Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading for Information: Help from a “Guide on the Side”

            I hope we see a revived interest in the work of Louise Rosenblatt very soon because her work helps us understand reader response. To put it simply, Rosenblatt explained that our responses to literature—and that includes nonfiction—are always somewhere along the continuum of information seeking (she called it the efferent response) and emotional connection  (she called it the aesthetic response or the “lived through experience”). That is, sometimes we are mostly seeking information and sometimes we are mostly seeking an emotional connection, but it is never simply one or the other.  It’s both.
            Melissa Stewart’s thoughtful post on Elizabeth Bird’s Fuse #8 blog got me to thinking about this. According to Melissa, there are some kids who are concrete, analytic thinkers and prefer expository nonfiction. These readers do not crave an emotional connection to a central figure in a book. They simply want to learn more about the world. I agree. But is this because they already care about the subject in some way and so they welcome a book that feeds their interest? Or is it because their interest develops as they learn new information and then crave more? I have seen both these things happening in the classroom.  The more kids know, the more they want to know, and the more they raise questions for further inquiry.
            What does caring about information look like? In addition to books of straight exposition, there are a number of books that highlight a passion for learning by an author who serves as a “guide on the side.” This phrase, which is often used to describe teachers who place themselves on the sidelines of classroom activity while encouraging students to become more active, also describes authors who place themselves on the sidelines of their books with the goal of showing the joy of learning. Chief among these guides is Marc Aronson, who often joins scientists engaged in discovering new information and formulating new ideas. If you read Marc’s If Stones Could Speak, a book about new discoveries at Stonehenge, you can’t miss his frequent invitations to join the excitement of scientific thinking and learning.
            There are other authors, who like Marc, place themselves beside scientists who are in the process of learning and who care deeply about what they are doing. They show readers what caring about information looks like. One such author is Simon Winchester, whose recent book, When Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis, describes his own personal interest in geology and 
writing as well as the passion of others. Here is how he describes scientists in Israel trying to understand data about earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault: “They, like scientists all over the world, are gripped by the mysteries of earth’s behavior and want to understand what is happening deep down below, and why and when sudden seismic movements occur as they do.” That’s caring.
            I believe there is a useful role for the guide on the side, the author who holds our hands as we learn about the excitement of learning information. It’s like the teacher who is hoping to inspire a class of students. And like Melissa Stewart, I also believe we need to do more to recognize exemplary expository nonfiction that helps readers both learn and care about the world.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Rain Wizard: Scientist or Fraud?

           Because I love a good history mystery, I was immediately attracted to Larry Dane Brimner’s latest nonfiction title, The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield.  Here is the story of a man who claimed he could “coax” rain from the sky, using a secret mix of chemicals.  And . . . he was remarkably successful.  But was he a charlatan and a fraud?  Were all his methods simply a scheme for making money from desperate cities and farming areas suffering from drought? Or, was he—as he claimed—a scientist?
            After narrating this story, the author leaves us to ponder this question: “Did Hatfield hold some secret formula that caused the clouds to weep?” (p. 103).  Brimner tells us that whether Hatfield could indeed produce rain remains a mystery, but what he did produce was hope for people desperate for rain. So, in effect, we can only use available evidence to speculate.  Brimner’s bibliography provides us sources for continuing our search for this evidence.
            In addition to the intriguing mystery element, this book is beautifully formatted, clearly written, and has many, many large black and white, tinted photographs that can be carefully examined. If you are looking for ideas for using these photographs with students, check out the five-minute video from the New York State Archives on teaching with photographs at
            It was truly a pleasure to read this well-designed, interesting book. I hope that Larry Dane Brimner and Calkins Creek publishers keep these nonfiction books coming.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Examining Historical Photographs with Your Head and Your Heart

