Saturday, November 2, 2013

They Come to Me for Nonfiction Now

At our meeting last month, a topic that came up was the issue of using a nonfiction author's note with a fiction text. As Gale noted, it's possible that her offer to include map skills with a fiction submission helped get it accepted, but the her short tale retelling was a pleasure to read, so we really don't know. Anyway, I offered to post my two cents, for whatever it's worth, here, on how I see Common Core affecting publishing and the use of nonfiction texts in schools. I don't purport to be an expert on this, but I have about ten years of recommending, and selecting children's books and this is what I have come up with:

Common Core, the shorter term for what are the newly implemented (in most states) national standards for education, has a lot of very wise people for and against it. I'm not going to go into these reasons here, and in any case, it's here and educators have to deal with it. 

On the librarian side, CC has been viewed with cautionary optimism because of its emphasis on the use of nonfiction text in the classroom. School librarians have been happily pushing high-quality nonfiction books on their students for years, even while the classroom collections had very little of it (something like 93% fiction/7% nonfiction according to some studies) and classroom teachers were insisting that all classroom reading assignments be "chapter books." (which we generally call general and genre fiction). I can't tell you how many times I had a student eagerly choose a nonfiction book and have his teacher make him exchange it for a fiction one.

With the implementation of Common Core, however, that has changed--students AND teachers are asking for nonfiction as well, and any experienced librarian will know what to recommend. In my case, the administration is, for the first time, coming to me to help select nonfiction, and teachers are using the library more often for it. And, the proliferation of standardized tests and dry and unimaginative "informative text" notwithstanding, we know that for the last 15 years or so, there has been more and more excellent nonfiction out there. And now we are happy to share our expertise on it. 

Which brings me to the publishing side. The bad side of CC is that the testing companies had way too much control of its program and implementation and are profiting handsomely off it at the expense of authentic learning. On the positive side, the new emphasis on nonfiction is probably good news for children's publishing. After what was probably a dry spell due to the recession and budget cuts and rash of school library closures, I suspect that children's nonfiction publishers such Capstone and Heinemann are probably doing much better. There is a market for children's nonfiction now that does not depend solely on school libraries and their budgets (whose situation has, unfortunately, not improved). Now, schools are scrambling to get nonfiction into their classrooms and asking their librarians, who knew about nonfiction all along, for help. That is partly why I have been so insanely busy the past two months, my fellow writing group members :)

The point is, there has always been excellent children's nonfiction out there, and often mixes of fiction and nonfiction. The Janell Cannon books come to mind--here you have a fictional story, with extensive notes on the animal world in the rear. Last week I was reading Jan Brett's The Three Little Dassies, a Three Pigs version set in Namibia, and even this story had brief notes about the setting and animals in the end. Judy Freeman's Best Books of the Year list always included nonfiction works. As prolific adult readers we often delve into history and politics and memoir, and we all know kids (usually boys) who don't like to read fiction but are perfectly happy delving into a how-to manual. In the realm of biography, children's publishing has expanded from book about famous people (e.g., George Washington and Rosa Parks) to people who were used-to-be-famous but are now forgotten, people who were famous but in their limited circles, to people who were thought not to be of interest to children but actually are, and to people who were a little-bit-but-not-all-that famous--biographies like these WORK not because their subjects are on the curriculum but because their stories became fascinating in the hands of a good author. 

So, if you are writing a children's fictional picture book that includes a particular setting, or particular creature, or refers offhand to a period of time or clothing or figure, don't be afraid to include that author's note at the end. Your book might just be happily read by a student--and happily used by a teacher. Just do it well. I see a lot of "author's notes" that are too lengthy, or way above the companion story in reading level (a problem with Cannon books), or too with any writing, there's good, bad and in between. My point, however, is that there may be, dare I say, a greater market for it now. 


  1. Just to set the record straight, I didn't offer an author's note for my story, just a suggestion to the magazine that they illustrate the story with a map.
    Glad to hear about the increase in appreciation for librarians!

  2. Thanks, sorry...I didn't mean author's note there...I was thinking of Julie's. I didn't know if they meant a map or map-related statement activity, just that it had some connection to what is commonly being called informational text (well, in this case a map). Yes, someone somewhere figured out that hey, maybe now is the time to ask the librarians about nonfiction...:)

  3. Thanks Helen. You have spurred my motivation for non-fiction or at least author's notes, as well as my appreciation for librarians.

  4. And now I can't wait to research an historical fiction PB idea I've got!