any people still hold to the belief that nonfiction writing is “just the facts,” often synonymous with formulaic, dull writing. Nothing could be further from the truth! For years, authors of all genres have honed their writing by reading literary nonfiction by the likes of David McCullough, Anna Quindlen, John McPhee, Susan Orlean, and so many others.
These same rich reading opportunities exist for students in K-12 classrooms. Writers for young people from Candace Fleming and Patrick McDonnell to Tonya Bolden and Andrea Warren model both substance and style, and can serve as mentors to students. In this month’s column we’ll look at the ways in which these and other authors shape their material.
Substance: Showing “Big Picture” Thinking
Nonfiction writers gather, sift, and shape their material. They answer selected questions, raise others, and provide interpretations of evidence they have uncovered. One author’s view of historical evidence or presentation of scientific information can be quite different from another writer’s. Students can use these nonfiction mentor texts to closely examine how they approach their subjects.
Here are some of the ways in which authors work to clarify and highlight their main ideas.
Dealing with Gaps
Even when writers have a big idea in mind, the information they need or want may not be available. That is, there are gaps in what is known. When this happens, authors will usually confront the issue head-on. In Marticha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (Abrams, 2005; Gr 4-8) Tonya Bolden comments, “if Maritcha kept a diary, it has yet to surface.” In Alien Deep: Revealing the Mysterious Living World at the Bottom of the Ocean (National Geographic, 2012; Gr 3-6) Bradley Hague writes, “We still don’t know the exact environment where life on Earth began.”
Using an Alternative to Chronology
A big idea does not have to be presented in chronological order. Many authors have taken the scrapbook approach to their subjects. Candace Fleming’s Ben Franklin’s Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman’s Life (Atheneum, 2003; Gr 5-9) delivers bits and pieces about the inventor and statesman under headings such as “Boyhood Memories,” “The Family Album,” and “The Writer’s Journal.” Little Kids First Big Book of Animals (National Geographic, 2010; K-Gr 3), by Catherine Hughes, organizes information about specific animals according to where the creatures live: grassland, ocean, desert, forest, and polar settings.
Explaining Personal Relevance
Some authors share why a big idea is important to them or the people they are writing about. They offer personal connections. In Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London (Houghton, 2001; Gr 6-9) Andrea Warren informs readers, “I have always been sympathetic to the plight of homeless children.” Her book explores the issues surrounding child welfare. In The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (Houghton, 2012; Gr 5-9), by Elizabeth Rusch, readers learn that after seeing Viking photos taken on Mars, scientist Steve Squyres remembers walking “out of that room knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” Years later, he was building mechanical robots to explore the distant planet.
Writing Partial Accounts
Some authors leave out some of the story. Me…Jane (Little, Brown, 2011; K-Gr 3), by Patrick McDonnell, tells of Jane Goodall’s life up until the time she first arrived in Africa to study chimpanzees. Tanya Lee Stone’s Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (Holt, 2013; K-Gr 4) focuses on the life of the first female doctor from her childhood to her graduation from medical school, discussing her later achievements only in author notes. Books such as these conclude when the subject has accomplished a major life goal. That is the big idea of the book.
Rethinking the Past
A big idea can be that the author examines the past through a new lens. In 1607: A New Look at Jamestown (National Geographic, 2007; Gr 3-6) by Karen E. Lange, readers learn that “for generations, historians have blamed Jamestown’s near failure on the foolishness and laziness of its planners, leaders, and ordinary settlers.” Now, “…we have a better understanding of why so many died during Jamestown’s early years.” Archaeological research has yielded new insights.
In Marc Aronson and Mike Parker Pearson’s If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge (National Geographic, 2010; Gr 5-8), the authors relate that the recent discoveries around Stonehenge emerged as a result of a consultation with a scientist from Madagascar who provided archeologists with a totally new way of seeing and understanding the area. Big ideas about the past, we learn, are subject to change.
As you and your students read nonfiction, look for additional ways that authors shape their big ideas. Consider making a collection of mentor texts which students can refer to as they write.
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