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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Immersion — the Anti-Textbook

I’ve been writing about my YA lit class at Rutgers here, but I also teach a Materials for Children class there. This week they are reading Kakapo Rescue; Marching for Freedom, and Almost Astronauts. One student commented, to her surprise, on how each of the books immersed her in the experience the author took on. Why should this have been a surprise? The sad truth is that for her — as for many people who go on to become teachers, librarians, indeed the huge category of parents-who-pick-books-for-their-children — nonfiction = textbook. She really had no recollection of exploring within a nonfiction book, as the class required her to do. In a way I think our mission needs to be to keep reminding people that a textbook is not a book, it is a classroom tool. It may be a more or less efficient tool, but that is all it is. The problem is that they have become such a defining part of the NF experience that many adults who select books for young people simply have no other image of what NF can be, could be, should be.

Can I ask you readers to do this: select one NF books writtend and published for our readers (0-18) and post here telling why you think it is an exemplar of excellence in NF — NF as pleasure reading; NF as immersive experience; NF as stimulating critical thinking; NF that opens minds and expands worlds? I ask because I would like to arm all of us for when we go to school, when we speak at conferences to say “Look, see, see this is what NF can do; we are not textbooks — those are our steroidal, genetically altered, cousins — from the branch of the family that lost its humanity when it merged with the machinery of educational sales. No, remember us? We are real living, breathing, books, by actual human beings with point of view, affect, beauty, care in language, intelligence in design, grace in use of art. Our books speak in a human voice.”

I’d like to create a small list, along with your book talk case for each book — and I hope this will touch on the full range of ages and grades — so that it will be very each to show the counterexample to someone who thinks of NF books as ancillary materials to surround the textbook. I feel a particular passion about this because YALSA’s terrible decision to exile NF from BBYA — worked as badly as I and others expected. Have anyone of you seen the annotated list of nominees for the YA NF award that was supposed to be circulated? I suppose it was, but has it gained any traction as a selection tool? Perhaps we can forgive those who seldom reading NF for considering it marginal. But that leaves it to those of us who know differently to speak up ourselves — to show my student how many immersive experiences NF can offer.


  1. Carla reissman says:

    Do you have a good reading list for nonfiction books for younger readers — upper elementary school? I teach title I reading to elementary school students, who are mostly reading below level and I’m looking for books to order for our nonfiction collection that will give them a real love of nonfiction. The best time to capture readers’ interests is when they are young. Many boys especially love nonfiction in elementary school but then turn into nonreaders because they don’t realize all the great nonfiction they’ll be able to read later.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    I have some ideas — but let me open your question to other posters and that way you can get the best larger list.

  3. For Carla, and for all, I’ll throw the ball out with Robert Burleigh’s Stealing Home, Night Flight, and One Giant Leap. All three nonfiction picture storybooks take one small moment in history and go deep within in. In the case of Stealing Home, it’s Jackie Robinson stealing bases within a single play; Night Flight is Amelia Earhart’s solo journey across the Atlantic; One Giant Leap is the two-day span of the first landing of the moon. Through expert use of a narrative arc, verse, vivid imagery, and powerful similes and metaphors, in all three picture books Burleigh allows the reader to relive climactic moments in history.

  4. Myra Zarnowski says:

    This year I used two wonderful nonfiction books with fifth graders–Marc Aronson’s IF STONES COULD SPEAK and Loree Burns’ THE HIVE DETECTIVES. Each book became the center for an extended study and discussion of how people solve problems. When studying the first book about Stonehenge we were able to focus on problem solving because the author had gone to Stonehenge to spend time with archaeologists who were in the process of making discoveries. When studying the second book, which deals with the problem of why honey bees are dying off, students got a close look at how scientists are using multiple approaches to solve this problem. Again, the author showed real people working on an actual problem. Each book presented students with a close look at how knowledge is created and how people deal with puzzling situations.

    The first book is really strong on the idea of personal agency–that people can make a difference. There are wonderful sentences to pull out and discuss. One way I did this was to select several (6-8) quotes and put each one on large paper. I put one paper on each table that seats 4-6 students, had them discuss each quote and write a response. Students then circulated, moving from table to table, reading what others wrote, and adding their own comments. Then the students returned to their original tables, read all the comments and orally summarized the responses. This is not my original idea, but I think it’s a good one.

    The second book is more challenging than the first in terms of vocabulary and scientific concepts. It required more explicit teaching. However, the children were intrigued by it. We did many vocabulary exercises so that the children became familiar with the words needed to discuss the topic. We also did a great deal of journal writing. I bought a PBS video on the topic and we watched it. We are now reading a second book on bees and are planning a class trip to a local hive at the Queens Botanical Gardens. So…to make a long story short–these two books have made our lives so interesting that I highly recommend them. The children’s sustained interest in these two topics–Stonehenge and bees–speaks volumes about the power of nonfiction literature.

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    Two books:

    WRITTEN IN BONE by Sally Walker, and EVERY BONE TELLS A STORY by Jill Rubalcaba. Not just because they have such similar titles that I get them mixed up 😉 But because they both show the world of archaeology and how history and pre-history are constructed and reconstructed by scientists (ie, that history isn’t just something we “know” but something that we are constantly figuring out).

    EVERY BONE in particular was amazing for the multiple points of entry for the reader: 1) the story of the human whose remains were later discovered, 2) the story of the person or people who discovered the remains, and 3) the story of the scientists who studied the remains. Each of these access points is exciting in different ways and lets the reader choose which lens to see the story through – really remarkable.