Nonfiction children's literature is a top-notch genre waiting to be
Doing only homework with your child
during the school year can be limiting. So can reading Harry Potter.
A whole other world of learning awaits
the child whose parents take time to share their interests through
informational nonfiction books — "the power genre of the century,"
according to two University of Maine experts on children's literature.
"Getting at content is essential to
life. Knowledge of the world and fantasy feed different parts of the
brain. (Yet) we give a privileged status to fiction," says Professor
Emerita of Education Rosemary Bamford, who contends that the growing
pressure on children to complete an ever-expanding volume of homework,
even in the early grades, cuts into the time for them to explore
interests at home.
Nonfiction literature for children embraces virtually every subject,
from the water cycle to the life of Cleopatra. It is distinguished from
fiction primarily by its purpose: to "make factual information
accessible to the grade-level reader," as Bamford puts it. In such
literature, clear, accurate and engaging prose is complemented by lively
visuals, not only in the form of pictures but also charts, graphs, maps,
glossaries, notes, captions, pronunciation guides, a list of Web sites
or other learning tools — "access features," as they are called by
educators — that help a child deepen his or her knowledge of a subject.
The best nonfiction literature for children has clarity of style and
presentation, accuracy, close attention to the organization of facts,
use of analogies or metaphors to make information accessible, language
appropriate to the subject, and any number of relevant supplementary
materials. Parents should keep in mind that unlike books of fiction,
nonfiction books don't necessarily need to be read from beginning to
end: They can be browsed and sampled by readers who can draw what they
like from what they have to offer.
For Bamford and Professor of Education Janice Kristo, national leaders
in promoting the educational benefits of nonfiction children's
literature, early experiences planted the seeds of what would grow into
their lifelong passion for the genre. Bamford, who has taught at the
University of Maine since 1971 and authored eight books on children's
literature, including the classic Making Facts Come Alive, coauthored
with Kristo, recalls that her interest in nonfiction children's
literature blossomed in her mechanic father's grease pit. An oldest
child, she spent a lot of time with her father learning how "things"
Kristo, who came to UMaine in 1982 and has authored 10 books, tells a
similar story. An only child, she also spent many afternoons with her
father, following him to the library where he went to pick up manuals on
such subjects as how to fix his 1954 Chrysler.
But in the 1950s, Bamford says, there was little nonfiction from which
to choose. Factual books, often biased ones, with dry presentations of
information were all that was to be had by the child seeking to learn
more about subjects of interest.
In the past two decades, in response to teachers' demands, trade books
began to supplant traditional basal readers in instruction and literacy
programs. Before long, the trend toward reader-friendly, or what
educator J.F. Baumann calls "considerate books," spread across the
curriculum, and the textbooks once used to teach science and social
studies were supplemented or replaced by trade books more likely to
engage the interests of students.
"In the past," Kristo says, "(the genre) was boring. You had some good
writers, but format, layout and design suffered because of lack of
technology. Now, the visuals are so stunning anyone could become
interested." Even for older children in the eighth grade, the picture
book format, when well done, has appeal. And if accompanied by lively
writing, the genre can even have value for adults.
Only since the 1990s has the genre of children's nonfiction come into
its own. The decade saw the emergence of a host of distinguished
nonfiction writers, such as Jim Murphy, James Cross Giblin, Russell
Freedman, Jim Arnosky, Patricia Lauber, and Diane Swanson, whose Safari
Beneath the Sea: The Wonder World of the North Pacific Coast Kristo
considers "almost a perfect book."
Through their own writing, teaching, academic research and presentations
at national conferences, Bamford and Kristo helped to change the stature
of children's nonfiction literature in the past decade. For example,
Bamford was instrumental in establishing the Orbis Pictus Nonfiction
Awards, presented annually by the National Council of Teachers of
English since 1990. (The award takes its name from a book published in
1657 by Johann Comenius, considered to be the first informational book
written for children.)
Bamford cofounded, and both Bamford and Kristo are past presidents of,
the International Reading Association's Children's Literature and
Reading Special Interest Group.
Award-winning nonfiction author Penny Colman told UMaine graduate
students during a recent visit to campus that Bamford and Kristo
"position UMaine as a potential national center for the study and
teaching of nonfiction."
Today, quality nonfiction children's literature is increasingly
characterized by a scholarly rigor that rivals or exceeds that of some
adult nonfiction; some adults Kristo knows turn to children's nonfiction
first when exploring a new subject. "Children's nonfiction today is
every bit as sophisticated as the adult genre," she says.
Yet there are still hurdles in getting nonfiction into the hands of
young readers. Fiction still remains dominant because the cost of
publishing nonfiction is very high. Printing visuals, buying permissions
and doing on-site research — just to name a few of the expenses that can
be incurred in publishing a nonfiction book — add up in ways that can be
prohibitive for publishers.
In addition, some parents argue that childhood is the time to celebrate
imagination. What can a book on the Great Chicago Fire give a child that
Harry Potter cannot? For Bamford and Kristo, it comes down to critical
thinking, learning how to process facts, and judge their truth and
For example, comparing several different biographies of Martin Luther
King Jr., for accuracy helps children develop their ability to make
judgments about the flood of information they receive daily, not only in
the classroom, but also through media and on the Internet. Such
training, Kristo says, "helps them to resist the temptation to think all
books are equal," or to believe that just because a fact is in print,
As important is the impact of nonfiction literature on the development
of children's writing. While reading fiction is of value to the fantasy
life of a child, how many children will write a novel in their lifetime?
the educators ask. But by reading nonfiction literature and by hearing
it read aloud, children learn how to write the kind of prose they will
be called upon to write most often as adults: expository prose that
unfolds an argument or explanation. Teachers can use nonfiction
literature as examples of how to write and as an aid to mastering other
features of a good prose writing style.
Parents also need to recognize that they — not teachers — are the first
educators of their children. If a parent can share a book with his or
her youngster in the right spirit, reading together can become as
pleasurable for the child as eating ice cream.
by Sandra Hutchinson
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.