March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference Talks Books, Apps, and More

Gamificiation, augmented reality, and transmedia were just some of the hot topics at the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, held June 14–16 at the State University of New York in New Paltz. The event—which attracted 75 writers, librarians, publishers, and others interested in exploring nonfiction for children—examined the current state of the genre framed in various terms, including the Common Core Standards, multi-platform books, and app creation.

School librarians Irene Kwidzinski and Dawn Robson.

The event is the brainchild of Lionel Bender, the co-founder of book packager company Bender Richardson White, which produces children’s illustrated nonfiction, and Sally Isaacs, author of more than 40 children’s nonfiction books. They invited such notable names in nonfiction as Vicki Cobb, Roxie Munro, and Melissa Stewart to serve as presenters.

A Walk-In Storybook.

Vicki Cobb, often called “the Julia Child of science” because of her classic Science Experiments You Can Eat (HarperCollins, 1972), presented the keynote address, “Winning the Nonfiction War.”

Cobb presented a call-to-arms to the group by asking, “Is nonfiction an art form?” Praising the Common Core for recognizing the importance of nonfiction but criticizing its reliance on high stakes testing, Cobb also asked, “How can kids learn to be critical thinkers by reading homogenized passages?”

Cobb also discussed her work with INK Think Tank: Authors on Call, which brings authors into schools via videoconferencing to work with students on research projects. As part of her presentation, she conferenced in Sarah Svarda, head librarian at Discovery School in Murfreesboro, TN. Svarda—who has been named teacher of the year by her school district—invited Cobb to work with her fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students as a mentor on individual inquiry projects.

Next up was Roxie Munro, author and illustrator of over 35 books including EcoMazes (Sterling, 2010), who discussed how she has transformed herself by learning to embrace transmedia. She now works across multiple platforms that enable her to augment the reality of her print books.  In September she will introduce Kids Interactive Walk-in Storybooks, available from K.I.W.I. Storybooks. She has also active in creating apps to go along with her books.

Patricia Stockland of Lerner.

Publishers also shared their visions for nonfiction at the event. Patricia Stockland, editor-in-chief of Lerner Publishing, told the group, “We are not just looking at a book as a print product,” noting that nonfiction is rich in metadata, which helps to enhance e-books with additional content and other materials.

Melissa Stewart—author of 150 nonfiction books including No Monkeys, No Chocolate (Charlesbridge, 2013)—explained how she has joined forces with other authors and librarians to create The Uncommon Corps, a group that works to champion nonfiction for kids and to educate about the different ways nonfiction is presented by authors. For example, some books present information as fast facts while others use a narrative that tells a story.

Attendees came from across the country with many school librarians among them. Louise Simone, librarian at the Sheridan School in the Washington, D.C., and author, questioned the heavy emphasis on technology. “I’m not sure if digital media is everything we want it to be,” she said.

Irene Kwidzinski, retired school librarian from New Milford, CT, and Dawn Robson, library media specialist in the Sachem School District on Long Island, both attended the event because they wanted to see nonfiction from the creators’ side.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. says:

    Rocco, Great summary of the event. It was nice chatting with you over pizza on day 1. I posted on the conference, if you are interested in a different viewpoint and some other photos.
    – Nancy Pi-Sunyer

  2. Pat McCarthy says:

    This was a wonderful event. Sometimes we nonfiction writers feel like the forgotten group among children’s writers. It was great to be with all those people who write nonfiction and to meet editors who value that work.

  3. Thanks very much for this insightful summary of the event, Rocco. I very much wanted to attend. Hopefully next year!

  4. Great meeting you at the event. Terrific post here. I’ll share around.