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Reading Reality

Illustration by Carol Nichols

Reading Reality
Nonfiction children's literature is a top-notch genre waiting to be tapped


Top 10 Children's Nonfiction Books of the 1990s
by Rosemary Bamford and Janice Kristo

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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" worked.

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 accuracy.

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, it's true.

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
September-October, 2005

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