I’m visiting a 5th grade class next week, and Susan C. Bartoletti tells me she is as well. We — and other non-fiction authors, have been getting more and more of these requests, especially for classes working on their first research reports. I like doing these visits, and they point to an interesting issue we should all weigh and consider. I suspect that this new emphasis on research reports starting in upper elementary school is linked to the focus on nonfiction literacy in the national standards. And schools may well be facing this problem: as Betty Carter has pointed out, up through 4th grade students have been enticed into literacy (as in skill at decoding text) through story. Thus by 5th grade most really know their way around fiction. On the one hand, they intuitively know the rule of the 3 — the three tests a hero will face; on the other hand, their own reading and Language Arts discussions have led them to have a sense of what to expect from page-turning plot, eye-catching language, and rich, engaging characters. Many will even have a sharp eye out for point-of-view. Handed a novel, they both feel at home and have a budding critical aparatus for judging this one against the last one they read. But now they are in the world of nonfiction.
How do your read — and thus how do you write — nonfiction? Here is where Language Arts teachers (and, it must be said, librarians) who say, “well nonfiction is just like fiction, the world is full of stories” fail students. Because the challenge in researching and writing nonfiction is quite different. Yes there are rules with numbers — the five W questions; the topic sentence, three supporting statements, and a conclusion format — but these are nothing like the rule of the 3. In fact the key to research is precisely the same as the scientific method — you may begin with an idea, a theory, a hypothesis, but you have to let the research take you where it goes. You may find you were wrong, or that you can’t prove your idea, or that what you thought was one simple cause and effect splays and splinters in a many different strands. A 5th grader often is either instantly overwhelmed, or equally quickly reduced to a descriptive list of facts. Nonfiction is about discovery — a thread nicely explored in Susan’s article in the new Horn Book. The quest is the actual process of thinking, researching, and learning — not a fictional quest undertaken by a character entirely in the control of a skilled author. In fact now it is the child who is the author — not in pure imagination, but in the hunt for key facts, sharp insights, clever explanations. Only after the child has been the hero herself, questing into the unknown, can the writing process begin. Adults who judge books solely on writing, on language, do not know how to help childen in that first phase of inquiry.
That is where it is a very good idea for a school or library to invite a nonfiction author to come. S/he knows both sides of the research process — the hunt, and then the literary struggle to share both the process and the result with readers. But the one actor who is missing in this party is reviewers. All too often they evaluate our books almost entirely as what they call “pleasure reading” experiences — as if the value of our writing had nothing to do with the quality of the knowledge itself. Schools and libraries looking for materials to help their neophyte researchers need to know which books serve as models, which books help young people with both sides of their challenge — finding information and writing persuasively about their discoveries.