Rethinking Your Book Collection: A Q&A with Melissa Stewart

Last week, Melissa Stewart hosted an absolutely awesome webinar with SLJ – Rethinking Your Book Collection. If you missed it, you can watch it on demand through the end of the year. The presentation and discussion were so great that we couldn’t get to all the questions, so Melissa graciously answered them for our blog.

Will 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books be available via Amazon? Book distributors like Baker & Taylor? Who will distribute it in Canada?

For now, you can pre-order it though the Lerner website and the Stenhouse website. It will be available via Amazon closer to the publication date, which we hope is in July 2021.

Companies like Baker & Taylor, Mackin, and Follett only carry professional resource books like this one if there is demand from customers. If you would like to purchase the book through one of these book distributors, please send them a note. When they get enough requests, they will add the book to their offerings.

Pembroke Publishers will carry the book in Canada. It probably won’t be added to their website until a few weeks before publication date.

Can you clarify the difference between expository texts and expository literature? And between expository literature and narrative nonfiction? Are all narrative nonfiction books chronological?

There are two nonfiction writing styles—expository and narrative. This SLJ article provides a thorough explanation of the differences between them. In general, narrative nonfiction tells a story or conveys an experience, while expository nonfiction explains, describes, or informs in a clear, straightforward way.

Four of the five categories in the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system have an expository writing style—active, browseable, traditional, and expository literature. This article outlines the characteristics of expository literature, narrative nonfiction, and the other three categories. Both expository literature and narrative nonfiction are considered “literary nonfiction” because they typically feature a strong voice and finely crafted language.

I can’t think of any narrative nonfiction books that do not have a chronological sequence text structure. Some, such as Bomb by Steve Sheinkin, have an in media res opening, which begins in the middle of the action to engage readers and then goes back the beginning and proceeds forward in time from there.

Do you attribute children’s preferences for expository texts to attention span? Is there a particular age at which students switch from preferring expository nonfiction to narrative nonfiction?
No and no. Some people are analytical thinkers. They have a natural preference for expository texts that lasts their entire lives. Other people are narrative thinkers who are naturally drawn to stories for the whole lives. And some people enjoy both writing styles equally.

As this article points out, students who gravitate toward expository writing read to learn. They aren’t interested in developing an emotional connection with the central character in a book. These info-kids value texts that focus on facts and figures, ideas, and information because they’re goal-oriented readers. They want to understand everything in the wide world and how it works. When these children grow up, they tend to choose careers and scientists, engineers, accountants, computer programmers, electricians, plumbers, etc. In contrast, narrative lovers are more likely to choose careers as children’s book editors, librarians, or literacy educators, which accounts for the data I shared during the webinar.

Ideally, children who are naturally drawn to one writing style will develop the skills to appreciate and interact successfully with the other writing style. That will allow them to become strong life-long readers who can tackle any text they encounter.

Which kind of nonfiction has the highest retention rate among students?
Students retain information best when they are motivated to read. The best thing we can do is feed kids a steady diet of books on topics they’re passionate about. When students understand the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system, they can tailor their choices to the writing style and category they prefer too.

I worry that kids won’t be able to make the jump from browseable, factoid-style nonfiction to more rigorous long-form texts. Will children get too used to getting information in short bursts?
People have been expressing this concern ever since Eyewitness Books were first introduced in the 1990s, but browseable books can actually help students learn how to unpack and assimilate the information in more complex texts, allowing them to slowly build an understanding of the challenging concepts.

Some of the best strategies for tackling a complex text are note taking and summarizing, both of which are modeled in the clear, concise text blocks found in browseable nonfiction. During the middle school years, as students begin to interact with more rigorous texts, educators should help students make this connection.

These texts also offer educators opportunities to introduce students to such techniques as “the interruption construction” and “text scaffolding,” so that when students are given more rigorous texts later, they have the skills they need to recognize how a writer goes about building a reader’s understanding of a complex concept. These strategies are discussed in detail in 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books.

Do high school students like browseable nonfiction?
Yes, many do. And so do adults. Just think about how popular the infographics are in publications like USA Today. Infographics have all the same characteristics as browseable books. Also, teens are just as excited about graphic novels as younger students. Graphic novels are the fiction analog of browseable books.

Can you review your percentage recommendations for a well-balanced library or classroom collection? Do these apply to elementary, middle school, high school collections?

Sure, here’s my slide.

Ideally, these recommendations apply to every level, including adult collections. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find YA books in some of these categories. The good news is that we’re starting to see more YA nonfiction in general as well as a broader range of offerings.
Do you have a list of recommended titles for these five categories?
Yes, you can find lists in this article on my website. I update them about once a year. When 5 Kinds of Nonfiction is published, it will include even more examples.

