Monthly Archives: March 2007

Reading Nonfiction

On the middle_school_lit discussion list there has been an interesting discussion about the dearth of nonfiction on the core reading lists they’ve been developing. Here’s something I posted there about this topic.

I suspect there are two broad ways we come to nonfiction. First of all, we look for information about things that we are interested in. In the case of kids, it could be because of something they are learning in school or not. And so I get a skateboarding-obsessed boy eager to read anything he can get his hands on about skateboarding, good or bad. Or a girl who just got a bulldog puppy eager to read about that breed. When reading this way, they might not even read straight through a book, but jump about to find the stuff that interests them most. For this sort of reading, I highly recommend PICK ME UP a very intriguing attempt by DK to mimic the sort of link to link surfing/reading we do on the Web.

Then there is the sort of nonfiction reading that is similar to the way we read fiction. That is — reading for character, setting, and/or plot.

Now I tend to be a character-driven reader. So I am often drawn to nonfiction about individuals — biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. I’m also drawn to unconventional structure, strong authorial voice, and images galore. That said, here are a few recent titles of this sort that I’ve liked a lot.

Candace Fleming’s Our Eleanor. I love the scrapbook nature of this book, the way the author trusts her readers to figure out the underlying story of this remarkable woman’s complicated life, and just the overall look of the book.

Russell Freeman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation. While this is a more traditional biography in structure, the author’s sure voice draws you in, practically in spite of yourself. I started this book with zero interest in Marion Anderson (feeling I already had read plenty on her) and was absolutely magically drawn in. Kids are bound to be too.

Siena’s Siegel’s memoir, To Dance ( a graphic novel illustrated by Mark Siegel) Absolutely lovely to read and to look at. Exquisite whether or not you are interested in ballet or not.

Sid Fleichman’s Escape. What I like so much about this book is Fleichman’s often intrusive and very personal narration. I love the stories of his connection to Houdini’s widow; they make this story come alive in a new and different way.

Peter Sis’s The Tree of Life. I adore all of Peter Sis’s work. He is a complete original. This biography of Darwin offers young readers an opportunity to read it any way they want, just as with Fleming’s scrapbook biographies and the aforementioned DK book. Fascinating and beautiful.

Bea Uusma Schyffert’s The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon. This striking biography of the astronaut Michael Collins is yet another non-linear and highly graphic biography. The topic, the man, the format — all three seem winners to me.

Moving on to those who read firstly for setting, here are few non-fiction books I’ve liked that seem to speak to that sort of reader. A few less than before because I’m not so much a setting-driven reader so have less to offer off the top of my head (and I’m running out of time to write this).

Jim Murphy’s An American Plague is a riveting account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. While also engaging for the plot, I place it here because Murphy is so masterful at describing setting, especially the horrors of this one.

Albert Marrin, in Oh Rats! also captures an icky setting right up so many young readers’ alleys.

Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt will engage those intrigued by fascinating settings from all over time and space as well as those intrigued by historical and scientific facts.

And then there are those who read firstly for plot. Nonfiction titles I like that tell riveting good stories include (and I’m totally out of time so have only two for now — will have to come back and update this with more):

Jennifer Armstrong’s Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. The story of the Endurance is so remarkable I’ve read it more than once and it is one nonfiction book that almost every kid wants to read when I book talk it.

Catherine Thimmesh’s Team Moon. This book probably would appeal to those into setting, but it is a great story too, the Apollo 11 mission, this time told as a grand adventure by involving not just those supermen astronauts (see above), but 400,000 behind-the-scenes folks too. One made this a winner for me was the palpable excitement of the author’s voice. She absolutely pulled me in whether I wanted to be or not!

And seeing as it is Poetry Friday here’s one final nonfiction work that doesn’t really fit neatly into any of the above catagories:

Jon Scieszka’s and Lane Smith’s Science Verse. We chose it for our 2005 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts list because of the witty poetic parodies, but it is evidently (according to the author) solid science too. Either way it is a great collection of nonfiction poetry.

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Really Reading Grimm

Thanks to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for drawing my attention to the excelsior file. Having just spent some time in the blog’s archives I’ve got to agree with their marking this one a thinking blog — it sure is!

Now one of my interests is fairy tales. I’ve studied them, read them, written about them, talked about them, and will be co-teaching an online Rutgers grad course on them this summer (for the second time — we had a blast doing this course in 2004). I consider myself fairly well informed about the Grimm Brothers tales, but upon reading through the excelsior file, realized that perhaps not as informed as I thought. The gentleman has taken on the task of reading A-Grimm-A-Day with the plan of posting on at least one a week.

Excelsior began with one I know pretty well, “The Frog Prince,” one of those beastly bridegroom variants (hey, what can I say — I spent a summer studying these with a great scholar, Russell Peck at the University of Rochester). But then he moved on to “The Virgin Mary’s Child,” (also known as our ‘Our Lady’s Child”) one I had forgotten entirely. Next he wrote about “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” (By the way, excelsior is reading an edition translated by Jack Zipes while I’m linking to the tales in a much older edition at the wonderful surlanlune fairy tale site.) He then posted on “Faithful Johannes”. Most recently, he has posted on the more familiar “The Twelve Brothers.” (I’m a big fan of Birdwing, Rafe Martin’s take on what happened to the youngest brother in that particular tale.)

