By Suzanne Costner
I headed to Houston in November 2018 to attend the NCTE Annual Convention and moderate a panel presentation for a group of children’s nonfiction writers. I was also looking forward to the Children’s Book Award Luncheon, never realizing that it would change my life. As the presentation of the year’s winners was winding down, an announcement was made encouraging attendees to apply for a place on one of the award committees. My sister nudged me and whispered, “You could do that.” Two months later, I was beginning my term on the Orbis Pictus committee and immersing myself in children’s nonfiction.
From January 2019 through December 2021, we read over 1,300 books on topics ranging from amoebas to world history. As we reviewed, debated, and voted, my favorite topics involved astronomy, aviation, and aerospace, although I enjoyed all of them. The titles that combine those topics with a picture book biography make wonderful entry points into the study of science and history. Even though my time with the Orbis Pictus has ended, I am still searching out those sorts of books to add to my school library collection. I would like to share two of those titles with you and suggest related areas your students might enjoy investigating.
To learn more about her amazing career, try the following:
Students may find helpful information in the following:
When I was a child visiting my school library, all the biographies were about famous presidents and other men. We still have a long way to go to balance the representation of women and other marginalized groups, but knowing there are authors and illustrators bringing these stories to life for today’s students is encouraging. Reading these stories of dreams achieved and challenges overcome may inspire young readers to pursue their own passions in life, or even introduce a topic to spark that passion. I hope everyone finds some nonfiction to engage their hearts and minds.
Suzanne Costner, School Library Media Specialist at Fairview Elementary School (Maryville, TN) member of NCTE, CLA, ALA, AASL, ILA, NAEYC, NSTA, ISTE, CAP, AFA, AIAA
by Kate Narita, introduction by Melissa Stewart
In February, CLA members Mary Ann Cappiello, Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University and Xenia Hadjioannou, Associate Professor of Language and Literacy Education at Penn State University, sent a letter signed by more than 500 educators to The New York Times asking the paper to add children's nonfiction bestseller lists to parallel the current fiction-focused lists.
The letter was also published on more than 20 blogs that serve the children's literature community--including this one—and amplified on social media as part of the #KidsLoveNonfiction campaign. (To date, more than 2,100 people have signed it.)
A few weeks later, The New York Times responded, saying it had no current plans to add nonfiction lists at this time. Many people were disappointed by this decision, including fourth-grade teacher and CLA member Kate Narita, who has written the following essay, bravely sharing how the petition changed her thinking.
-- Melissa Strewart
Shattering My Implicit Bias Against Nonfiction by Kate Narita
Then, in January, my son mentioned a book he had read, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz. “Oh,” I said. “Sounds interesting. Did you read it for your calculus class?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I really enjoyed it.”
Did his statement about enjoying a book wake me up to my implicit bias? No. But I did feel a shift inside me. I was pleasantly surprised and excited because I love talking about books. If he had read something and was excited about it, I could read it and discuss it with him, even if he had only read it because it was a class assignment. Here was a way I could deepen my relationship with him as an adult. Even if it was just a one-time occurrence.
I asked if I could read the book when he was done, and he brought it home the next time he visited.
Fast forward to February break. As my husband and I were packing for a trip to Maui to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, he spotted Infinite Powers in the pile of books I was sorting through on our ottoman and picked it up.
“What’s this?” he asked. When I explained, he asked if he could take it to Hawaii, and I nodded. I hadn’t read it yet because, to be honest, reading a whole book about calculus felt too daunting. Instead, I packed and read three books from Kate Messner’s History Smashers series and Rukhsanna Guidroz’s Samira Surfs.
I also spotted a copy of Kristin Hannah’s Fly Away in our condo. Since I had watched Hannah’s Firefly Lane on Netflix and was listening to The Four Winds on Libby, I couldn’t resist picking up Fly Away, and I devoured it in a day.
As my husband and I sat side-by-side reading on the beach, we talked about Infinite Powers. He told me that while he was enjoying the book, the author gave way too much credit to calculus and not nearly enough to physics.
He was kind of cranky about it. Actually, he was truly irritated. I was surprised that he was having an emotional response to the book, a nonfiction book. It had stirred up passion inside him, even though it wasn’t a novel.
Did his passion wake me up to my implicit bias? Not yet. But I did feel another shift. He was expressing emotion about a book, and I was listening. In the past, it had almost always been me expressing emotion about a novel and him listening.
In our almost thirty-year relationship, I could only think of one other time when he had emoted about a book. It was Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman, which I read because he had read it multiple times and was so excited about it.
