These days, more and more young readers are turning their attention to nonfiction texts. And, why wouldn’t they? With a wealth of high quality, engaging nonfiction children’s books being published daily, there’s no shortage of visually dynamic, groundbreaking texts that delight as well as inform. Despite this trend, many of our libraries and classroom activities come up short in encouraging, teaching, and celebrating nonfiction.
In this excerpt from their recent book, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, authors Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia discuss what draws them to center their work on nonfiction with children, their passion for it, and the journey that led them into a study of classifying nonfiction in a way that helps us understand, teach, and share it more effectively.
A Note From Melissa
There aren’t many children’s book authors who have written close to 200 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 weeklong 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 non-fiction, 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 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books 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.
A Note From Marlene
At a professional development workshop I attended around 2005, the presenter asked us to list all the texts we had recently read. As I jotted down my responses—a recipe, emails, a professional journal, the newspaper—I came to the sudden realization that even though most of what I read as an adult was nonfiction, the bookshelves in my kindergarten classroom were full of fictional picture books. In fact, I couldn’t recall the last time I had read aloud a nonfiction book to my students. I began to wonder—did that matter? Even though I was confident that my students were more interested in fiction, my curiosity was piqued.
That was the inspiration for an action research study that changed my attitude toward nonfiction forever. For nineteen weeks, I tracked my kindergarten students’ library book choices and recorded the number of fiction versus nonfiction books checked out.
I asked the school librarian for help in selecting quality nonfiction books that were appropriate for my kindergarten students and matched their interests. After adding the titles she recommended to my classroom collection, I watched to see how often those books were in students’ hands. I also began reading nonfiction aloud and noticed that the children were captivated. They requested books about famous athletes, their favorite pets, butterflies, dangerous bugs, sports, and even ballet.
At the end of the action research study, it was clearly evident that the children had proved my initial thinking wrong. As a group, they checked out more nonfiction than fiction fourteen out of the nineteen weeks. After reviewing the numbers and informally observing book selection in my newly (almost) balanced classroom collection, I was convinced that the children enjoyed reading nonfiction texts.
After completing that initial study, I have repeated it on some scale with other groups of students in various grade levels and settings. Each time, the outcome is similar. Reflecting on my work with this action research, I am thankful that student choices, discussion, and my observations compelled me to change my thinking and my teaching practices.
If someone asked me today to list all the texts I’ve read recently, I can assure you it would still include emails and journal articles and the digital newspaper, but I’m proud to say that it would also include some nonfiction books that I’ve read for pleasure. It’s my hope that 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books will help teachers realize the potential of nonfiction to deepen student learning, fuel their interests, and cultivate their curiosity about the world around them.
Learn more about 5 Kinds of Nonfiction