The best news in the nonfiction universe in recent years has been on the Prize front — first the creation of the Sibert, then the YA NF award, and last year the first NF book to win the National Book Award in the young readers’ category. But this year came word that could be even better — the fact that the new national core standards include literacy in nonfiction as part of the English Language Arts strand in upper elementary school. We’d all long noticed the gap between the writing challenges given to those students — the research essay, the example of persuasive writing with supporting facts — and the classrom (and in fact library) focus on fiction as both assignment and pleasure reading. So now the education world is catching up and noticing that if we want kids to write good nonfiction, if we want to them recognize what nonfiction is, how it works, how it does what it does, we need to offer them the experience of reading good nonfiction.
But — here is the challenge: nonfiction is most often expensive, individual, hardcover books. Classroom sets of cheap paperback novels are easy to come by. Indeed — and I would argue this is part of the possible answer — every elementary classroom I’ve visited has rows of unread and unloved Social Studies textbooks sitting on the shelves. Surely they cost a chunk of change. So schools do what they can — they use databases, they use magazine articles — I featured Storyworks here. there is Time for Kids, and more. These are cheap, current, easy to use with kids and ….they are not books.
Authors, editors, publishers, librarians, teachers — we need to think about how to break out of this box. If we want kids to read engaging, well-crafted nonfiction that has a beginning, middle, and end, that introduces young readers to how to read, write, and, most importantly, think with nonfiction (which is precisely what the Core Standards require) then we have to find a way to give them whole books to read. This does mean rethinking the match of time and topic. In other words, a short article can fit with a one period class. A book takes more time to read than the teacher has to devote to its topic. Kids reading a really good book on Tree frongs may now be on the Weather, or a great book on the Boston Tea Party, are surely up to Westerward Expansion. The teacher has to separate topic and treatment — you read the book to experience the journey of the book, the symphony, how the author has gently lead you from here to there — the surprises the author offers, the way the author employs art, maps, quotations –evidence — to convince and guide you even as s/he is telling a story.
How about this — what if some clever service offered teachers a set of paperback books clustered around the scope and sequence of a school year. In other words five copies of a good book on Age of Exploration; Five on Colonial; Five on the Am Rev — and so on. The teacher now has enough to create a core reading experience around each key moment, the books are cheap, and the teacher is guaranteed “coverage.” The class would no longer have a textbook at all,but the bookseller would provide the teacher with all of the kinds of scaffolding she gets from the textbook — the ancillary materials. Kids gets books actually meant to be read. The teacher gets both content and literacy, and she has all of the tools she needs. That’s what I’d like to see.