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.