          Reading Dorothea’s Eyes, a picture book biography by Barb Rosenstock, reminded me of how emotional response seems to have dropped out of the conversation about reading. In our urgency to promote reading comprehension and vocabulary development, we seem to have lost sight of why we read in the first place: to learn information and to respond emotionally. Dorothea’s Eyes can help us begin to restore emotional response—our feelings—back into the conversation.  This book offers many openings for discussion:

·      It’s a picture book that introduces children to the work of the outstanding photographer Dorothea Lange, who took to the streets to photograph good people facing hard times. Her photographs of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s and her photographs of Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II are iconic—they evoke the tensions of the times. They are memorable. What do your students learn from these photographs? How do the photographs make them feel?
·      The book maintains a clear, consistent focus, namely that Dorothea Lange saw the world with her mind and her heart. Her photographs detail a real historical context with caring and compassion. The author of Dorothea’s Eyes states, “Her heart knows all about people the world ignores.” Six of Lange’s well-known photographs are included in the book. These include “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Bread Line.” It’s not too early to share these compelling photographs with children and discuss when and where they were taken. Discuss feelings these photos evoke.
·      This book can jumpstart conversations about “facts” and “feelings” about the past—something I have long considered essential in learning history.  It’s not enough to know about the past. We also need to care about it.
            If you want to build on this idea of examining historical photographs with children, follow up with Gordon Parks: How the photographer Captured Black and White America by Carol Boston Weatherford.  As the author tells us, his photograph called “American Gothic,” helped viewers see “the contradiction between segregation and freedom.” This happens only when we see with our minds and our hearts. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Key Ideas? Details?: What’s the Difference?

            Recently, an elementary school principal lamented to me that she was surprised by test results showing students across the grades were not doing well distinguishing between key ideas and details. “Can you help us?” she asked.

            Well, I am no magician but I seem to recall that when I was teaching elementary school, kids found summarizing difficult. Ask them to give an oral summary and you got everything they could remember reading.  It was as if the Declaration of Independence in Reading said that “all facts are created equal.” There was no key idea and there were no details. I think that this is the crux of the problem.

            But . . . there are solutions—or at least sensible steps to take to address the problem.  Here are a few:
1.     Discuss what summary means. It means being brief, concise, and direct. It does not mean telling everything you know. I like to discuss the relationship between “the big idea” and the “terrific specific.” That’s because writing a good summary means finding an important idea to focus on and then giving only the most convincing details to support it. I learned this firsthand when I wrote annotations for the annual Notable Social Studies Trade Books list. We only had about 150 words to write about why we were recommending a book. It was a tough lesson and it forged a lasting relationship between me and the delete key on my computer. I learned to pare down my writing.
2.     Limit the number of words allowed for written summaries. And, while you are at it, limit the time allotted for oral summaries too. In this way, students will have to separate the main idea from the details.
3.     Share writing that has clearly stated generalizations that are illustrated by intriguing details. Not only is this writing more understandable, it is also more interesting.  If you are looking for examples, my all time favorite writer when it comes to clarity, coherence, and descriptive detail is Russell Freedman. Check out any of his books and you will see what it means to write clear, coherent, descriptive nonfiction prose with overarching generalizations. Of course, if you want to be up to date, check out Freedman’s latest book, We Will Not Be Silent, which a Kirkus reviewer wrote “stands out for its focus and concision.” If you can’t wait for this new book, try Immigrant Kids, Kids at Work, or Children of the Great Depression. There is a lot more to choose from. Whichever book you choose, be explicit when showing kids the key idea and the supporting details in these books. Then as you read to them, ask the kids to take over this job themselves and tell you the key ideas and supporting details.
4.     Write summaries or explanations giving key ideas and details. Have students practice by working with partners and then report back to the class on their results. We know very well that reading and writing are connected, so we can expect that if students can find key ideas and details in their reading, they will also begin to use them in their writing. 

