children and for very visual books. Most children’s nonfiction books are highly visual. Sales and readership of children’s print nonfiction will continue to increase as illustrators, designers, and publishers experiment more with artwork and new layouts and formats.

Today, children are surrounded by and bombarded with a continuous feed of information, making them more aware and interested in the world around them than ever before. They seek out nonfiction books to help them understand topics of interest, deal with issues that affect them, and contribute to the outside world.

Children’s nonfiction books now deal with “hot” topics previously covered only by young adult and grown-ups’ magazines, such as health and hygiene, food and cooking, fashion, gender issues, race, religion, environment, government, and politics.

Children Need Better Access to Nonfiction Books
Teachers, librarians, and parents have to work hard to find and explore the wealth of children’s nonfiction books available. The publishing industry should improve the supply chain to ensure all retail outlets can stock and better display and promote nonfiction.

Most bookstores do not have sufficiently large purchasing power to buy direct from publishers. They have to buy from wholesalers, which favor the fiction titles they think will sell quickly and not get stuck on warehouse shelves. Without an enticing range of nonfiction choices, many parents and grandparents will default to purchasing fiction for the children in their lives.

In schools, library and classroom book collections are fiction-heavy and the range of nonfiction books is limited. The increasing use of and reliance on digital books and online learning are probably major contributors to this.

Nonfiction books are invariably highly illustrated, making their purchase prices far higher than fiction. As a result, teachers and school librarians are very selective about nonfiction titles they buy. That means a good percentage of the printed nonfiction books in school library are dated and, therefore, unattractive to children.

Many schools purchase books based on guidance from state education departments and book distributors that filter out nonfiction titles on the basis of their science, gender, race, religion, or ethnicity content.

Trade and mass-market nonfiction books are often excluded from schools because they are not easily used as educational tools in classrooms. (Trade and mass-market publishers could probably do more to help here.)

Lionel Bender is the Editorial Director of book packager Bender Richardson White (BRW). He has edited more than 1,400 children’s illustrated nonfiction books and classroom materials for 35 different publishers in the UK and USA and written 72 children’s nonfiction books.

Lionel was the founder and co-organizer of the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, held in the U.S. from 2013 to 2016. He has been on the Faculty at SCBWI Regional Conferences and at the Highlights Foundation.

Writers, illustrators, and editors interested in opportunities in children’s nonfiction may wish to register for Lionel’s Children’s Book Insider webinars Writing Nonfiction for the School Library Market and The Children’s Nonfiction Market: How to Break In, How to Succeed.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Resources for Educators: Text Features


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view.

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 

On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.

Under the Text Features link, you’ll find instructions for two fun activities—text feature posters and a text feature scavenger hunt.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Developing a Spirit of Inquiry

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been describing strategies from the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing that students can use to choose topics they’re excited about for nonfiction writing projects. You can scroll down to read these posts.

But to create a list of possible topics—an Idea Incubator—students need to know how to recognize their personal interests. For some children, this is easy as pie, but for others it can be a struggle.

If your students need support developing a spirit of inquiry, I recommend using (or adapting) some of the activities that enrichment specialist Jeanne Muzi suggests in her January 2017 ASCD Education Update article “Five Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning.”


And it all else fails, you could try introducing an Idea Jar to your classroom. Students who are endlessly curious about the world and how it works will generate more ideas than they could ever write about. They can help struggling classmates by focusing on the one idea that speaks to them most and adding their other ideas to the classroom Idea Jar.

You can add ideas too. It’s a way to anonymously provide guidance rather than dictate a topic. And because you aren’t usurping your students’ power to choose, they'll be able to take ownership of the project and the process.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Why I Advocate for Expository Nonfiction


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.  

Monday, February 8, 2021

Resources for Educators: Narrative vs. Expository Writing Styles


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 


On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to begin discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.



Because understanding the two writing styles (narrative and expository) can be a struggle for students, this section includes an explanation with mentor texts as well as an activity that works well with students or in professional development workshops.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: How Students Can Make a Whole-class Topic Their Own

Last week, I began sharing some of the teaching strategies included in  Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing. Today, I’m going to pick up where I left off by discussing how to help students make an assigned topic their own.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I always advocate for letting students write about topics that fascinate them. You might think that strategy is at odds with a teacher’s need to integrate language arts with content area instruction. But it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s say your class is studying the American Revolutionary War, and you want everyone to write a report related to that umbrella topic. Obvious choices might be George Washington or the Battle of Bunker Hill. But let’s face it, not everyone has a deep natural interest in a dead white guy or a skirmish that happened in Boston almost 250 years ago.

