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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Making Kids Smarter

The Perfect Response to a Book

I was in Las Vegas Friday visiting fourth and fifth grade classrooms. Some of the kids had read the books I was talking about (Ain’t Nothing But a Man; World Made New; How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush) some had not. In the last school I met fourth and fifth graders together outdoors and then they handed me short notes about the books they had read. One note included the line that I treasure: "thank you for making me smarter."

Everything I write about here in promoting trade nonfiction, nonfiction with a point of view, nonfiction that takes risks, nonfiction that moves beyond the textbook, is designed to get young people to think, and to enjoy thinking and exploring. That is the purpose of every book I write and every told I give. So to have a young student feel that a book stimulated him (or her, I don’t have the letter so I can’t check the name) to have more knowledge, and to have more thoughts, more insights, more questions, more ability to seek and find new answers was a thrill beyond imagining.

And so to go back to that prior discussion of textbooks, I think that ultimately what bothers me is that the textbook is not designed to make the reader feel smarter. Just the opposite, the textbook assumes the readers knows nothing, has no personal curiosity, and needs to be spoonfed everything. The textbook is smart, the reader is dumb. The book knows all, the reader is to absorb all. The book flattens out knowledge or steamrolls the reader. Now I may well be missing something — some textbook that tries really hard to stimulate not overwhelm. If so, please tell me. I do realize I am speaking in generalities. And yet that student made everything I do and believer in feel right — we can create books that make students feel smarter, because they are enjoying learning and using their minds.