            The long and the short of this is that by providing good examples of writing and time read it, discuss it, and write like it, students will learn about the relationship between key ideas and details. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Letting Jefferson Speak for Himself: A Biography Generously Sprinkled with Quotes

            In the recent picture book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, author Peggy Thomas makes liberal use of short “Jefferson” quotations to focus on his keen interest in planting. The language of the book is rich and varied and the illustrations match the written text, adding humor here and there.

  ’s the extensive use of quotations, many of which are set off from the main text, that anchor this book’s focus on farming. Here is a technique we can easily help students try out.

            Here’s how I might explain it to students:
1.     First, you need to read extensively about a selected person. Any subject will do: scientist, mathematician, politician, dancer, actor, teacher, chef, athlete, architect, king, queen, and so on.

2.     Decide on a focus for writing about that person. What is the idea you want to emphasize? Ambition? Kindness? Inventiveness? Sense of Humor? Interests?

3.     Gather some quotes that support that focus. Put them in the order that you want to introduce them. Quotes are readily available on the Internet.

4.     Write your “focused” biography. Include your quotes as you write. Quotes can be part of your writing or they can be separated out and written in larger type or even in another color.

5.     Illustrate your work.

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation is an excellent mentor text for incorporating quotations.  This book gives us a clear lesson about the craft of writing. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A History Book for Elementary School Readers with All the Necessary Pieces: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

            The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is an inspiring, well-written, and well-illustrated biography of the accomplishments of an African-American man who was a slave until his teenage years, but later became a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and ultimately a member of the United States House of Representatives. This is a clearly told story of big, bold accomplishment, and it is accompanied by illustrations that give young readers a sense of historical context. Readers not only “see” what it looked like during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, they get a look at the emotions people felt.  This would be enough for me to recommend this book.

            However there is more. The back matter is excellent. It consists of the following elements that are all worthy of careful attention. Anyone teaching CCSS standard of Craft and Structure will find these items useful and informative:
·      Historical Note: The author explains what happened during the “Reconstruction” period that followed the Civil War.
·      Timeline: Taking a “life-and-times” approach, events in John Roy Lynch’s life appear in black, while state and national events appear in red.  This is an easily understandable format.
·      Author’s Note: Among other things, the author invites us to think about the significance of John Roy’s life: “His is a personal tale so unlikely that it calls on us to linger, to ask questions, to seek to understand the context, and to delve into the details of the overlooked time in which he lived. “ I can’t think of a better invitation to delve into history.
·      Illustrator’s Note: Not only does the illustrator admit that before illustrating this book he “wasn’t very knowledgeable about Reconstruction,” he also describes his necessary research and his artistic choices.
·      Suggestions for Further Reading: A list of recommended books is a fine starting place for learning more about Reconstruction.
·      Map Showing Reconstruction States and Important Places in John Roy Lynch’s Life. A very clear graphic that is useful for discussion of how maps present information.
Books like this one provide content and help readers understanding the process of learning about the past. This is essential for understanding history.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Exciting Discoveries Reveal the Nature of Science

             The recent discovery of a new species in the human family—Homo naledi—identified by anthropologist Lee Berger and his team of researchers in South Africa reveals how science works. That is, our understandings are tentative and, therefore, subject to change. You can read a New York Times article about this groundbreaking discovery at This find not only helps us understand how we evolved as humans, it also illustrates what Dr. Berger means when he said, “There is no substitute for exploration.”

            We have an exciting opportunity to connect this new discovery to previous work by Dr. Berger. In the book The Skull in the Rock, published in 2012, authors Lee Berger and Marc Aronson describe how a different fossil discovery in South Africa changed our understanding of evolution. In this case, Matthew Berger, the scientist’s son found a fossil of a bone from a species previously unknown to scientists. That species, Australopithecus sediba, provided a new window on the past. You can read the Classroom Bookshelf’s review of Skull in the Rock as well as their numerous ideas for teaching and suggestions of useful resources at

            When used together—the new information about Homo naledi and the older information about Australopithecus sediba--clearly show the nature of science in action. This material illustrates these big ideas:
·      Science is tentative, yet reliable. While generally reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is subject to change over time. It can be expanded or discarded.
·      Science is the product of observation and inference. Scientists gather evidence by making observations in the natural world. They make inferences based on a combination of observation and prior knowledge.
·      Scientists use creative and imaginative methods. There is no single, lock-step method for doing science.

