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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

How We Read

For the first 15-20 years of my career working in books for children and teenagers, my colleagues in publishing and I had two kinds of readers/buyers in mind: individuals buying in stores (parents for children or teenagers on their own), and librarians purchasing for their collections. We pictured needing to convince the first buyer to pick up the book, and the second buyer living, in effect, between the two VOYA standards of Quality and Popularity. Over the past ten years, and with ever greater force since the advent of the Common Core standards in 2010, I have been thinking about teachers and classrooms — and thus a different reader. How should we picture the classroom reader of NF? Who is that reader, and what makes a book appealing to him/her?

In each setting — store, library, classroom — there is some form of adult gatekeeping/guidance, with the general possible exception of YA paperbacks in stores and YA digital downloads should that market take off (and even there, the store owner and the elibrary provider make a degree of selection, since whether some teens will just make use of direct access to Amazon or Apple is not clear). So in the store it is the book buyer thinking about what will please the parents and grandparents with the credit cards, but with enough appeal to the actual reader so that the family comes back. In the library it is the librarian anticipating the needs and desires of her patrons as reflected in her circ stats. The classroom strikes me as different. In fact I am not sure what I, or anyone outside of the textbook houses, has thought deeply about what that dyad wants/needs in a book. The textbook houses solve this by fiat — their books don’t need to please, they demand, since they provide the route map the teacher must follow, thus the student must limp through. We don’t have that power.

If a teacher is using a trade book instead of or along with a textbook, she must have a goal in mind: the book is engaging, personal, intelligent, well illustrated and designed, well supported with evidence and backmatter. All of these are similar to bookstore and library needs. But what else? What makes a trade book please students, and appeal to teachers? Trade books require more effort from the teacher — to read, fit into a lesson plan, share, divvy up in parts to her students. Why should she expend that effort? The heart of this question, it seems to me, is that in a classroom a book is at least in part a tool. Teachers have long liked using novels as tools in ELA classes. They have enjoyed sharing a beloved reading experience that also gives them a chance to examine plot, character development, POV, style, etc. While authors and publishers duitfully provide teacher’s guides for our NF, I don’t think we have clearly looked at how to convince a teacher to use our book with a class the same way ELA classes have relied on To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Giver, or Holes, or Maniac Maggie.

Where do trade books fit as classroom reading experiences, at each grade level? What connection to the dyad of teacher and classroom do we provide. This is what Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello examines book by book in her blog, but what we all should be considering collectively here.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    I know the world of education has changed, and I’ve been out of the loop since 1995 when I retired after 30 years of teaching K-12 & college. And, I’m not being combative, but I’d like to know how teachers actually fare in recommending their choices in books, and I really want to direct that question to those in inner city/urban schools. Do teachers have input in urging school librarians to purchase books? Do classroom teachers have the power to convince chairpeople to use their budgets to make purchases when for years the same books were taught?

    As a teacher, I learned early, and that was when the NYC public schools had an Index that I had to explore on my own by talking with publishers at conferences, negotiate with chairpeople, reach out to other departments, provide the school librarians & other colleagues with printed lists of the books I recommended to my students as supplementary reading, because they used such the same materials over and over again. Fortunately, because I enjoyed writing, I created lesson plans, worksheets, background, and tests, so I was successful in introducing new literature in the high school which I taught for 17 years. Otherwise, I had to cope with outdated anthologies, tattered copies of “classics,” and books my students didn’t bother to read. I also reached out to the Social Studies Department to recommend links, so that when I taught a contemporary book the students might study the history of that period, if at all possible (which doesn’t mean I succeeded in convincing anybody).

    What happens nowadays? Do department meetings include discussions on books? How do school librarians and departments connect? And, especially now when budgets are reduced, teachers eliminated, and much community unrest, how does it all work?