Nonfiction — And to Make Our Books Most Useful to Kids
Have you all seen this piece on the SLJ site, http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6524475.html It matches what I have heard and seen with kids (remember my post about visiting the 5th graders and asking them how they would go about finding out if John Henry was real, and they all yelled out Google?). And it points to the bigger question I have been thinking about — a really important one for all of us, authors, illustrators, librarians, reviewers, teachers — how do you evaluate nonfiction for younger readers? Betsy has been talking about the choices she makes in creating a book, but what factors influence all of us in judging a book?
This relates directly to the article about kids being very comfortable with using search engines, but not knowing how do to research. It seems to me that the judgment of nonfiction, from board books through upper YA, falls into two categories — and, unfortunately, is heavily weighted towards the wrong one. Category one is the hunt, the search, the curry combing, for mistakes. That is, judges/reviewers act as uber elementary school teachers, and check to see if a book has any errors in it — wrong dates, facts, spellings, accents, captions — and then this can go to a second level of error check — is the book missing notes, backmatter, period illustrations, color illustrations, note from the author etc. Of course we all do want our books to model attention to detail, and we must do our best get every fact right. But in fact all of that copy editing level judgment is secondary to the main question — what does the book have to say?
Think back to those kids with their quick fingers on the keyboard. They can find correct dates in a flash. That is no problem. What they need from us is a model for how to go about researching and writing about a nonfiction topic. That is: what is the problem our book addresses, how do we go about solving it, and how do we go about presenting what we have learned. That is what a book models == and it is that approach judges need to look for. They need to take minor corrections of error as a kind of interesting secondary concern — the Brits call it finding Howlers — while the main question in a review should be, what is the challenge the book sets (for example, Betsy’s, how to do Peter Seeger in 40 pages); what strategies does the author use to meet that challenge (what narrative structure, what sequence of ideas, what use of research); is the match of subject and strategy successful (we learn, we are prompted to think more, we are given a model of a useful, engaging, way to approach a nonfiction topic).
What do you think — what matters in judging nonfiction?