            We teachers have a grand opportunity here for developing scientific literacy. First, there is material readily available about both discoveries on the Internet. Constructing text-sets incorporating nonfiction books, journal articles, newspapers articles, and videos will be easy. Second, the immediacy of this find makes it exciting. And, third, we get to show the true nature of science. It's a gift.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Family Histories

            Remembered family stories are small treasures. They remind us of events that—while not of broad historical significance to the world at large—are important to us individually as part of our own histories. 
            Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond is an outstanding example of a family story to share with elementary school students. This book relates an episode in the life of Antonio Willie Giroux, the author’s grandfather, who lived in Ontario, Canada, in a hotel run by his mother. He loved the hotel, the people who worked there, the residents who came to hunt or fish, and those who worked in the forest that surrounded the hotel. Antonio wanted to get closer to the forest animals, but mostly he just managed to observe the evidence that they were there—their sounds, tracks, and nests.
            In 1914, when Antonio was almost five, a terrible fire broke out in the forest, causing the people living in the hotel to head for the nearby lake to escape the danger. Men, women, and children standing in the lake with water up to their knees were soon joined by the forest animals such as foxes, bobcats, and bears. Amazingly, Antonio got to see the forest animals up close. At the author tells us, Antonio “never forgot how he had watched that distance between animals and people disappear in the summer of 1914.” It was truly a memorable experience.
            This book is a fine choice for a read aloud and subsequent discussion of family histories. Afterwards, try some of these Common Core/Common Sense ideas for students and teachers: 
  •  Write and illustrate a family story you want to remember and share with others.     
  •  Notice the artwork in this book—the detailed drawings that capture the setting of rural Ontario, the hotel, the people who lived there, the surrounding forest, and the animals. Illustrations and words work seamlessly together. 
  • Examine the captivating language that appeals to the senses. Gather several examples. Here is one: “When Antonio was almost five, the summer was so dry the green carpets of moss yellowed, the silky grass crisped, and the pine needles on the trees turned brittle.” 
  • Read the author's note and examine the accompanying photograph. Ask students if they have a family photograph they can use to help them tell or write about a family story. 
            If you are looking for a terrific read aloud or a great way to jumpstart the writing of family stories, this is the book for you. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Celebrating the Voting Rights Act of 1965

            While I am not a strong advocate of the “holiday” or “anniversary” curriculum, I must admit that the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has resulted in a fine crop of books—old and new—for teaching and learning. You can see an excellent list on the School Library Journal website at

            I want to focus on one particular book, Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans. This book is based on the life of Lillian Allen, an African American woman who at the age of 100 was able to vote for the first African American president.

            This book can be used to introduce Common Core standards:
·      Key Ideas and Details: What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guarantee? How did it come about?
·      Craft and Structure: In his author’s note, Jonah Winter states that Lillian’s uphill climb in order to vote is a metaphor for the uphill climb faced by African Americans pursuing their right to vote. In what ways has it been an uphill climb? What obstacles did Lillian Allen face? How do the words and illustrations work together to show this?
·      Integration of Information: Listen to an NPR interview with Lillian Allen at What new information did you learn?

            There are also important civic issues to discuss. First, as the author mentions, current attempts to implement photo ID requirements have had the effect of denying people their right to vote. There is still work to be done to protect this right. How can this be done? Second, the Voting Rights Act has been a long time coming. What were the steps along the way?

