Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart and Diversity in Thinking

I don’t often do much in the way of guest posts on this site. Aside from the occasional Walking and Talking episode by Steve Sheinkin it’s almost always a one-woman show over here. That said, when someone presents me with something particularly interesting and asks if they can post it on my site, I can’t help but say yes. Author Melissa Stewart is known as the author of more than 150 children’s nonfiction books off possible types and reading levels.  Most recently she was the one behind the magnificent No Monkeys, No Chocolate and the highly praised and well reviewed Feathers: Not Just for Flying, amongst others.  Add in her bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and her master’s degree in science journalism from New York University and you’ve got yourself a bonafide nonfiction expert in the field. 

Today Melissa breaks down the nonfiction books winning the awards, whether or not kids read nonfiction, thoughts on what we can do to support high-quality expository nonfiction, and the ten STEM-themed expository nonfiction titles that should be in every elementary book collection. 


eggisquiet

In recent years, narrative nonfiction—books that tell a true story or convey an experience—has been all the rage. Children’s book editors are acquiring it. Reviewers are praising it. Awards committees are honoring it. And educators are buying it.

But what about kids? What do they think? To be sure, some young readers are enthusiastic about narrative nonfiction, but others—not so much. They’d rather read expository nonfiction—titles that describe, explain, or inform.

What accounts for the difference in opinion? How children think. The idea that different students think and interact with the world in different ways isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it has literacy implications that are worth keeping in mind.

Most of the adults who are passionate about children’s literature—editors, book reviewers, librarians, literacy coaches, classroom teachers, award committee judges—are naturally drawn to the Arts, humanities, and social sciences. They’re also drawn to stories and storytelling. So it’s no surprise that most of the nonfiction titles honored by the biggest awards in children’s literature employ a narrative writing style to recount historical events or highlight the accomplishments of influential people.

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 1.46.47 PM

SeeingSymmetryIn looking at the nonfiction winners for the Newbery and Caldecott since 1995 and for the Sibert (which focuses on nonfiction) since its inception in 2001, it’s easy to see that life stories—biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs—are the champs with a total score of 48 (9 medals, 39 honors). History titles come in second with 28 winners overall, while STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) titles trail behind with just 16 winners.

A closer look at the life stories shows that 27 of them focus on key historical figures, while 13 feature visual artists, writers, or musicians. Just 8 highlight the accomplishments of scientists.

Combining all these figures, the totals work out to 55 winning social studies titles and 24 winning STEM books. In other words, social studies titles win these highly-respected awards more than twice as often as science titles. That’s a big difference.

Why is it important to spend some time pondering this discrepancy? Because plenty of children aren’t naturally drawn to the Arts, humanities, and social sciences. Budding scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer programmers, accountants, electricians, and plumbers don’t necessarily crave an emotional connection with a central figure in a book. Instead, they get excited about data, facts, ideas, information.

These concrete, analytical thinkers enjoy reading engaging expository nonfiction with clear main ideas and supporting details. They’re captivated by books that emphasize 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. That’s what they want more than anything.

LookUpWe all know that the big awards generate big sales. Award-winning books end up in classrooms and libraries across the country, and that greatly increases the odds that they’ll end up in the hands of the children who need them most.

Because expository STEM books just don’t seem to win the most highly-respected awards as often as other kinds of nonfiction, I worry that young analytical thinkers are being underserved by the children’s book community. We need to honor these children by:

  • purchasing and recommending more high-quality expository nonfiction
  • choosing engaging, richly illustrated expository nonfiction as read alouds
  • using carefully crafted expository nonfiction as mentor texts in writing workshop

Studies show that many primary-grade students who are enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and math get turned off to these subjects by the time they reach high school. If we want the United States to remain a global innovation leader, we must foster all the potential STEM talent our country has to offer. We need to fuel the curiosity of young analytical thinkers, and one way to do that is by nurturing and nourishing their minds with books they love.

The good news for us and for young readers is that during the last decade, expository nonfiction has undergone an exciting transformation. Once upon a time, it was boring and stodgy, but many of the expository nonfiction books being published today feature engaging text, captivating art, and dynamic design. As a result, these titles delight as well as inform.

Here are ten STEM-themed expository nonfiction titles that I think should be in every elementary book collection:

  • An Egg is Quiet written by Dianna Hutts Aston 
  • Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine
  • Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge
  • Creature Features by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
  • Frogs by Nic Bishop
  • Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
  • Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell
  • Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci by Gene Barretta
  • Tiny Creatures: The Invisible World of Microbes by Nicola Davies
  • Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

 


Melissa Stewart is the author of more than 150 science books for children and the co-author (with Nancy Chelsey) of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse, 2014). To learn more about Melissa and her work, please visit her website.

