Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Behind the Books: What CCSS Says About Informational Text Types

In last week’s post, I described four nonfiction text types that can help readers and writers make sense of the vast array of nonfiction book being published today. They were survey, specialized, concept, and biography/autobiography.

As I gather information for the science books I write, I often encounter instances in which scientists disagree about how to classify a particular plant or animal. Some say it belongs in genus X, and they have convincing evidence to back up their claim. Others say it belongs in genus Y, and they too have solid rationale. Classifying living things is messy. And it turns out that classifying nonfiction can be messy, too.

Why do I say that? Because CCSS has a completely different way of classifying informational texts. Its four “types” (which it uses to classify much more than just books) are literary, expository, persuasive, and procedural. Here’s how they define their categories:

literary—some personal essays and speeches, most biographies/autobiographies, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, some poetry, some informational picture books
expository—Q & A books, some informational children’s literature, textbooks, reference books, most primary sources
persuasive—some letters, essays, and speeches; opinion pieces, some informational children’s literature, some biographies/autobiographies
procedural—cookbooks, craft books, Mapquest and Google Maps, assembly instructions

Here’s how some popular children’s books would be sorted according to this system:

Literary Nonfiction
The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

Dig, Wait, Listen: A Desert Toad Tale by April Pulley Sayre  

Energy Island by Allan Drummond

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston  

Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy & Dennis Kunkle

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman

The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery  

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost  

Those Rebels John & Tom by Barbara Kerley

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart  

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre  

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

Expository Nonfiction
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

Animal Grossapedia by Melissa Stewart

A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Frogs by Nic Bishop

John, Paul, George, & Ben by Lane Smith

Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonard da Vinci by Gene Baretta

Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee

Redwoods by Jason Chin

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House by Susan E. Goodman

Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed . . . and Revealed by David M. Schwartz & Yael Schy (photos Dwight Kuhn)

Persuasive Nonfiction
Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone

Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns

City Chickens by Christine Heppermann

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Gaia Warriors by Nicola Davies and James Lovelock

A Place for Bats by Melissa Stewart

Write On, Mercy: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren by Gretchen Woelfle

Wheels of Change by Sue Macy

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone

Procedural Nonfiction
Dessert Designers: Creations You Can Make and Eat by Dana Meachen Rau

Get Outside by Jane Drake and Ann Love

The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes by Doug Stillinger

Let’s Try It Out series by Seymour Simon

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl

Science Play series by Vicki Cobb

Transformed: How Everyday Things Are Made by Bill Slavin

These categories are useful in some ways, but they seem contrived to me. For example, the “literary” category seems too broad to be meaningful. And isn’t a procedural text really just one specific kind of expository text?

I’ll talk more about these categories next week.

Monday, October 20, 2014

I Wonder Why

Every year my husband and I try to figure out whether the leaves on our trees are changing earlier than, later than, or at the same time as previous years.  After we make our guesses, I pull out the photos I took in 2009 documenting the annual cycle of the sugar maple tree in our front yard.

Year after year, we think the trees are changing later, but my 2009 photos always prove us wrong. Hmph!

I also took a few photos of other trees in our yard in the autumn of 2009, including a sugar maple behind our driveway. For some reason, that tree always changes earlier than the one in the front. But what's even more interesting is that this year the leaves are reddish orange, where as in 2009 they were much more yellow. I wonder why.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Types

During a Twitter chat this summer, Cathy Potter drew my attention to this post from The Nonfiction Detectives, the blog she maintains with Louise Capizzo. Cathy served on the Sibert committee in 2013, so if anyone knows how to evaluate nonfiction books for children, it’s her.

In hindsight, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen the basic nonfiction “types” mentioned. I read this post Mary Ann Cappiello shared on The Classroom Bookshelf, the blog she maintains with Erica Thulin Dawes and Grace Enriquez, in 2012. Although Cappiello calls them “subgenres,” she’s describing the same categories as Potter and Capizzo.

Clearly, back in 2012, I wasn’t ready to fully see the value of thinking about these categories when reading and writing nonfiction. Maybe that shows that I’ve grown as a writer or at least as a thinker over the last couple of years.

In her post, Cappiello says, “Students benefit from understanding what type of nonfiction they are reading from the start, because understanding the purpose of a book is a clue to the content it contains.” In other words, writers (consciously or unconsciously) choose a particular text type based on their purpose, based on the information they want to share and how they want to share it. That’s a good lesson for writers as well as readers. It’s a good lesson for me.

In other words, before I begin writing, I can (and should) ask myself the following questions:

  1. Is my goal to provide a broad overview of a topic?

If yes, then a survey book is the best choice.

If no, go to 2.

