November 17, 2017

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In Search of Stellar Nonfiction | Consider the Source

I’ve visited Dorcas Hand at the school where she works in Houston and I’ve read her articles; we presented together at American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in Hartford last year and met up again last week at New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL). When she queried me about why so little high quality nonfiction is being published, I thought it was a question worth asking. Here are her thoughts on the subject.—MA

booksI’m in search of nonfiction—where is it? School librarians—heck, all librarians and teachers—are being told that our students need quality nonfiction. They need nonfiction to support class assignments and personal interests; and they need to know how to read nonfiction. Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) superficial overviews are no longer acceptable; readers require books that push them to think more deeply and to ask questions.

And what about the enthusiasms of children and teens who prefer nonfiction? During my library career I’ve watched English Language Arts teachers and parents lead students away from nonfiction to fiction—primarily to encourage a love of the classics. By middle school, that goal is largely accomplished—precisely at the time the Common Core tells educators it’s time to shift the focus to nonfiction. It takes great books to pull students back into informational reading.

So where is this stellar nonfiction? School Library Journal’s reorganized monthly reviews separates the nonfiction into one section, subdivided into grade levels. (New series nonfiction is considered in SLJ’s bi-annual supplement, Series Made Simple, each one including approximately 900 titles). In the September 2014 issue of SLJ, there were 59 pages of picture books and fiction compared to only 17 pages of (primarily) stand-alone nonfiction titles; October offered a 55 to 13 page ratio. Thus, only 25 percent as many nonfiction titles are being reviewed as other titles—or, phrased alternatively, only 20 percent of the books reviewed are stand-alone nonfiction titles. Knowing as I do that School Library Journal works to include most of what is published each year, I can only surmise that the review balance reflects the approximate percentages of the total number of books published.

Can we hypothesize why there aren’t stronger choices for library shelves? Before Common Core moved the emphasis to nonfiction and close reading as an essential skill at all levels, classroom assignments generally only required a standard collection of basic overviews; they did not ask students to make inferences, explore point of view, or otherwise question what they were reading. Meanwhile authors like Russell Freedman, Tonya Bolden, Tanya Lee Stone, Susan Bartoletti, Steve Sheinkin, and Marc Aronson, and so many others, have refined the art of narrative nonfiction for children and teens, factual stories that read like fiction, stories that can entice students to read materials that may challenge them.

Picture books are not easier to write, but with those amazing and thought-provoking illustrations to flesh out difficult facts they are easier to sell; there are many unique nonfiction books published in this format, although some use a story to dig into the facts and are not reviewed as nonfiction. In my experience, the real shortage of strong titles begins at the middle grades and continues through high school. New layout and illustrative trends have begun to offer some of that picture-book excitement in titles for older readers. Yes, there is some exceptional nonfiction, but during my year on the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Committee, the group noted that finding an expansive selection of books to consider was difficult; there were enough titles for a real horse race at the end, but the earlier heats were not so intense.

Students need to learn critical thinking by reading and discussing powerful nonfiction that expands their understanding of history and science. The Society of Children’s Writers and Book Illustrators (SCWBI) and other programs offer tremendous support for new fiction authors, but the same support for new nonfiction authors is not as available. We need more strong authors; we need more authors who are reading and writing nonfiction that challenges the accepted patterns and pushes readers to think about point of view, to ask what might be missing in the telling, and consider the questions that might lead to new ideas.

Librarians and teachers need to be aware of the benefits of this new kind of nonfiction. It is definitely easier to buy a series of books no matter the general topic (endangered animals, wars, important people), and to build a research assignment around that standard format. But those titles seldom challenge readers to think beyond the overview. Endangered animals, for example, do have some basic commonalities, but it is the species’ specifics that can really catch students’ attention. Students need to acknowledge the importance of details, rather than digest collations or interpretations of those details. Students need to think.

Consider the gauntlet thrown. Librarians: read some award-winning nonfiction to see how far we have come. Knowing that it exists, demand more from publishers and urge teachers to use these resources with students. Authors have a whole new market to consider, with ready examples of quality narrative nonfiction as models; start writing. Publishers: don’t accept the old standard; encourage authors to dig deeper to tell the story that will inspire new understanding. And readers—we are all readers first—take on those exciting titles. Appreciate the insights into history and science that these books offer that will inform your understanding of the world. Use that appreciation to deepen your resolve to provide more of the best to your students.

Dorcas Hand (@handtx) is the Director of Libraries, Annunciation Orthodox School, Houston TX, and a candidate for AASL President. You can visit her at www.strongschoollibraries.com .

 

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Comments

  1. I think there is another area of untapped potential for nonfiction authors: interesting and engaging chapter book nonfiction written for the grades 4-6 audience. Most nonfiction being published outside of series nonfiction is either a picture book or middle grade/ya nonfiction. But what about those students in grades 4 through 6 who want to dig their teeth into something that allows them to linger? I’m certainly a proponent of using picture books of all kinds, particularly nonfiction picture books, at all grade levels. But I don’t there is enough being written for readers not ready for the kind of writing that the authors you mentioned are doing, but want more than a picture book. Fourth and fifth graders have an abundance of riches when it comes to fiction, but not so much for nonfiction.

    • marc aronson says:

      I agree. My graduate students and I were talking about the “next step” from Books of Records, and one is the What Is/Was books — short biographies. And of course Kathleen Krull does collective biographies. But I think that space that builds on the passion for facts but in a chapter book format is waiting to be filled.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Dorcas, & for the mention, Marc. I might as well tip my hand & reveal a new series of chapter books for grades 3-6, coming from Bloomsbury next May: Women Who Broke the Rules (which I tried to call Kick-Ass Women).