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.


1 Comment

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One response to “Reading Nonfiction

  1. Hi Monica,
    Your three selections on setting are all books I love and use with my students. I was completely taken with Oh Rats! and love using The Story of Salt when we talk about trade. I will add two books that I think fit well into your first and second categories.
    For character I simply loved Russell Freedman’s The Adventures of Marco Polo. (Has the man ever written a bad book?) The illustrations are fantastic and the story is so amazing. For setting, I was quite taken with Tibet: Through the Red Box by Peter Sis. It is such a moving story about his father’s adventures while at the same time telling so much about a mysterious place.
    Thanks for the great list!


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