Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

How to Judge

Nonfiction — And to Make Our Books Most Useful to Kids

Have you all seen this piece on the SLJ site, 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? 


  1. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    For me, it’s all about how engaging the text is, and whether or not I’m encouraged to learn more on my own when the cover is closed. I appreciate author notes that describe the research process, and references or a bibliography that allow me to extend my study.
    Some texts fall into the “purely informational” category. I can find the answers I need in them, but don’t connect with them as a reader. I love the stories in math, and science and history, so I want to be moved by them in much the same way I’m moved by fiction. This can be challenging for nonfiction authors, but it can be done.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    I half agree — and I think you have put your finger on a key issue/problem. Because being “engaging,” while of course crucial from a literary POV, has nothing whatsoever to do with being excellent, or even valid, from a nonfiction POV. In other words a book can be engaging but wrong. Or it can be accurate but dull. And my point in this column is to bring up yet a third issue — not just accuracy and style, but argument. That is, how does a book model the process of 1)thinking 2) research 3) constructing an answer, a theory. I feel that we too often judge nonfiction on 1 and 2 — fact and voice, and not enough on 3 — approach.

  3. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    Well, I guess I really blew it, because of course, if a book isn’t accurate, it doesn’t even make the list for consideration. I suppose I assumed the validity issue was a given. That is the first thing I look at, but then, when I think about what will move students, I know we have to get beyond this.
    I do agree completely that approach tends to be missing. I don’t think we talk enough about the work that an historian does in getting to those ideas.

  4. Marc Aronson says:


    We are in agreement. Try your hand at some of the sentence alternatives today.