            I am happy to see a well-written and well-illustrated book that introduces this compelling information to young readers and celebrates people like Lillian Allen who pursue their rights as Americans. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What If Mind-Gripping Books Were the Center of Curriculum?

            I just finished reading M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. This is truly a mind-gripping book for YAs and adults. Sure, I knew some of the details before I started reading—the German invasion of Russia, the unspeakable acts of Stalin and Hitler, the impact of history on everyday life, and the enormous power of music. Yet there was still so much that I didn’t know about—the life of Dmitri Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, the efforts to copy the symphony on microfilm in order to send it to the U.S., the terrible human suffering and loss of life, and the persistence of the human spirit in even the worst of times.

            I found this complex book totally engaging.  I found myself thinking about it during the day and stealing time from my schedule to read just a bit more. I talked about to everyone who crossed my path.  That’s because there is so much in this book to think about: questions of freedom and control, the power of art and music to change our lives, the moral decisions we make about war and peace, the quality of our personal relationships, the nature of heroes and villains, and more.

            Some of the events described were so painful that I had to stop reading and do something else for a while. Other times, I simply had to read on to see what would happen next. Not only did I learn a great deal about Shostakovich and his family, I learned about the incredibly difficult circumstances in which he lived. In addition, there was the author’s presence in the book, reminding me that this history was difficult to construct. Not only was a massive amount of research necessary, but also it was hard to tell if certain sources were even credible. To learn more about this book, see Betsy Bird’s informative interview with M. T. Anderson at

            Reading this book prompted me to think about this important question: What if complex, mind-gripping books drove our curriculum, at least part of the time? What if pacing calendars mandating the topics teachers must cover during specific months were replaced every so often with time given over to mind-gripping books? What if we focused some attention on reader response—how books make us feel? The passion for reading just might return. And, surprisingly enough, those Common Core and subject matter standards would still be embedded in the experience of reading a responding. We could, in effect, bring back “feelings” while still teaching “facts.” We could have both.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Paul Fleischman has been making some very interesting use of digital media to extend and expand the ideas in his book Eyes Wide Open. Most recently, he created this Youtube video using the current drought in California as a larger lesson in how we relate to the environment: Youtube. As you'll see, he can use the most current headlines, fights, debates, issues while also, well, opening our eyes to large issues.

I see real potential in this -- in a book, using a headline involves permissions (thus time, perhaps cost, the chance of being refused on political or some such grounds) -- but in a video you take information ripped, as it were, from the headlines and turn it directly into ideas, questions, lessons that can be used, even as that news is current. 

A book spells out and explores ideas. But then, as life relates to those ideas, an author can create little video lessons linked to the book. I like this idea a lot. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Transforming Transportation: Past/Present Parallels

            I am so glad to see a new book by Martin W. Sandler. He is a well-established writer of history books for intermediate and middle school readers and with good reason: His books are clearly written, with an abundance of historical photographs, and lots of background information. His new book, Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad upholds these standards.

            As Sandler tells us, this is a story of visionary thinkers and hard workers, but also of greedy, corrupt men and violence. Above all, it is a story of transformation, since the Transcontinental Railroad changed our country in many ways, some good and others not so good. There have been other accounts of building the Transcontinental Railroad. There is Rhoda Blumberg’s Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad and Milton Meltzer’s Hear that Train Whistle Blow! How the Railroad Changed the World, but these excellent books are both out of print. They are, however, well worth seeking out.

            As I was reading Iron Rails I kept thinking about the connections I could make to today’s transportation situation. We in New York are facing our own challenges with outdated and faulty rail lines and tunnels and frustrated commuters in the Northeast Corridor. Our own LaGuardia Airport is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt because it is so out of date. The New York Times has been running articles about this that make for interesting reading, especially while reading Iron Rails.

