A Classroom Magazine that Features Non-Fiction
This week I’m going to look at two ways of bringing nonfiction into classrooms. Today I have an interview with Lauren Tarshis, editor of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. (www.scholastic.com/storyworks)
In a way this blog, and the one on Friday, are the reverse of what I usually discuss here – my typical focus is on non-fiction books with some thought about who might use them. Now we are focusing on teachers and tools to help them.
Storyworks is aimed at elementary school teachers – which means that Language Arts is omnipresent, but so is content – unlike other magazines that are focused directly on science or current events. Each issue carries a mixture of features – fiction, plays, poetry, and now non-fiction. Lauren was hearing from teachers that their kids particularly liked non-fiction – that they would read “above” their level just to find out what happened and why. But the challenge for her as the editor is to get pieces that are concise, 1300 words long, engaging, accessible, and rich. As she puts it, the pieces are “very hard to write, they involve research but most of all distillation, each sentence must pulls its weight.”
Surely every author or editor who works in non-fiction recognizes the importance of that word, “distillation” – because when you boil things down too much, people and events become names and dates. But once you begin to add context, there is a door behind every door. Now there is some difference between what Storyworks is doing and what we do in books – since the magazine goes to teachers and offers many tools that allow the teacher to expand on the articles. As Lauren explained, they craft the magazine, website, and teacher’s guides with the idea that a teacher could actually use her subscription as the centerpiece of her whole curriculum. No author of an individual book has that aim – or those resources. Still, the challenge for non-fiction articles in a magazine is the same as it is for non-fiction books – engage the reader, do not violate what is known or knowable, and let your excitement some through – so that the reader feels an invitation to read, discover, learn more. Indeed it is precisely that personal excitement about non-fiction that comes across when Lauren speaks about her magazine. She thinks that it is non-fiction which has spurred the growth of the magazine – because kids like it and teachers need it. That is most encouraging indeed.