Category Archives: Nonfiction

More Mulling on the Nonfiction/Fiction Conundrum

In the past year there have been some interesting discussions about nonfiction books that seem like fiction (e.g. Steve Sheinken’s Bomb) and fiction books that seem like nonfiction (e.g. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair). The one this week on the child_lit list serve (about how to identify books like Nelson’s) prompted me to write the following response:

… I’ve been thinking about how children take in history for many, many years (written some books and articles about this) and the issues of authenticity and authority are complicated. I’ve seen errors in nonfiction books  that were highly lauded, that appear to be absolutely perfect, only because I was an expert on the subjects. As you note, writers of history have to shape and consider what to include and what to leave out so the act is not as pristine as may be thought. 

I’ve just read Andrea Cheng’s ETCHED IN CLAY: THE LIFE OF DAVE, ENSLAVED POTTER AND POET, a fictionalized, multi-voiced, poetic exploration of what this enigmatic artist’s life (there is so little firsthand material about him) might have been like. Kirkus gave it a star and describes it as “verse biography.” I see it as belonging in the same area as Nelson’s book, another fictionalized biography.

A few weeks ago I attended a session about nonfiction for children at the New York Public Library. One of the issues that came up was how to make these stories engaging and accessible for young readers. One author spoke of fictionalizing one aspect in her otherwise nonfiction book and writing about this in the back matter as a solution. Another panelist said she would not have done this, feeling a nonfiction book should be only nonfiction, I’m guessing. Illustration came up too — an artist in one case had to imagine a significant person in a picture book biography because she was unable to find any images of her.

These stories and others just make me think again and again that the telling of history is not something that can be firmly one thing or another. There are reasons to fictionalized true stories in ways that aren’t  those of the historical fiction novelist. The novelist is firstly telling a story that happens to be set in the past. The story is front and center. Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES is firstly a heartrending story; I don’t think we expect to learn a whole lot about the French Revolution reading it. But others are writing about historical situations that they want known most of all. That these lightly fictionalized works end up being in the same category as works like Dickens’ seems very odd to me. (I guess this goes way back to me railing against the use of historical fiction to engage kids in history — way, way, way back on this list:)

And I’ve got a dog in this fight. Like Nelson and Cheng I wanted to get a person’s story out, someone for whom firsthand information is limited (Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad). I tried for many years to write it as nonfiction, but the editors I worked with felt the individual always seemed too distant for the child readers and so, with enormous trepidation, I crossed the border to fiction. I suppose it will now be termed historical fiction, but I’m uncomfortable with that because the story is still as true as I could make it and I want children to know that. I don’t see them engaging with the book as they would a work of fiction, but more as a true story. Possibly like readers will with Nelson and Cheng’s works.

It seems to me that these stories need to get out there to children. That the historical record is slanted toward those in power, that the lack of the significant source trail that we require and demand should not be obstacles in getting these stories out there. When it comes to those enslaved from Africa we see a limited number of stories over and over because those are the ones for which there are records and sources. But there has to be a way to get more stories out there and it may be we have to look at that funny place between fact and fiction as one place to do it.

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Filed under Africa is My Home, Historical Fiction, History, Nonfiction

NYPL’s Ethics on Nonfiction Panel

Susan Kuklin, one of the panelists at last weeks NYPL Literary Cafe has done a thorough write-up at I.N.K.: “Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids.

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Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa Sweet’s Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade has happily picked up some well deserved awards since its publication a year ago, say NCTE’s Orbis Pictus award and ALA’s Sibert award. It is a fabulous book and worth checking out as we head into this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. To learn more about it see my review and interview with Melissa along with video and a slide show here.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Middle Grade Readers and Informational Books

The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.

For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books.  Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott

This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself.  Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.

Temple Grandin:How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman.  Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos  by Jason Chin

A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, comic, In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Revisiting: Engaging Informational Picture Books

I’ve been very interested of late in the attention being paid to the Common Core State Standards recommendation for more nonfiction in classrooms. There are many ways to do this, one of them being a greater emphasis on nonfiction picture books. Here are a few older books I’ve much admired for their spare and elegant texts, compelling voices, original design, fresh ways of presenting information, superb research, and engaging illustrations. They are ideal for classroom teachers looking for great nonfiction to add to their libraries and teaching.  Please add your own suggestions in the comments!


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Filed under In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Marc Aronson’s Master of Deceit

I’m old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover and also old enough to want to forget all about him. However, young people are not me and so with a sigh I dutifully opened up Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies — and was immediately gobsmacked by the start of the prologue:

FACT: In November 1964, William Sullivan, an assistant director of the FBI, set out to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into killing himself.

With that Aronson had me and kept me until the end. Beginning with the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hoover, moving on to the development of the FBI mystic, and on through wars of honor and stealth, Aronson weaves a tale that you absolutely could not make up. With a clear and engaging voice he questions, probes, connects, and brings to light a remarkable time in American history. From John Reed to Joseph McCarthy and back to Martin Luther King, Jr. the book is a rich brew of personalities, historical details, and revelations — of the King suicide plot, of the crafty doctoring of photos and documents by the FBI, and of many other manipulations by Hoover’s men (and male they pretty much all were) within the complicated context of the times. Enhancing the powerful text and imagery is the book’s superb design: the fonts, the placement of images, and organization; Aronson’s author note detailing his research process; the expansive notes, and index. It is all and all an outstanding work of history for young people.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job

For years one of my favorite teaching materials for the Civil Rights Movement has been the documentary Eyes on the Prizein particular the section focusing on the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March and so I was delighted to come across Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s MarchShe begins with a prologue:

On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, she knew she had to go to jail.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

How could you not want to read on after that? Through Audrey and three other young people who were involved Levinson vividly makes this historical time up close and personal. And honest — there is no sugar coating here — at the very beginning she provides “A Note on Name-Calling” in which she clearly lays out the varied terms by which African-Americans have been referred to and referred to themselves over time. After that she presents those terms as they were used during this time period without further comment.

This is a real life story that takes place over a brief period of time and Levinson does a superb job bringing out the suspense, drama, harshness, and celebration of all. I especially appreciated the elegant way she brought in the complications — what was working and what wasn’t, the different behaviors and personalities of the leaders, and most of all the varied voices of her young people. Audrey, Washington Booker III, James W. Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter all were part of the marches, but in very different ways. By highlighting their different backgrounds, Levinson makes myth reality. Complementing her text are photos and perfectly-placed sidebars highlighting dates, quotes, and excerpts from relevant documents; an author note articulating the research and writing process; notes indicating sources for each chapter (though, I admit, I wanted even more of them); and an index. (I love books with indices!)

This is an engrossing, compelling, and fresh view of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of young people who were part of it.  Highly recommended.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction