Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Behind the Books: A Perfect Pair

Is it just me or is 2018 shaping up to be an amazing year for nonfiction? I’ve read a boatload of great titles over the last few months, and my TBR pile is out of control. I have  a lot of catching up to do.

Two books that I’m excited about look at the same topic through different lenses, and that makes Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends by Sarah Albee (National Geographic, 2018) and Made for Each Other: Why Dogs and People Are Perfect Partners by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (Crown, 2018) perfect for comparing and contrasting.

These books have plenty in common—topic, mixed second and third-person point of view, conversational voice, expository writing style, great photos, dynamic design, and rich backmatter. They both can be read from beginning to end, or readers can use the table of contents and index to find one or two sections that they think will be especially interesting.

The books also take advantage of some of the same craft moves. For example, they sprinkle questions throughout the text to keep readers engaged, and they include lots of text features. I like that on pp. 14-15 of Dog Days of History, Sarah Albee has used alliteration to make her headings more fun. Dorothy Patent uses the same craft move on p. 23 of Made for Each Other.
Despite all these wonderful similarities, the two books also have some important differences, such as approach to the topic (one is more historical and one is more science-y) and text structure (sequence vs. description). I also have some questions about differences that I noticed. What do students think about the difference in type size between the two books? Does that affect their interest in reading a book? Do they like one trim size better than the other? Which design elements of each book do they particularly like? If you share these books with your class, let me know. I’d love to hear their answers.

If your students go to the websites of Sarah Albee and Dorothy Patent and look at other books the authors have written, they’ll see that the approach each writer takes makes sense. Many of Sarah’s books look at the history of the world, but through various different lenses—poison, fashion, bugs, even poop. She must really like history!

Dorothy has written quite a few books about science and animals, especially dogs. Guess what her twitter handle is . . . @DogWriter Doro. Clearly, she’s a dog lover and brings her passion for them to the book projects she chooses. In my opinion, writing about a topic that you really care about is the secret to creating great nonfiction.

What 2018 nonfiction titles are you excited about?

Monday, May 21, 2018

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Catherine Flynn

The nonfiction available for kids today is as diverse as the world itself. Well-written texts with full-color photographs and illustrations bring the world into our homes and classrooms, sparking and satisfying curiosity in children of all ages. Choosing just five books with an expository writing style was quite a challenge! For every book on this list, there are three more just as worthy. Sharing any of these books is sure to give everyone a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

The Bee Book, by Charlotte Milner, DK Publishing, 2018
Charlotte Milner's The Bee Book is chock-full of "the buzz about bees." Want to know how many bee species there are or where honey comes from? This book has the answer to these questions and many more. Clear, colorful illustrations show stages in bee development, how they gather pollen and pollinate plants that produce food we eat, and more. The book ends with simple activities that families can engage in to help protect bees.

Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why, Lita Judge, Roaring Brook Press, 2012
Who hasn't wondered what all those chirps, coos, and screeches we hear each day really mean? In clear, child-friendly language, Lita Judge explains the many different meanings of bird calls. She also explains how birds communicate through movement. Colorful illustrations and back matter that includes a brief description of each bird in the book make this a perfect book for any classroom. There is also an author's note, glossary, and a brief list of references.

Living Color, by Steve Jenkins, Houghton Mifflin, 2007
What list of favorite expository nonfiction would be complete without a title by Steve Jenkins? A master of combining fascinating facts with incredibly detailed collage illustrations, Jenkins's books engage and fascinate readers of all ages. Living Color is one of my favorites. Organized by color, each double-page spread explains how animals use color to camouflage themselves and communicate with other animals. The book ends with a brief description of each animal's size, diet, and habitat.

Birds: Nature's Magnificent Flying Machines, by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne; Charlesbridge, 2003
It took people almost all of human history to solve the mystery of how to take to the air, but most bird species are airborne before they're two months old. Birds: Nature's Magnificent Flying Machines provides detailed descriptions of how every part of a bird's anatomy makes this possible. From their hollow bones to the shape of their wings and feathers, birds' bodies are made for flight. Arnold includes fascinating details about how birds take off and land as well as the different types of flight in understandable, concise paragraphs. Colorful illustrations include a cross-section of a bird's body as well as close-ups of the inside of bird bones and feather structure. This amazing book, which includes a brief glossary and recommended bird guides, deserves a spot on every classroom's nonfiction shelf.

Tiny Creatures:The World of Microbes, by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton; Candlewick Press, 2014
Kids are fascinated by superlatives. They love impressing their friends with amazing facts about the biggest, the most, the heaviest. Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes turns the tables and describes the unimaginably small organisms we call microbes. Davies's words and Emily Sutton's illustrations work together seamlessly to help kids visualize and get a sense of the vast quantities of microbes found throughout the world. The essential work of microbes is explained, and readers are reassured that there are only a "few kinds of microbes" that make us sick.