As Cappiello says, “Survey books tend to focus on one broad topic and break it down into a variety of subtopics. They do not go very in-depth with any of these topics, but they give the reader a general introduction.”

Most of my National Geographic Readers are survey books. So are Eyewitness books. That’s the best “type” because these books are meant to be general introductions.

Here are ten more sample titles:

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins
Animal Grossapedia by Melissa Stewart

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee

Frogs by Nic Bishop

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown

Ice: The Amazing History of the Ice Business by Laurence Pringle

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Woman in the House (and Senate) by Ilene Cooper

  1. Is my goal to delve deeply into a highly-focused topic?

If yes, then I should write a specialized book.

If no, go to 3.

As Potter and Capizzo say, in a specialized book, “topics are delved into more deeply and may use primary or secondary resources.” They suggest Bomb by Steve Sheinkin as a mentor text because it looks closely at a very specific series of events that affect the outcome of World War II. Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 would also fit in this category, as would my own book A Place for Butterflies, which looks closely at ways people are protecting butterflies and preserving their habitats. We are seeing more and more specialized books in recent years, and my guess is that this trend will continue.

Here are ten more sample titles:

Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery

Frog Song by Brenda G. Zuiberson

Energy Island by Allan Drummond

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Plastics Ahoy! by Patricia Newman

Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

  1. Is my goal to help my readers understand an abstract idea or process?
If yes, then I should write a concept book.

If no, go to 4.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a perfect example of a concept book because its central nugget is the interdependence of living things, an idea that I think is critically important for my young audience to understand. I’m passionate about my purpose, and as this revision timeline shows, that passion is what kept me working on the project for ten long years.  Concept books work especially well for science-themed picture books that seek to elucidate life cycles, seasons, animal behavioral patterns, and other key concepts.

Here are ten more sample titles:

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Just a Second by Steve Jenkins

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals’ Lives by Lola Schaefer

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

  1. Is my goal to write about my life or the life of another person and his/her specific accomplishments?

If yes, a biography/autobiography is the obvious choice.

If no, go to reconsider 1-3.

As Cappiello points out, this is probably the most familiar type of nonfiction as well as the easiest to identify. Still some sample titles can’t hurt:

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill

Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skeleton by Meghan McCarthy

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley

How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson

The Mad Potter: George Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley

Does every book fit into one of these four categories? Maybe not. But the vast majority do, so this exercise is a good place for readers and writers to start as they think about nonfiction.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Behind the Books: Deep Thinking About Nonfiction

At the end of June, Alyson Beecher, Cathy Potter, Louise Capizzo, and Mary Ann Scheuer gave a great presentation about Common Core and informational text at ALA in Las Vegas. I didn’t attend the conference, but I read Alyson’s blog post and viewed the presentation via slide share a few days later.

One of the topics they discussed was brand new to me—nonfiction writing styles. I was curious, so I posed a couple of questions on Twitter. Soon I was engaged in a fascinating conversation with Alyson, Cathy, and Mary Ann as well as fellow authors Deborah Heiligman, Elizabeth Partridge, Loree Griffin Burns, and Nancy Castaldo.

I love Twitter. While we all sat comfortably in our homes spanning from sea to shining sea, we engaged in some incredible professional development. Thanks to the ideas that flew back and forth and a Nonfiction Detectives blog post that Cathy shared with us, I came away with a new way of thinking about what I do, how I do it, and how I might be able to do it better, or at least more efficiently, more deliberately. And perhaps most importantly, how other people—including children just learning to write—could do it, too.

Sure, I’ve given a lot of thought to structure and voice and point of view, but these tools have just been sort of floating around in my writer’s tool box. They needed an anchor. During the Twitter chat, I began to think about style as well as type. And for the rest of the summer, I kept discussing them with Alyson via Twitter, email, Skype, a google doc, and even once in person. I also discussed it with a slew of fellow nonfiction authors when I attended the annual SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles.

Thanks to these conversations, I’m beginning to see some patterns in what I do and recognize key elements to think about before I start to write. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about them separately and together, so stay tuned.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS K-ESS2-2. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.

Try using these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lesson plans, check out Perfect Pairs:

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Behind the Books: Pinterest Pages

In July, I was fortunate to have lunch with dedicated, California-based educator Alyson Beecher during her summer vacation here in eastern Massachusetts. As we talked, I mentioned that I was looking for new ways to reach out to teachers via pinterest, and Alyson had some great suggestions. 
Alyson’s ideas inspired me so much that I took a big chunk of time in August to create new boards, rearrange pins, and add new content. One of my goals was to make it easier for educators to access thematically-related posts from my blog. Another was to provide a wide range of resources for teaching informational writing. I hope these changes help you find exactly what you’re looking for. If not, please let me know. Your feedback is really helpful.