Share
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Susan Ramsey says:

    And of course Union College is where Steinmetz taught (without pay AND attended faculty meetings!) And what a good idea a picture book about Steinmetz would be!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      All right. You’re writing that book. You have the time, the inclination, and you know how to do the research. I’m not kidding. You are writing that book (and I’ll do it in a pinch, but seriously you should consider it).

    • Jacquelin Devlin says:

      And let’s not forget the “boy” factor. As a former elementary school librarian, I found more boys preferred non-fiction to fiction, while more girls preferred fiction to non-fiction! Narrative non-fiction — no matter how beautiful or well-conceived — was a hard sell to both groups, in spite of their appeal to adults. As Melissa mentioned, the analytical minds “just want the facts, ma’am.”
      I also recall reading, years ago, that 85% of the working scientists polled had read Microbe Hunters. Go for that Steinmetz bio, Melissa!!

      • Susan,
        I spent many, many hours in Steinmetz Hall. Back when I was a student, it was home of the largest science lecture hall. It’s where I took intro courses to biology and chemistry as well as organic chemistry. If my memory is accurate, it was also home to the college’s main frame computer and the terminals where we did programming homework. It’s also where I word processed my thesis. Believe it or not, I never wondered who Steinmetz was back then. I think it would be great if you wrote a biography of him.

        Jacquelin,
        I chose not to mention the “boy factor” because I wonder if it’s real or if it’s a product of how our society treats boys and girls. I think there are plenty of analytically-thinking girls, and I would love to see them all pursue STEM careers.

  2. Melissa, thank you for your work and for the list of STEM-themed expository nonfiction titles.

  3. I’m especially excited about non-fiction books that call upon readers to speculate and come up with answers–like BONE BY BONE. Many of Steve Jenkins’ books, like WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A TAIL LIKE THIS? pose questions that intrigue children as much as riddles. These books make great story-hour sessions–the first time I read BONE BY BONE aloud, I almost had to close things down, the children were so excited–every hand in the air, everyone talking at once; children leaving their seats to trace the bones with their fingers. Publishers, please grant us more great science read-alouds that goad children to INQUIRY!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      You are making it very hard for me not to retitle this piece, “Goading Children to Inquiry”. It’s too keen to ignore.

  4. As a volunteer school librarian about to order new books, I can’t thank Melissa enough for the timing of this piece. I am always amazed at how many students want to check out books about animals, space, and natural disasters. Let’s keep feeding those minds!

  5. Sarah Lamstein says:

    Well done, Melissa! You make a compelling case for the information-hungry and the need for all of us in the book world to give them our best. Thanks for standing up and raising awareness!

  6. Excellent post Melissa! (Thanks for sharing Betsy.) Can you clarify the difference between the two charts? Are they different years? Love your list of recommended titles, many of which are new to me. Of course, FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING and NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE are my favorites. I’ve also witnessed kids go crazy for expository books on the human body, weather (hurricanes, tornadoes) and earth science (volcanoes, earthquakes, etc.). Keep ’em coming.

    • Chana,
      The top data table focuses on medal winners, while the lower one focuses on honor titles. It looks like I should have made the headings clearer. My apologies.

      I’m glad you found the recommended titles useful. Thanks for the kind words about FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING and NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE.

  7. Wonderful and timely report Melissa! Nonfiction has grown in leaps and bounds and continues to foster active and curious minds.

  8. Melissa, this is a great piece, but it leaves me with a further question. Do we know approximately how many STEM vs. humanities-oriented nonfiction titles are published by the publishers who are in the running for these awards?

    I have a suspicion that at least part of the difference in the numbers is due to the numbers published.

    • That’s a good question, Harold. No, I don’t have the numbers, but I suspect there is something to what you are saying. Part of my point is that like librarians, book reviewers, etc., most trade editors are humanities-oriented thinkers, which is why they aren’t acquiring the kinds of books that analytical-thinking kids are drawn to. I think the problem goes right back to the very beginning of the publication process. A book can’t win an award if it doesn’t exist.

    • Anjali Amit says:

      Very true Harold Underdown. If there are more apples vs oranges people will eat more apples. Rather surprising, though, that with all the focus on STEM there are not more STEM-themed expository nonfiction titles (if those numbers hold out).

      Thank you Melissa for an article that brings attention to this lacuna.

  9. Melissa, you’ve focused on an understated diversity — how the minds of young readers approach nonfiction. How true that they are often different than the preferences of gatekeepers. Thanks for alerting librarians and teachers about the need to serve the curiosity of their analytical readers as well as those who like a narrative nonfiction.

  10. Thank you for being a steadfast voice for science in children’s literature! Thank you too Betsy for hosting this article. Children are scientists from the moment they are born. They seek out patterns, investigate hypotheses, and are always trying to figure out their world.

