In the Classroom: Independent Reading and Nonfiction

“I like adventures. Not atlases!” was my 11-year-old nephew’s reaction to recent probing by this auntie of his reading habits.

I should have known better. Anthony Horowitz warned in a recent interview about the perils of “auntie’s choice” when it comes to what kids read: “Children choose the books they want to read. Children’s books belong to children; they’re not something that your auntie picks out for you at Christmas any more.”

And of course said nephew is a big Alex Rider fan. But perhaps I could persuade him to broaden out into the world of non-fiction if Anthony Horowitz follows through on a suggestion that came up at the Battle of Ideas festival. When an audience member raised the question of non-fiction for children, Anthony responded that he had long considered writing something for children about the Trojan wars or perhaps even biography. Excited by the prospect? You betcha. And it brought back all the non-fiction books which formed part of my childhood reading.

That is the beginning of Shirley Dent‘s lovely recollection of her own childhood reading of nonfiction and fiction.  I have to confess to having been a narrative girl — be it Helen Keller’s autobiography, a book on Albert Schweitzer, or one of those Childhood of Famous Americans (don’t worry, I know they are faction) — I liked my facts presented as story.  I can’t remember any books of the sort Shirley describes, but I suspect I read them too just as she did, right next to the stories I was also reading.


These days my students, like the above-referenced-nephew, gravitate to fiction, but I do see them with nonfiction as well  — biographies of real-life folks that interest them (sports, entertainment, and history personalities),  weird fact collections, and quirky books of all sorts.  A couple of years ago I had a student who read avidly only the Horrible Histories books. And this year the compendium book Show Off is captivating them.  Yesterday one of my 4th grade boys took it home for the weekend. For two 6th grade girls’ take go here and here.


Filed under In the Classroom, Nonfiction

6 responses to “In the Classroom: Independent Reading and Nonfiction

  1. Good grief, this was spooky! I often talk about Helen Keller, Albert Schweitzer and the infamous “orange books” (Childhood of Famous Americans) from my small hometown library that were my first non-fiction books!


  2. Hehe, we are clearly close in age:)


  3. Maia Cheli-Colando

    “Children choose the books they want to read. Children’s books belong to children; they’re not something that your auntie picks out for you at Christmas any more.”

    Mmph. That would assume that (a) kids had access to all the books that they might find intriguing, (b) kids could buy all the books they wanted, (c) kids already have had exposure to every genre and field that might excite them, and so know what they are looking for, not just in terms of books but in terms of ideas, and (d) that just because a kid spends her/his loose money on bubblegum means they don’t expect their family to provide dinner too.

    I’m all for giving kids independence — intellectual and otherwise — but I think that independence is something you learn, not something you stumble onto by default. It requires some knowledge of the world in which you wish to operate as a free agent. Too often, what kids know is what’s been sold to them… and if we misinterpret that as freedom and will, I think we are wrong.

    And, I have found aunties to be rather delightful things to have. Not only at holiday time. :)



  4. Oh, I’m an auntie for real and one who definitely gives books to kids — that is literally my stock in trade at school! But I did like this article and the way she wrote about her memories of reading nonfiction side by side with fiction.


  5. Jonathan Hunt

    My kids adore SHOW OFF, too!


  6. “I like adventures. Not atlases!”

    Maybe the trick is to guide children to the true exciting adventures offered in non-fiction, like: Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy, Guns for General Washington and True Stories of Great Escapes.


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