What age/grade do you recommend introducing this system to students?
5 Kinds of Nonfiction includes quotations from students as young as grade 2. But in general, I recommend introducing the system in grade 3 because it can be such a tremendous help as students work on their first book reports. This link has activities that work well for introducing and reinforcing the five-category system.

Do you envision publishers adopting these 5 categories? I’m curious about how we can tell which kind of nonfiction a book is before ordering it.

Lerner is a real leader in this area. As you can see here, they’ve already labelled all the books in their catalog using this system. They also created a wonderful infographic that you can download as a poster for your library or classroom.

I’m currently consulting with other publishers and book distributors who are interested in understanding the system and labelling the books in their catalogs/databases.

The system is still in its infancy, but there seems to be a consensus that we need a way to classify the diverse array of nonfiction books being published today, and many people seem to think my categories make sense. I love this quotation from Traci Kirkland, a school librarian in Texas:

“The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system brings clarity to the way we think about nonfiction. We’re used to subdividing our fiction section into genres like mysteries and science fiction. But then we just lump all the nonfiction together. Now we can see smart, useful ways to categorize these books too.”

I wonder if review journals like SLJ have considered including nonfiction categories in their reviews. This would be a great way to help teachers and teacher-librarians when purchasing and evaluating our collections.

As far as I know, no review journals are currently using the system. But if you think they should, I encourage you to write a letter requesting that they do so. That’s how change can happen.

Is there a collection analysis tool to help librarians easily determine what kinds/percentage of each type of nonfiction book they have in their collections?

I’m not aware of any analysis tool at this point. In the comments, someone mentioned that Follett/Titlewave can analyze your collection according to whatever parameters you set. I’m going to find out more about this service because it certainly seems useful.

I know some librarians who have enlisted the help of student volunteers to evaluate their collections. Each child chooses a section that interests them and analyzes it. This may not provide a complete overview, but it will yield some interesting information, and what a great experience for the students.

What are mentor texts? How are they used? Which categories do you recommend for mentor texts?

A mentor text is a book that a writer uses for inspiration and guidance as they craft their manuscript. For example, if I felt that my work-in-progress needed more vivid verbs, I would re-read books that make excellent use of verbs, such as Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep by April Pulley Sayre, If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz, and Giant Squid by Candace Fleming. I would study the authors’ techniques as I worked to choose more powerful verbs for my own piece.

Expository literature titles make the best mentor texts for informational writing because they have an expository writing style and feature rich, engaging language. Narrative nonfiction titles are the best mentor texts for personal narratives. You can find lists of my favorite mentor texts here.

Do you have a list of recommended gateway nonfiction titles?

The term “gateway nonfiction” refers to a theoretical group of books that can bridge the gap between the browseable books that captivate elementary readers and the rigorous nonfiction texts students encounter in middle school and high school.

Jonathan Hunt, the librarian who coined the term, felt that these books were missing from the marketplace and wondered what they might look like in terms of art, design, writing, trim size, page count, etc. I think that blended books with characteristics of both expository literature and narrative nonfiction could serve as a gateway for students.

The expository sections will captivate fact-loving kids. The clear explanations will feel comfortable and familiar, giving them the confidence and motivation to tackle the narrative sections. Similarly, young narrative lovers will be drawn to the story-rich sections, inspiring them to do the work necessary to digest and comprehend the expository passages. As a result, these books can encourage a wide variety of students to stretch and grow as readers. For more about blended nonfiction and its benefits, check out this article.

What category are most of the books you’ve written?
I’ve written books in all five categories—active, browseable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. The picture books I’m best known for, such as Feathers: Nor Just for Flying, Can an Aardvark Bark?, and Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs are expository literature. They have a narrowly focused topic, feature a carefully chosen text structure, and include rich, engaging language.

Do people use the term “hybrid book” to describe titles with a combination of narrative and expository text?

I usually hear the word “hybrid book” used to describe titles like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, which are a cross between graphic novels and traditional novels. In the past, I sometimes heard it used to describe what people now usually refer to as “informational fiction”—books that are largely based on documentable facts but include some made-up elements. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to describe books with a combination of narrative and expository text.

What do writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common—in terms of writing technique, approach, etc.?

Just about everything. The only notable difference is that nonfiction writers have to adhere to the truth—everything in the books they write has to be 100 percent documentable. Fiction authors, on the other hand, can make things up. Otherwise, the tools and techniques are pretty much the same.

I love this quotation from author Laura Purdie Salas, which appears in the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Children’s Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing:

“There’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out.
     “The reality is very different. My personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I write.”

For more information on this topic, I recommend this article by Candace Fleming and Karen Blumenthal.

Do you think that leading expository-loving students to blended books in order to get them interested in narrative nonfiction is a good strategy?