Catherine Flynn is a literacy specialist from Connecticut who is passionate about sparking a love of learning in children. When she's not teaching, reading, or writing, Catherine likes to knit hats, scarves, and blankets for her friends and family. When the weather cooperates, she can be found in her garden or walking her dog, Lucy.

Friday, May 18, 2018

In the Classroom: No More All About Books—Please!

For many years, all-about books have been the go-to informational writing project in elementary classrooms across the U.S. But I think it’s time to re-consider that assignment. Before I explain why, here’s a little bit of background.

Last December, I introduced and described a system for classifying informational books that I call the Nonfiction Family Tree. It received such a great response that I discussed it again (and provided a list of sample books) in early January. Then I suggested an activity for introducing it to students later in the month. Around this time, Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) invited me to create this video for his blog and SLJ invited me to write this article, which compiled all my thoughts on the topic in writing.

For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on Traditional Nonfiction and Expository Literature. Traditional nonfiction provides a general introduction to a broad topic. These survey (all about) books, which are often published in large series, feature clear, concise, straightforward language and usually have a description text structure.

These books can be a great place to start the research process because they provide an overview of a topic, but they aren’t the best mentor texts for producing engaging, finely-crafted informational writing. For that, expository literature, which emphasizes depth rather than breadth of coverage, is a better choice.

This has nothing to do with how talented the writers are and everything to do with the inherent differences of writing about a broad topic versus a focused one. Simply put, broad topics limit a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich, engaging text.

When writers take an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept, they can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content. They can experiment with voice and language devices. Because writers of traditional nonfiction must cover a huge amount of information in a limited number of words, they don’t have the same kind of opportunities to delight as well as inform.

When we ask children to write all about books, we’re giving them a handicap right off the bat. Students will be most successful when they choose a topic they’re passionate about and zoom in on a specific question or unique perspective that allows them to use the nonfiction craft moves they’ve learned to the best of their ability. Let’s give our young writers a chance to shine.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Narrative vs. Expository: Writing Nonfiction Picture Books

I’m excited to host award-winning author Maria Gianferrari today. Thanks, Maria, for describing your creative process.

I love nonfiction, both reading it and writing it, so I’m delighted and honored to be guest posting today on Celebrate Science since it’s my favorite nonfiction blog. I have a deep love of the natural world and the creatures who live in it, and I aim to celebrate nature’s wonders in my nonfiction writing.

Today, I’ll be talking a bit about the similarities and differences in writing narrative vs. expository STEM nonfiction. I have two titles out in 2018, my first expository title, Terrific Tongues illustrated by Jia Liu (Boyds Mills), and Hawk Rising, a narrative nonfiction book illustrated by Brian Floca (Roaring Brook).

What do these titles have in common? Obsession. In the former, it was my then toddler’s obsession with all things tongue that led to researching animal tongues. In the latter, it was my own obsession with searching for perching red-tailed hawks while driving down the highway.

Though the voices are quite distinct, the books have some language devices in common. In Terrific Tongues, I use similes to compare cool creature tongues to common objects, like straws, mops, windshield wipers, etc. Here’s an example:

Terrific Tongues began as a poem, and some of that is retained on the penultimate spread of the book where the tongue’s dynamic actions are described in verse:

Since these various creature tongues have very unique and interesting features, it made sense to try to use a more playful and humorous voice. The next challenge was how best to present the information. I went through a series of drafts, and then re-reading Steve Jenkins’ and Robin Page’s What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? inspired me to use a guessing game format.

Page turns make the experience of reading Terrific Tongues fast-paced and add an element of surprise. I’ve read it for World Read Aloud Day as well as some school visits, and kids love trying to guess the creatures that belong to the various tongues. Jia Liu’s whimsical art further serves to amplify the book’s humor. Though purists might disagree, I think the monkey character adds a fun touch to the book.
In Hawk Rising, the voice is more lyrical than lively, and a narrative writing style worked best to give a glimpse into the life of a predatory bird. I use spare poetic prose and language devices like assonance, imagery, and sensory details. Here’s an example:

Both Terrific Tongues and Hawk Rising employ second person point of view. The use of “you” draws readers in and makes them feel like participants. In Terrific Tongues, it also encourages empathy: kids can imagine what it would be like to have a tongue like a whip or an arrow. And in Hawk Rising, “you” also serves as a refrain in the story. “You” is both the reader and the sibling observers of the hawk family. It helps to forge a connection between our human families and the hawk family. Use of the present participle “ing” form makes the story and action feel more present and immediate.
Both Terrific Tongues and Hawk Rising have a circular structure. In Terrific Tongues, the text begins and ends with the saying, “Stick out your tongue” (which of course, kids love to do), with a minor modification at the end, “say AAAAAH.”
On the other hand, Hawk Rising is an episodic life story about predators, so the circular structure is more obvious: the action takes place over the course of a day, creating a sense of immediacy. The passing of time becomes like a ticking clock adding tension to the story—will the chicks eat before the day’s end? 
Another thing I love about writing nature-y nonfiction is weaving in scientific details about diet, habitat, the predator-prey relationship. They can be woven directly into the narrative, as is the case with Hawk Rising, or through the use of layered text in Terrific Tongues. Back matter is another fun way to add in cool facts while keeping the main text spare. I am a complete and total back matter nerd! It’s one of my favorite things to read and write.
Happy nonfiction reading and writing, and thank you, Melissa, for allowing me to guest post on one of my favorite topics!!