            So, while this is a fine book to use to discuss Common Core standards such as key ideas and details or integrating photographs and written text or the many nonfiction craft features included in the book, it is also the opportunity to look for ways in which this story resonates with our lives today. Past/present parallels are worth knowing and thinking about. They help us discover the significance of the past.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

News From Teaching Books dot Net

I am passing along this email from Nick Glass at -- a site you should know:

I'm excited to share that the Author Name Pronunciation Guide has just reached a milestone -- there are now 2,000 recordings of authors telling the story and correct pronunciation of their names!

A press release is on my blog at -- highlighting some of the most played recordings.

Or freely explore to pick out one of your favorites to share.

I find it particularly fun that Tomie dePaola is the 2,000th recording added to this collection. How do you pronounce his name? "...paw-la," "...paa-oo-laa," "...pow-la," or something else? Hear Tomie say it at

This collection of authors and illustrators revealing the origins and pronunciations of their names is completely free and available for anyone to use, anytime. These audio recordings have been listened to almost half-a-million times since I launched it in 2007.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading for Perspective: Who Is Telling Me This? Why?

             I just finished reading two history books for children, narrated not from the author’s perspective, but from the perspective of a person from the past. Clearly, this takes a leap of imagination on the part of the author, since each of these narrators lived at a very different time from the present day. The author must understand this time and make use of historical evidence to build this understanding.
            The first book I read is The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, a picture book written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. It tells about the Harlem bookstore owner Lewis Michaux and is narrated by his son, Lewis Michaux, Jr. He is proud of his father and what he accomplished. As an aside, the author is also related to Lewis Michaux and she is up front about this. As you can see, perspective is complicated. 
            The second book is Jump Back, Paul written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Sean Qualls. Here we have the author telling the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African American poet and novelist, from the perspective of a grandmother. Whose grandmother? Don’t ask because the author doesn’t tell. However, this grandmother is well informed and also quite opinionated.
            I learned a lot by reading these books. They are clearly written, well researched, and well illustrated.  But they also require readers to think about how perspective influences each of these historical narratives.
            Common Core State Standards ask us to consider the author’s point of view. But it is more complicated when the author’s point of view isn’t necessarily the narrator’s point of view. In this case, we need to delve more deeply into the nature of the perspective we are being offered. So here are some questions I like to think about when the author of a historical narrative uses the perspective of someone from the past:
  •    Who is telling me this information? 
  •   What does this narrator want me to know?
  •     If someone else narrated these events, how would the narrative change?
  •    What evidence did the author use to create this narrative?
  •    Is the narrative convincing? Why?
As I see it, learning how to read is just like learning how to think. To read history, we need to think historically.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reading to Spot Continuity and Change

            Common Core standards take a general approach to reading comprehension. They focus on big ideas and details, point of view, integrating text and illustration, understanding academic vocabulary, and so on. Yes, there is mention of disciplinary literacy, but the specifics of what this means needs to be more deeply understood and taught.

            Nonfiction literature—especially those books we refer to as the literature of inquiry—can help. Using books that show people asking questions and trying to find answers offers us an opening for discussing how to think about learning in science and history.

            One big idea in history is continuity and change. That is, over time some things change, while others remain the same. We see this every time we pore over old family photos. We can also see this in well-written history and biography. For example, in Anita Silvey’s book about Jane Goodall, Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall. Silvey shows how Goodall has maintained a lifelong passion for animals while transforming her career to emphasize conservation efforts. We can read this book with a focus on these questions:
·      How has the focus of Jane Goodall’s work changed over time?
·      What caused these changes?
·      What has remained the same?

            As you read this book you will find out, for example, that the technology available for studying animals in the wild has changed.  As a result, so have research techniques.  I found reading about a camera trap—a digital camera with a motion sensor that can take pictures day and night—particularly interesting. This has affected how data on animals is collected. At the same time, other things in Goodall’s career—most notably her love of animals and her dedication to their well-being have remained the same.

