Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing Nonfiction for a Purpose

Outside of school, people don’t sit down to write a paragraph or write “at least two sentences” or write an essay that rehashes what everybody already knows.  Outside of school, people write for a purpose. And that purpose shapes what they say and how they say it.

Except in school. Here the painful reality is that children are asked to write paragraphs, write at least two sentences, and write formula-driven “essays.” How do I know? I see it when I visit schools, and I especially see it in the lesson plans I receive from my undergraduate students, who—in addition to taking a course with me—are also student teaching. 

The problem that I have with all this is that children are being given the wrong information about the nature of writing. Real writing is not a formula-driven exercise. Real writing has a real purpose. This purpose can be to inform, to raise questions, to entertain, to describe, to persuade, to share opinions, and so on. And real writing doesn’t come from a recipe.

CCSS never demanded that children should only write nonfiction essays, arguments, and opinion papers; it simply said that these types of writing should be included in the curriculum. CCSS also never demanded that we should teach formula-driven approaches to writing either. This approach comes from educators frantically trying to get children to write expository text without at the same time nurturing their desire to write for real reasons. And we all know the reasons for this frantic push—testing and its consequences.

Instead, I believe we need to work with children to investigate the reasons we write. One promising approach is to consider the communication triangle.  To keep their writing vibrant, writers consider not only the subject they are writing about, but also how to communicate it to a specific reader or readers. Writers think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. Here’s the communication triangle that shows this relationship:

Thinking about writing as a message designed to communicate to an audience has a range of implications. First, when reading nonfiction, we can consider questions like these:
·      Who is telling me this?
·      What is the writer telling me?
·      Why is the writer telling me this?
·      How does the writer’s purpose influence the selection of words and information? How does this purpose influence the creation and/or selection of illustrations?

A writer’s purpose can be seen throughout a book. Search for clues in the opening paragraph, the dynamics between the illustrations and the writing, the information the writer selected and shared, and the author’s note. In simple terms, ask, Why are you telling me this? How are you telling me this?

I just finished reading Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, a picture book biography by Greg Pizzoli. This is a very entertaining and informative book about a bad guy, a con man, who gets punished in the end. Here are some clues I found about the author’s purpose:

·      Lead: “In 1890, the man who would one day be known by forty-five different aliases was born to the Miller family” (p. 1). Clearly, the author wants me to know that Tricky Vic is not your regular, upstanding citizen.
·      Dynamics Between Illustrations and Writing: On page 2, the words tell me that Tricky Vic left home to become an artist, but the illustrations show his angry parents calling him “a con artist!” Once again, I see he’s a bad guy, and I think the author wants me to know this. But the author also wants me to see the humor in it, too.
·      Vocabulary: The author explains words about being a con artist. For example, he explains that a “mark” is the planned victim of a scam. A sampling of additional vocabulary includes prohibition, Al “Scarface” Capone, Romanian Money Box, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz. He is giving me the “stuff” I need to talk about con artists.
·      The Information Selected: Throughout the book, the author teaches me information about scams and the words to talk about them. He also follows the career of Tricky Vic, but only in terms of his scams.
·      The Author’s Note: The author confesses to doing a little bit of “creating his own truth,” just the way Tricky Vic did. He also updates us on current con artists flourishing today in Paris and advises us to “stay sharp.”

I was informed and entertained by this book. While I can’t look into the author’s head to read his mind, I think this was his intention. So I want to end with this question: Are we giving children the chance to write so that they, too, can inform and entertain? 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Caught in the Spell of Words and Paintings

The partnership of author Robert Burleigh and artist Wendell Minor has once again produced a powerful nonfiction picture book. When reading Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue, I think it’s best to just enjoy it, letting the words and paintings surprise you, capture your attention, and stir your emotions. I read the book three times for enjoyment before I allowed my “critical reviewer’s lens” to creep in.

So, why did I enjoy it? Here are a few reasons:
·      The Show-Stopping Cover: The front cover shows a whale almost completely submerged under water and a diver—so small by comparison—shining his flashlight on the netting that has trapped this whale. The back cover extends this illustration, showing another diver pulling off some of the netting, while observers in a rescue boat nearby look on. This cover hooked me immediately and raised questions: How did the whale become trapped? Will the divers save it?
·      The Language: From the beginning, the language celebrates this magnificent animal, appealing to my sense of sight and sound. Here’s a sample:
                        The huge humpback whale dips and dives.
                        Her sleek black sides shimmering,
                        she spyhops, lobtails, flashes her flukes.
            Even though I later had to look up both spyhop and lobtail, I was hooked.
·      The Plot Thickens: Danger comes in the shape of nets left by crab fisherman. The whale is trapped and we see the word TRAPPED in large white capital letters. In fact, when the text deals with the life-threatening struggle to free the whale, the print switches from black to icy white. This only added to the tension I felt.
·      Relief and Safety: Rescuers arrive and they manage to cut the netting and free the whale. And, as a perfect ending, the whale nudges divers as if giving them thanks before heading off. What a relief. The book moved in a satisfying progression: from joyful celebration of the whale, to danger, to rescue, and back to joyful celebration. I felt this relief.
·      Back Matter: For fans of extending a story, the back matter provides more information about this true story, more information about rescuing whales, and more sources of information. To read an article about this event in the San Francisco Chronicle, go to

I honestly don’t like the idea of analyzing why I like this book so much. I just do. When a book grabs me so strongly, that’s more than enough for me. I think that in addition to showing children how nonfiction works, we should also take time to celebrate its power to nourish our hearts and minds.  Let’s ask our students which books grab them. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Extras: The Inside Track from Owlkids Books

Look at what Owlkids Books have put together. It's called "The Inside Track," and it is comprised of video and audio clips that tell the "back story" of some of their book. In providing these snapshots, and allowing some of their decision-making to be made visible, they are giving teachers and young people access to the stories behind book construction. We are seeing more and more of these digital resources being housed on author and illustrator websites, and now, on publishers' websites as well. I'm obsessed with the back matter in books. The back matter always gives me a new perspective on a book. Often, it makes me want to reread the book, armed with my new-found knowledge. These web extensions, a new form of front/back matter, in a range of modalities make me very, very happy as both a teacher and as a reader.