I’m really enjoying excelsior’s fresh take on these tales. Each post includes his retelling, his commentary and thoughts, and some very cool images. It is an ambitious project and I sure hope he can keep going with it!

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POD and Newbery

Thanks to lowebrow who directed me to this post on the future of print-on-demand publishing. It intrigued me because I’ve already received some self-published Newbery submissions, something a former member of the committee told me was quite rare her year. She surmised, and I think she had a point, that it is far easier today to self-publish and then get such books promoted, sold, and read more widely than before. Now I’m a big fan of the established publishers and love/admire/respect all they do, but I admit that I also think it would be kind of neat for a self-published/POD book to come out of nowhere and win the Newbery. (No promises, folks, no promises!!! Pure speculation on my part.)

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Our Holocaust

Following up on yesterday’s post, Our Holocaust is a memoir for adults by Israeli Amir Gutfreund, the child of Holocaust survivors. While I grew up in small Southern and Midwestern communities where we were usually the only such family, Gutfreund had a very different experience. You can read an excerpt here and a longer one here.

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The Holocaust and Shoelaces

Recently on her blog, Lois Lowry quoted from a letter she had received from a 6th grade teacher who was teaching her book, Number the Stars. Inspired by the film “Paper Clips” this teacher’s students were collecting shoelaces. “Since October we have been collecting shoelaces, measuring them, and tying them together with the goal of collecting 6,000,000 centimeters of laces to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.”

Yesterday on his blog, Roger Sutton, wrote of his problems with the project, provoking many comments as well as a follow-up post from Lois Lowry herself. “What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism.” wrote Roger. I agree.

We need to teach kids to think — hard about hard topics. To do so we need to give them intellectual tools to grapple with such hard topics. Tools free of sentimentality and simplicity. And while we adults must be aware and sensitive to children’s emotional well-being while involving them in such hard topics, making them feel good in a virtuous way as the paper clips and shoelaces projects do is better left for other topics.

I’ve posted on this topic before and most certainly will again as it is not only important to me as a teacher and human being, but because it is my family history. Considering the Holocaust in historical context, helping those new to it see how it happened, grappling with the idea that people like ourselves allowed it to happen and participated it in it happening, and considering how it connects to other crimes against humanity — it is all critical critical stuff.

History is not simple. I feel that I’m spending my life trying to understand horrors like the Holocaust, war of any kind, and all the other dreadful things humans do to each other. The best I can do as a teacher is to help my students use the same intellectual tools I use — to help them also try to make sense of things that don’t make any sense.

Those tools don’t require paper clips or shoelaces, just minds ready to work. Hard.

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Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival

I’m a busy, busy poster today for a change! (Can you guess that I’m just starting two weeks of spring break? Sadly it is no vacation for me as I’m using it to prepare for my online graduate fairy tale course, work on the 2007 NCBLA list, and read, read, and read some more for Newbery.) Anyway, thanks to BridgeToTheStars for providing a link to Seastina’s report on yesterday’s panel “Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: From Book to Film” at the Sunday Times -Oxford Literary Festival.

Here’s a particularly intriguing tidbit from Seastina’s report:

When asked what The Book of Dust will be about, he said, “Uh, it’s about Dust.” Nice. Elaborating, he said that Lyra is, in fact, the main character, and that she will be older than she was in Lyra’s Oxford. He implied that some other familiar characters will be present as well, though no specific mention of Will…. Anyway, he said he’s well into it but expects that it will be a very lengthy work. He estimates two years until publication.

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Alex Deacon Profile

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Thanks to Achukablog for directing me to Joanna Carey’s Guardian article, “Brain Theatre” about the terrific British illustrator, Alex Deacon. He illustrated one of my favorite books of last year, Barbara Jean Hicks’ Jitterbug Jam. We selected it as one of the 2006 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts and here is my annotation for it ( from our “Spotlight on CLA Book Awards” in the Fall 2006 Journal of Children’s Literature).

Here’s a fresh take on the perennial themes of bedtime monsters and mean big brothers. Poor little monster Bobo; nobody believes that there is a boy under his bed, especially not his big brother Buster who calls him a fraidy-cat. After receiving some advice from his grandpa Boo-Dad, Bobo is able to confront the boy and discovers that all is not as it seems. Hick’s delicious language is gloriously enhanced by the art of comic-strip panels, speech bubbles, sequences of spot images moving down and across a page, arresting full-page spreads, and meandering ribbons of text. These are just some of the more describable techniques used by Alex Deacon that will bring young readers back to this book again and again. With its rollicking text and winsome story, Bobo’s story is equally perfect for a large group read-aloud as it is for a twosome of emergent readers as they happily follow the little monster’s story along its winding and creative path.

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