That’s where the Idea Incubator I discussed last week can come in handy. As a student looks at this list at the back of her writer’s notebook, she may notice a lot of facts, questions, and ideas about the weather and wonder if she could write a report about the weather during the Revolutionary War. After doing some research, she discovers that the 1770s were an exceptionally cold, snowy period in history, and the weather influenced the outcome of many battles. Bingo! She’s identified a great topic that she’s excited about.

Another student notices that his list includes some facts, questions, and ideas about numbers and math. He might decide to create a series of infographics comparing statistics related to different battles or the two competing armies.

A third student who’s fascinated by fashion could focus on the kind of clothing the soldiers wore, including how a severe shortage of boots affected the Colonial troops.

When a student’s personal interests guide the research and writing process, their final piece will burst with passion and personality. When students recognize their natural interests and look for ways to discuss an umbrella topic through that lens, they’ll be infinitely more invested in the process and the product.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Getting Ready for March Madness Nonfiction

Inspired by the annual March Madness basketball tournament, in 2016, literacy coach Shelley Moody worked with instructional coach Valerie Glueck at Williams Elementary School in Oakland, Maine, to develop a month-long, whole-school activity in which students read sixteen nonfiction picture books (some narrative, some expository) and select their favorite. And the good news is that this activity can work virtually!

During Week 1, half the classes read the 8 books on the right-hand side of the board, and the other half of the school reads the 8 books on the left-hand side of the board. Classrooms discuss the content and structure of the books as well as their favorite features. Then students vote on pairs of books to determine which titles will move on to The Elite Eight.

During Week 2, each class reads the 4 winning books on the opposite side of the board. Then students participate in rich classroom discussions and vote to select The Final Four.

During Week 3, classes spend time reviewing the four finalists and then vote for the March Madness Nonfiction Champion.

During the final week (in non-pandemic years), students gather for a whole-school assembly. Following a parade of books that includes one child from each classroom, the winning book is announced. And the crowd goes wild! 

But since school looks different for everyone this year, the final tally can be announced in each classroom during morning meeting or online for schools that are 100 percent virtual. 

Here’s what Shelly and Valerie had to say about the experience:

“The goal of this event is to inspire curiosity, to build background knowledge, and to put outstanding nonfiction books in the hands of our students. It’s hard to capture in words the energy and excitement about books that March Madness has created in our school community.” —Shelley Moody, Literacy Coach

“March Madness is a springboard for discussions of text features and structures, vocabulary, and author’s purpose.” —Valerie Glueck, Instructional Coach

If you decide to try this activity at your school this year, you could ask older students to fill out a worksheet like the one below developed by Judi Paradis, the former teacher-librarian at Plympton School in Waltham, MA.

When students are done, they can share their responses with classmates. Or the worksheets can be posted, so that other students can use the information to help them make book choices.

https://www.pinterest.com/mstewartscience/

Monday, February 1, 2021

Resources for Educators: Nonfiction Pre-Writing


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors.  

On Mondays this year, I’m going to be sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to focus on an interview with author and poet Leslie Bulion in which she describes her pre-writing process for Leaf Litter Critters in detail. It’s available by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon shown above.

Discover how Leslie conducts research, takes notes, makes a list of animals she wants to write about, develops an organizing question to focus her thinking, and then takes notes on her notes to synthesize and condense the information as she isolates the most fascinating bits. I just love Leslie’s method. It’s a great model for student writers.


Friday, January 29, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: The Idea Incubator

As you read the mentor essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, it will become clear that professional nonfiction authors choose topics that resonate deeply with them, often for reasons only they can understand. The ideas may trace back to childhood curiosity, a deeply held belief, or even a missed opportunity.

Even though students may not have enough life experience to fully understand their unique passions and perspectives the same way adult writers do, they can still learn strategies for choosing topics that are related to their personal interests and ideas that matter to them.

A great way to get started is with an Idea Incubator—a bulleted list of potential topics on the last page of their writer’s notebook. Every time a student has an idea or question about something they see, read, or experience, they can add it to their Idea Incubator list. They can also include cool facts they come across.

When it’s time to start a nonfiction writing project, students can use their Idea Incubator list as a starting point. If students are choosing their own topic, they may be able to pull an idea directly from their list.

But even if you assign a topic that aligns with your content area curriculum, a list of facts, ideas, and questions is still a valuable tool. Working alone or with a partner, students can search for a common thread among the items on their list and brainstorm ways to apply that to the whole-class topic you’ve assigned. I’ll share more ideas about how students can make this sort of  “umbrella” topic their own next week.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Nonfiction at the ALA Youth Media Awards


WowOhWowOhWowOhWow! 

2020 was an incredible year for children’s nonfiction, and the winners of the ALA Youth Media Awards absolutely reflected that.

There were so many wonderful titles, including some that stretched our thinking about what nonfiction is and what it might be come in the future.

Of course, my favorite award is the Sibert, which is devoted to nonfiction. I’m thrilled that one of my Sibert Smackdown titles won the Sibert Medal.


I’m also excited about the three honor titles.




I’m also so happy for Candace Fleming, who wrote Honeybee as well as the YALSA winner The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. Wow!


Most years those are pretty much the only awards that celebrate nonfiction, but this year, there were nonfiction honorees everywhere you looked!

From Newbery and Printz to Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre. Stonewall. Schneider Family. Odyssey. Seriously, I could go on and on.



Last March, just before the pandemic hit, I wrote a blog post called "Has Nonfiction Reached a Tipping Point?" Although the title is posed as a question, my article made it clear that I could see tangible signs that the children’s literature community’s attitude toward nonfiction was beginning to change.

Now, on Monday, the evidence was clear. This is the golden age of children's nonfiction. 

So I’ll end this post the same way I ended the one last in March.

As exciting as it is to see nonfiction FINALLY getting the attention it deserves—the attention it’s had all along in the adult publishing world—there’s something else that’s even more thrilling . . .

As far as we’ve come over the last 30 yearsfrom just one kind of nonfiction to five distinct categories, the wonderful world of nonfiction still has more to offer. Much more. There’s plenty of room for growth and innovation, so let’s get to work!

Monday, January 25, 2021

Resources for Educators: Taking Notes & Avoiding Plagiarism


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 


On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going featuring an article with ideas for helping students take notes more effectively, organize the information they collect, and avoid copying their sources. It’s available by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon shown above.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Benefits of Teacher Timesaver Tables

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing is bursting with ideas and insights from many of today’s leading nonfiction authors. Ideally, educators will have a chance to read all the essays. But because time is such a precious commodity, teachers should also feel free to dip in and out of the essays in a way that meets their interests and needs.

To make this process easier, each chapter features a Teacher Timesaver Table that includes helpful information about the essays and the books each author writes.

 


By consulting this table, educators can quickly discover the grade level(s) that each author writes for, the format of their books—picture book (PB) or long form (LF)—and the content area the books address. The table also includes a brief summary of each essay. This table will help teachers identify the best two or three essays to accompany a particular lesson.

 

The authors’ ideas and experiences described in each essay can enrich reading and writing instruction in a variety of ways.

 

1.    While students often think about the people behind the fiction books they read, they generally don’t think about nonfiction writers in the same way. The essays in this anthology will give young readers a chance to hear the authors’ voices and understand their motivation for writing particular books.

 

2.    During an author study, the essays can help students feel more connected to the writer.

 

3.    When using children’s books featured in the anthology as mentor texts in writing workshop, the essays can bring a new dimension to lessons that focus on nonfiction craft moves and revision. By revealing how professional writers think, the essays can help demystify the writing process for students.

 

There are so many options for using this one-of-a-kind resource!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Best Nonfiction of 2020 Roundup

Next Monday is a big day in children’s literature. The winners of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards will be announced. So today seems like a good time to look back at some of the highly-regarded titles published last year.

There’s no doubt about it. 2020 was a phenomenal year for nonfiction, and it seems like more people were paying attention than ever before.

Here’s a roundup of the lists I’m aware of. Please let me know if there are others I should add.

Mock Sibert Lists
Sibert Smackdown! (picture books)

Sibert Showdown! (MG science titles)

Individual Lists

Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production: Nonfiction Picture Books

Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production: Nonfiction Books for Older Readers

Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production: Unique Biographies

Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production: Science & Nature Books

Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production: American History

My favorite STEM titles


Group Lists
AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize Finalists

CRA Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards

Cybils Award: Elementary Nonfiction Finalists

Cybils Award: Middle Grade Nonfiction Finalists

Cybils Award: High School Nonfiction Finalists

Nerdy Book Club: Nonfiction Picture Books

Nerdy Book Club: Long-form Nonfiction

NCTE Orbis Pictus Award

NSTA-CBC Best STEM Book

NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students

YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award

 

Library Lists

Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers

Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Older Readers

New York Public Library Best Books for Kids: Nonfiction


Review Journals
Booklist Editor’s Choice Books for Youth
(Would you believe nonfiction is first on this list? Hooray!)

Horn Book Fanfare 2020  
(Scroll to bottom for nonfiction.)

Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book Biography of 2020

Kirkus Reviews Best Informational Picture Books of 2020

Kirkus Reviews Best Middle Grade Biography and Memoir of 2020

Kirkus Reviews Best Middle Grade History of 2020

Kirkus Reviews Best Middle Grade Nonfiction of 2020

SLJ Best Nonfiction of 2020

Now it’s time to look ahead to 2021. So far, it seems like we’re going to have another great year of nonfiction. Time to start reading!