            As nonfiction literature reveals more about how scientists and historians work by taking us to the sites of their research, we have an opportunity to better understand how new knowledge is created and understood. I think that means making some CCSS standards more focused to incorporate disciplinary literacy and ideas like continuity and change. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Missing In Action

Dear Readers:

Sorry to have been away so long -- I had to go through a lengthy, thorough, and successful process to be reappointed at Rutgers, and am now working hard to finish up two books, but still this is a home and miss being here. During my absence I also went to San Francisco for ALA Annual, and I have some important good news from there.

I went to ALA because I had concerns about how nonfiction was being evaluated in both youth divisions: ALSC and YALSA. I communicated with both boards before the meeting, and that set the stage for SF. Here were the issues: ALSC, as you all know, is responsible for the Robert F. Sibert medal for informational books. Early on in its life, people who served as judges noticed that it focused only on text, not art. Correctly, they added consideration of art to the criteria. But in doing so they also added language about "originality" of text and art -- similar to language used for the Caldecott. I thought that that was a mistake, since in informational books originality is just as likely to come from the careful use and treatment of archival images and text as it is in newly-created art. I shared this concern with the ALSC board. While I do not yet have the exact results, I understand that they have made an adjustment in the criteria -- I'll post that here once I have it. This was most satisfying -- the sense of all of us working together to get it right.

For YALSA I had almost the opposite concern -- I didn't think they had misleading or inappropriate criteria for their Excellence in YA Nonfiction award, I thought there were not enough criteria at all. My sense is that, wonderfully, the forms and types of YA nonfiction are growing and changing. And so we need to think about what makes for an excellent YA memoir? an excellent YA nonfiction graphic novel? An excellent YA nonfiction book adapted from an adult book? Each of these -- should have criteria of its own. The board agreed that it would be a good idea for YALSA members to think about, learn about, discuss these questions -- and assigned me to work with their Chair to figure out the best venues for that conversation. Once again, most satisfying.

So friends, sorry to be away so long, but I hope you find these developments as encouraging as I do -- nonfiction is spreading its wings. 

Why Do I Have to Know This?

            Anyone who has taught history for any amount of time has undoubtedly bumped up against this question from students: Why do I have to know this? I know I did. American Revolution? Civil War? Great Depression? World War II? Why? Why? Why?

            What students are asking about is the question of significance—a question that historians consider very relevant. Out of all the evidence left behind, what’s important to know? Why? One reason that some evidence is significant is that it helps us think about issues that we are facing today.

            Here’s where nonfiction literature can be of help. When nonfiction authors make some of these connections for young readers, they show them why some evidence from the past is relevant today. This is what Steve Sheinkin has done in his most recent book, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. After sharing with readers enough background information for them to understand why Ellsberg thought it was necessary to release secret government documents about American involvement in the Vietnam War and narrating this dramatic story, Sheinkin writes an epilogue raising the bigger questions for readers to think about:
·      Even though governments must keep some information secret, how much secrecy is too much?
·      Is it ever right for citizens to leak information that they think everyone should know?
·      If leaking information is against the law, should someone who does this be tried in court and possibly sent to jail? Is that person, instead, a hero?
            Sheinkin then makes the connection to Edward Snowden—the former CIA employee who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency about global surveillance. This is a story of our times with clear connections to the Ellsberg case. Here is an instance of how the past can illuminate the present and help us think about the future. Here is an example of why history is relevant. In fact, Sheinkin entitles his epilogue “History Repeats.”

            As I look back at the Common Core Standards I recall that they ask us to think about Key Ideas and Details. But if we are to think historically, we need to shape this standard to include historical thinking.  We need to deal with historical significance and with the relevance of the past to the present and future. We can ask this question: Is this information important to know? We can use Sheinkin’s big questions—the ones I bulleted above—and use the specific details of both the Ellsberg and Snowden cases to help us think about these questions.  In that way, we fold in disciplinary thinking into our teaching. It’s a start to answering that persistent question: Why do I have to know this?