Friday, January 20, 2017

Best Nonfiction of 2016 Roundup

Next Monday is the ALA Youth Media Awards, so it seems like a good time to look back some highly-regarded titles published last year.

There’s no doubt about it. 2016 was a great year for nonfiction, and it seems like more people were paying attention than ever before.
Here’s a roundup of the lists I’m aware of. Please let me know if there are others I should add.

Mock Sibert Lists

The staff at Anderson’s Bookstore

My list

Individual Lists

Betsy Bird at A Fuse 8 Production: Nonfiction Picture Books

Cathy Potter at Nonfiction Detectives

Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook

My favorite STEM Titles

Group Lists
Best STEM Book
(This is a new list. The committee includes a wide variety of science educators, and it's co-sponsored by the Children's Book Council.)

Cybils: Nonfiction MG/YA Finalists

Cybils: Nonfiction Juvenile/Elementary Finalists

Nerdy Book Club: Long-form Nonfiction

NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students

And now, it’s time to look ahead to 2017. Here’s Michele Knott’s list of nonfiction books she’s looking forward to in the new year.

From the looks of it, we’re going to have another great year of nonfiction. Time to start reading!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Behind the Books: What’s the Point (of View)?

In 2010, I had the good fortune to meet Melissa Techman (@mtechman), a school librarian in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Twitter. Over the years, Melissa has shared many great ideas with me.

One of my favorites came in the form of a comment to a blog post I’d written about voice and point of view in nonfiction writing. Melissa suggested having students create nature journals in which they experiment with point of view by writing about a particular observation first in what she called the “wondrous first person” and then in the “serious third person.” I loved the idea so much that I started doing it myself. You can see examples here and here.

Eventually, I began writing about the same observation in three different ways (1) wondrous first person, (2) scientist’s description, and (3) animal’s perspective. What I realized is that each of these approaches has its advantages and its shortcomings.

And that made me think more deeply about point of view in STEM picture books. Traditionally, most nonfiction books for children featured a serious third-person point of view. Like my scientist’s descriptions, the writing in these books had an air of authority, but it could sometimes be a bit dry.

Perhaps 15 years ago, nonfiction authors began experimenting with second person point of view. Why? Because it’s a great way to engage and connect with readers. When the author is using an expository writing style, second-person point of view pairs well with a lively, conversational voice. Examples include Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee, If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz, Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn DeCristofano, and Bone by Bone by Sara Levine.

When the author is using a narrative writing style, his/her intent is to bring readers right into the middle of the action. The voice is often energetic and descriptive. Examples include Journey into the Deep by Rebecca L. Johnson, If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty, and Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre.

More recently, first-person point of view has become increasingly popular. In picture book biographies like Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese and Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh. First-person point of view allows readers to see the world from the subject’s perspective. And in books like I, Fly by Bridget Heos and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, animal characters are able to speak directly to readers and share facts about themselves in an engaging way.

As far as I’m concerned, point of view is one of the most critical tools nonfiction writers have at their disposal.

Friday, January 13, 2017

My Favorite Social Studies Book of 2016

Oh how I wish I had read Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare by Gene Barretta before I published my Mock Sibert list in early December. But for some reason, I didn’t discover this book until my Christmas reading binge.

Still, it’s easily my favorite social studies book of the year. Why? Let’s digress a bit.

Have you ever noticed that when it comes to trade children’s books about history and social studies, picture book biographies are pretty much the only game in town? Why is that? I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s an important question for us to think about because while picture book biographies appeal strongly to some readers, other readers aren’t so keen on them.

Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and generally try to establish an emotional connection between the reader and the subject of the book. But some young readers prefer books that focus on data, facts, ideas, information. These concrete, analytical thinkers--budding scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer programmers, accountants, electricians, and plumbers—enjoy reading engaging expository nonfiction with clear main ideas and supporting details. They get excited about patterns, analogies, concepts, comparisons, and calculations. As they read, their goal is to use the information they gather to learn about the world and its possibilities and their place in it.

Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare by Gene Barretta is my favorite social studies title of 2016 because it’s perfectly constructed to appeal to analytical thinkers. It has dynamic, appealing art and an engaging expository writing style. It also features a strong, clear compare and contrast text structure, repeated references to fun, surprising patterns, and an ending that connects to readers by introducing the term “legacy” and asking readers to think about how they plan to exist in the world.

Well done, Mr. Barretta.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Behind the Books: Shopping for Text Structure

Let’s face it. Convincing young writers that their nonfiction writing can benefit from experimenting with different text structures isn’t easy. The last thing kids want to do is revise a piece of writing four or five times, each time using a different text structure.

And who can blame them? I’m not crazy about it either. But unlike young writers, I have a powerful tool that spurs me on—experience. I know that trying on different structures is worth the time and effort. I know from experience that it works.

Since gaining that experience takes time and patience and persistence, I’ve been looking for a way to convince students to keep on trying. Here's an analogy that I think could help. What if we encouraged students to go shopping for structure?

When we’re searching for a pair of pants, we usually know what purpose we want it to serve. It might be for playing sports or relaxing around the house or going to a fancy party? With this purpose in mind, we look at many different pairs of pants.

We can eliminate some pretty quickly. Maybe they don’t serve our purpose. Maybe they’re the wrong size or a color we don’t like or made of a material that’s too scratchy. But at a certain point, we have to try on a few pairs of pants to see how they fit. We might not like spending time in the store’s cramped dressing room, but we accept that it’s a necessary part of the process.

The same is true for selecting a nonfiction text structure. If we think deeply about our purpose for writing (which, in my opinion, is not the same as what Common Core calls “author purpose) as part of the pre-writing process, if we identify our audience and think about what we’re excited to share with them and why we want to share it, we can eliminate some text structures pretty quickly. For example, it might be clear that a sequence structure won’t work because there’s no time element or natural order involved in our central nugget, our vital idea. Maybe there’s no problem, and therefore no solution.

But like shopping for a pair of pants, at a certain point, a nonfiction writer probably has to try on a couple of different text structures to see which one is the best fit. We might not like physically writing out multiple drafts, but we need to accept that it’s a necessary part of the process.

What do you think? Could this analogy work?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS PE 3-LS1-1. Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death.

Try these book pairs
For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Holidays!

A few years ago, my book Under the Snow was featured in the Festival of Trees at the Concord Museum in Concord, MA. To celebrate the holiday season, I’m going to leave you with a photo of that gorgeous tree.

For the next week and a half, I’m looking forward to plenty of fun family festivities. But I’ll be back on January 9. I have  a feeling that 2017 is going to be a fantastic year.