    As a pediatrician and homeschool educator, I also have seen children (young boys in particular) drawn towards nonfiction PBs in part because nonfiction feels “safe” and does not require any risks to emotion like fictional books PBs often do.

    Handling emotions isn’t an easy skill for some young children, and feeding their passion to understand their world through nonfiction can help them develop the skills needed to then be confident and embrace all of life – emotions too.

  11. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Melissa, thanks for this much needed piece! It’s absolutely true that most of “us” in the reviewing/award industry are more naturally inclined to narrative. I think it becomes a self-fulfilling circle…as awards drive sales and sales publishing. In award discussions, for instance, many of us get attached to finding something we can point to that makes a book “transcendent” or “transformative,” and if we aren’t able to get that feeling ourselves it’s hard to locate in a text. Your clear explanation of “what these readers want more than anything” should serve these discussions well.

    • You bring up a good point, Nina. Editors acquire books that they fall in love with, and awards committee members select titles that speak to their hearts. Maybe publishers should try to hire some analytically-minded editors. I do know there are analytically-minded librarians out there. Perhaps more of them will be inspired to serve on an award committee. I’m thinking that this diversity-in-thinking is probably a spectrum, a continuum. If so, perhaps folks in the middle, can also play a role in educating the whole kidlit community about the power expository STEM titles can play in the lives of some students.

      • Melissa,
        I love your response to this! I agree whole-heartedly and hope that your ideas come to fruition. Thanks so much for tackling this topic and shining the light on expository STEM books. Science ROCKS!

  12. Hi, Melissa;
    I could not agree with you more, and with Harold’s question. How many expository nonfiction books are published each year? Which publishers publish them? How many are flat fee vs royalty deals? I think it would help to have more book reviewers and award committee members who love expository science and nature books. One question, I am reading this post from my iPad, and I cannot tell the difference between the two tables above. Are they from different years? Thank you, Melissa! It’s always a pleasure to read your posts! Ana M SR

    • Hmm, it sounds like the tables are a little bit funky on some kinds of devices. The top data table focuses on medal winners, while the lower one focuses on honor titles. It looks like I should have used a different kind of design for the tables.

  13. Yes, yes, yes, thank you for this post, Melissa, and thank you, Betsy, for giving Melissa this wonderful forum to champion expository-stye nonfiction books. I’d love to see a further subcategory: “nonfiction titles with a whimsical/humorous tone” and see how often/if ever, one of THOSE has received mention/accolades.

  14. Very interesting piece, Melissa and not something I’ve thought about which is daft as I know kids (including one of my own) who absolutely prefer expository nonfiction to any other kind of text. Thank you for this and the list of books.

  15. As a science writer myself, I thought that this was true. Thank you Melissa, for quantifying it for all to see. That is also a great list of NF books by some very talented authors. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Excellent post, Melissa! Thanks for bring nonfiction to the forefront! I’m an avid reader of nonfiction, and a writer of it as well. I’m so glad these wonderful and engaging books are getting more attention these days. I have read and enjoyed all of these titles except Neo Leo, so I’ll get on that right away!

  17. Great post! I’m a math person myself (Master’s in Math 21 years before my MLS), and always rave about math-related children’s nonfiction. http://www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Nonfiction/index.html I had noticed that my favorites usually didn’t win awards. And I have trouble generating enthusiasm for them in a large book-recommending group I was part of.
    Another example: I have a prime factorization sweater and wore it to KidLitCon 2009 and other library conferences and got polite interest. When I wore it to the 2011 US Science and Engineering Festival and told the guy at the Mathematical Association of America booth about it — he did one tweet about it — and the next day my two-year-old blog post got 17,000 hits. It showed me that the book world doesn’t necessarily share my interests — but there is interest out there. I have to say this is one thing I like about the Mathical Award. I hope they award it again soon.

  18. One of my all time favorite books, “Lincoln: A Photobiography,” by Russell Freedman did win the 1988 Newbery Medal. We all win when we get these non-fiction books into the hands of young readers.

  19. Melissa, Betsy, and all:

    Melissa, your article has inspired me! I haven’t written expository NF in quite a while; one of my goals next year will be to change that.

    Thank you, Betsy, for sharing space for everyone to grow as writers and readers!

  20. So, I’m curious. It just so happens I’m finishing up a math-related children’s nonfiction manuscript. Do you know of any “analytically-minded” agents or editors out there? (I’ll start by trying to look up the editors of some of my favorites… but I’m curious if anyone comes to mind.)

Trackbacks

  1. […] as it relates to different types of children’s nonfiction and which win reviews more often here. It was very interesting look at children’s nonfiction and made me think about them in a way […]