Recently I was copied on an email sent from a well-known nonfiction author to other nonfiction writers. The author was wondering about how to deal with an editor who was suggesting the addition of lots of "extras" to the book she was writing. These extras could be videos linked to an e-book, sidebars or "fun facts," photographs and illustrations, graphs, charts, tables, and more.
Now those of us who teach may already be aware of the research that says that "extras" that distract readers attention from the main idea of a text do affect comprehension...and not in a good way. Kids may begin to believe that the interesting facts offered are, in fact, the main idea. After all, look how interesting they are! They must be important.
Here's what I think. When all the nonfiction features are working together in a supportive way, then that constitutes excellent nonfiction. Check out Locomotive, the best example I know of how nonfiction features support each other. That is, the
main idea, structure, style, integration of visual information, and
disciplinary thinking are mutually supportive. An excellent text doesn't need extraneous extras to amuse and excite readers. It's already engaging enough.
Don't get me wrong. I am not against extras. I am only against extras that distract readers and don't help them build understanding of the main idea of a book. And, I am finding it very encouraging that writers and teachers are coming to the same conclusion. That's probably because good writers don't need distracting extras because they write so well that their writing both informs and holds our interest.
So, I am thinking that when we look as "extras," we ought to ask: Does that feature support the main idea of the book or does it distract from its message? Such a simple question just might yield surprising answers.