Maria Gianferrari is a picture book reading/writing, tea-drinking, dog-loving, birdwatching resident of Virginia and author of the Penny & Jelly books, Coyote Moon (an ALA Notable Book and Junior Library Guild Selection), Officer Katz and Houndini and Hello Goodbye Dog. Her newest titles are Terrific Tongues (Boyds Mills), Hawk Rising (a JLG selection from Roaring Brook) and Operation Rescue Dog (Little Bee). To learn more about Maria, visit her website:, on Facebook and Instagram.

Monday, May 14, 2018

5 Faves: Expository Nonfiction Recommended by Angie Moore

Reading nonfiction books during library storytime is still somewhat new to me, and it is not easy to keep the attention of 3-5 year-olds, but books like these have made it so much fun...for me and my students!
A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long
This book is one of many by this author/illustrator duo, and it is as lovely to look at as it is to read. Our preschool classes are hatching caterpillars, and this book makes a perfect read aloud for them. It has simple phrases as main text with supporting details scattered around the page in smaller type. I like that I can read parts of it in more detail as their caterpillars reach different stages.

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen
This was a fascinating book, and I learned as much as my kiddos did about feathers! It makes a great partner read with Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward. The illustrations are fantastic and make the book look almost like a scrapbook, which is a concept that may be new to little ones.

Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
I received this book as part of a book shipment in the fall, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I immediately loved it, and so did my kinders! We had so much fun reading it. I paired it with Full of Fall, also by Sayre, for a poetry/fall themed storytime.
Who Am I? An Animal Guessing Game by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
This book is great for a few reasons.  First, it is a board book. As a mom, I loved board books for my own children, and in the library they are awesome! They are very durable, and the kids love them! Second, this book has simple, informative text paired with bright bold illustrations. Finally, Who Am I?  Is a guessing game! It keeps storytime interactive, loud, and hopping!
Whose Nest? by Lynette Evans and Guy Troughton
I walked by this lovely book in my kindergarten library for over a year and finally decided to read it a few weeks ago. I am so sorry I waited so long! This nonfiction book about animal nests is the perfect book for curious kinders and preschoolers! It was one of my favorite read alouds this year! It brought so much discussion, and the students were entranced! The illustrations are beautiful, and some eagle-eyed littles even caught on to the clues in the text. This book will definitely make it into my regular read aloud rotation!

Angie Moore is a Preschool-4th Grade librarian at Waverly Community Schools in Lansing, Michigan. She has been married to her best friend, Michael, for almost 19 years, is a mom to two amazing boys, ages almost 12 and 16, and is a College of Education student at Ferris State University. She can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee while reading picture books or on Twitter @almemoore

Friday, May 11, 2018

In the Classroom: The Power of Peer Critiques

I’m in a critique group that meets twice a month at a library in the next town. At each meeting, four people read up to eight pages of a work-in-progress and receive feedback from the rest of the group.
Sharing manuscripts with my critique group is a critical part of my writing process because my buddy editors see a whole range of problems that I’m blind to. When I bring them a manuscript, I think it’s pretty much perfect. I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own. I know it’s time to share it with other people and see what happens.

But I’m not sharing my writing with just anyone. I’m sharing it with a small group of fellow children’s authors who I’ve known for 16 years. I trust these people. I know they’ll be kind, but honest. I may not always agree with their comments, but I know it will help me and my manuscript if I listen closely and consider their thoughts carefully.

When I do school visits, I always ask students if buddy editing/peer critiquing/writing partners is part of their process. If not, I urge them (and their teachers) to give it a try. If so, we discuss some of the problems a peer might help us identify. Most of the time, their list is nearly identical to mine.

They tell us:
—when we’ve left out important details

—when we’ve included extraneous information

—when the text structure or voice or point of view doesn’t work

—when an explanation doesn’t make sense and a comparison might help

—when we should hunt for stronger verbs

—when the beginning doesn’t hook the reader

—when the ending falls flat (my personal weakness)

I can’t imagine sending a piece to my editor without the input of my critique groups, and I think the same should be true for young writers. We are so close to our writing that we really need another set of eyes to help us see the weaknesses in our early drafts.