I think you have to be careful about how you do this. The most important thing an adult can do is help students find a diverse array of books on topics they’re passionate about. A few days later check back with the student to see which titles resonated most with them. If they seem to prefer narrative titles, recommend more of them. If they seem drawn to the expository titles, offer them others. At some point, try sneaking in a blended book to see how the student responds. Are they willing and able to struggle through the challenging parts or do they feel overwhelmed? Strong readers can learn to cross over to the other writing style, but each child does it in their own way and in their own time. It’s important to respect that.

Students who prefer nonfiction also seem to prefer photos rather than illustrations.  Have you noticed this too?

I often encounter students who say, “I like books with pictures because then I know it’s real.”

When I ask them follow up questions to gain a better understanding of their perspective, I discover that their attitude often traces back to their early reading experiences.

Most students are introduced to fictional picture books before they encounter any type of nonfiction. As a result, they learn to associate illustrations with fiction. But as soon as an adult explains that nonfiction can be illustrated in a variety of ways, and that it’s not always possible to find photos of the information a writer is interested in sharing, their attitude begins to change.

All that having been said, it’s important to share a wide range of photo-illustrated books as well as books illustrated in other ways with students because each type has its benefits and shortcomings. It’s important for children to consider the decisions authors and illustrators make. They should also have experience illustrating their own writing with photos and with illustrations to get a sense of the challenges each type of art poses.

Do you know anyone who has arranged their library collections around the five kinds of nonfiction?

I wouldn’t recommend arranging collections according to this system. I think it’s important for students to gain experience in assessing books. For example, if a child is doing a report on elephants, they should learn that traditional books are the best choice in the initial stages of research, as they try to gain an overview of the topic. Once they have focused their topic, they will come to see that expository literature and browseable nonfiction with an abundance of text features are the best sources. As they are crafting their report, experience should show them that expository literature make the best mentor texts for selecting a text structure and infusing their manuscript with rich, engaging language.

What is your preferred way of finding nonfiction titles?
Here is a list of resources I use to find great nonfiction books. I also recommend the Texas Topaz Reading List, which I just recently discovered.

Are the teaching ideas and strategies you mentioned in the webinar in your upcoming book?
Yes, the book includes all ideas and strategies I discussed as well as many others I didn’t have time to mention. Some of them are also on my website. This link, in particular, can get you started.

May we have a copy of the Nonfiction Smackdown worksheet?

Yes, absolutely. You can find it here. You can find the Sibert Smackdown worksheet and other useful resources here.

Which titles have you selected for your Sibert Smackdown list this year?

Due to pandemic-related library closures and the interruption of interlibrary loan for so many months, I’m still developing my list. I hope to post in on my blog in mid-November, so be on the lookout for it around that time.

What would you recommend as a starting point for middle school students as far as nonfiction read alouds?

I have some useful resources on my website. This link is a good place to start.

I’d also suggest that you join the #classroombookaday Facebook group. Thanks to the leadership and generosity of founder Jillian Heise, it’s a vibrant, supportive community that includes quite a few middle school and high school teachers and librarians. Picture books are for everyone!

What would you say to a teacher who wants to use informational fiction as nonfiction text for a lesson?

First of all, I’d suggest that they use a text set that includes books from as many categories as possible because different students respond to different kinds of books. The text set can also include magazine articles, podcasts, radio interviews, etc. I recommend Teaching with Text Sets by Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes for assistance in building powerful text sets.

If teachers are determined to build a lesson around an informational fiction title, they need to be upfront with students immediately, letting them know that the book includes some made-up elements. Educators need to realize that some children feel cheated when they realize parts of a book are invented and their disappointment can turn them off to reading. There’s a lot at stake!

In many cases, when an author invents dialog, presents scenes out of order, etc., they include a note at the end explaining what is fabricated and why. After reading this note to children, encourage students to discuss whether they think the author made the right decision. Would the children prefer to read a text that’s completely true?

If a book has a made-up narrator, such an animal or inanimate object, point that out to readers. Ask them how they feel about having that invented character in the book.

In this era of fake news, it’s critically important that students develop the skills necessary to recognize what’s real, what’s true, what’s verifiable, and what’s not.

Is there a way that people who didn’t register for the webinar can access information about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction?

Yes, there’s quite a bit of information on my website. I’m also available for virtual professional development workshops, and when 5 Kinds of Nonfiction is published next spring, educators can use it as a guide.

This post is part of a weekly series of guest articles by nonfiction authors about their craft, their process, and their amazing books. Stay tuned each week to learn more by visiting the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction page for poster and flyer downloads, curated booklists and more. You can also follow the Lerner Blog’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction series, or the hashtag #5KNF on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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