When we got back home, I spotted this petition (which you can still sign) on Twitter. Two professors of literacy, Mary Ann Cappiello and Xenia Hadjioannou, had written a letter asking The New York Times to add three children’s nonfiction bestseller lists—one for picture books, one for middle grade, and one for young adults. I signed it because, of course, I fully supported nonfiction writers and readers!
A couple of weeks later, I saw on Facebook that, even though more than 2,000 people had signed the petition, The New York Times had refused to add children’s nonfiction bestseller lists. After a full day of teaching, I was tired, and reading this unfortunate news made me angry. I looked up from my phone.
Across the room, my younger son, who was home on spring break, was reading The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene for fun because he had liked Infinite Powers so much and wanted to keep reading and learning. Next to him, my husband was reading an article about the Green Bay Packers on the internet.
In that instant, a lightbulb clicked on in my mind, and an awareness of my implicit bias washed over me like a tidal wave.
My husband and younger son are readers. They have always been readers.
I just didn’t realize it because narratives and fiction aren’t their jam. But give them nonfiction on topics they find fascinating—math, physics, sports—and they’re all in. They’re curious people who read to learn. They want to know about the world, how it works, and their place in it.
The decisionmakers at The New York Times seem to have their own implicit bias against children’s nonfiction, and as long as they do not include lists highlighting these books, they’re failing to acknowledge the 42 percent of our youth who crave true texts. They’re also failing to open the eyes of adults who raise those kids, thinking they’re not readers.
Maybe we should petition The Wall Street Journal next.
By Jennifer M. Graff, Jenn Sanders, and Courtney Shimek on behalf of The Biography Clearinghouse
A Sampling of Wu Chien Shiung’s Accomplishments and Accolades
The first woman to
She also received
The Biography Clearinghouse’s latest entry includes interdisciplinary teaching ideas and resources that
This entry also features interviews with Robeson and Huang about their inspirations for this picturebook biography, connections to Wu Chien Shiung, and details about their research and composing processes, among other interesting topics. Below are three instructional ideas from this entry.
Mentoring Via Peer Conferencing
Teach the mentor/tutor to pay attention to the writer’s ideas before worrying about spelling conventions.
“Respect the writer and the writer’s paper.”
Make the writer feel comfortable, be an active listener, and don’t write on the person’s paper.
“Involve the writer by asking questions.”
Teach mentors/tutors to ask open ended questions that get the writer talking about their ideas, their writing purpose, or their process.
“Teach the writer.”
Mentors/tutors share writing strategies that can be applied to the current piece but also across other pieces, rather than just trying to fix or revise the one piece they are discussing.
“Encourage the writer.”
Mentors/tutors provide encouragement by noting something specific that the writer did really well and offering one or two suggestions for revision (p.127).
Teachers can also invite students to consider the role of mentorship in their own lives. Students can identify individuals who have served as mentors to them and explore mentorship patterns and practices that are helpful and empowering to them as learners.
Advocacy and Activism
- Yuri Kochiyama was a political activist from California who fought with Malcom X to work for racial justice, civil and human rights, and anti-war movements. She went on to work in the redress and reparations movements for Japanese Americans and continued to fight for political prisoners until she passed away in 2014.
- Pranjal Jain is an Indian-American activist who has been organizing since she was 12 years old. As a current undergraduate at Cornell University, she is the founder of Global Girlhood, a women-led organization that inspires intercultural and intergenerational dialogue in online and offline spaces.
- Stephanie Hu is a Chinese American who founded Dear Asian Youth while she was a high school student as a support website for marginalized young people as a result of the rise in anti-Asian racism and violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star to appear in U.S. box offices. Although she was often relegated to smaller roles that perpetuated Asian stereotypes, her career spanned silent films, talkies, theater, and television, and she helped blaze the trail for Asian American performers after her. See Paula Yoo and Lin Yang’s (2009) picturebook biography, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, published by Lee & Low Books.
Printmaking a Character for Fiction Writing
By using basic supplies such as styrofoam plates and markers for printmaking, students can create a character to print and use in their own creative story. Watch this short video of a teacher demonstrating the styrofoam printmaking process.
If you have 1-2 hours….
If you have 1-2 days…
If you have 1-2 weeks…
Each student can design a main character for a story they write, and then draw and marker-print the character on paper. In this activity, students will experience a process of printmaking that helps them understand the steps and all the work that goes into making printed images.
After students create their printed character (see the If you have 1 to 2 hours . . . column), students can draft the story in which their character experiences a problem, challenge, or adventure. Based on their story, they can add a background setting in their picture to place their character in the context of their story. Students will simply draw the background setting and objects around their character on their printed picture.
Students can print their character four to six times, on separate pieces of paper, to create a storyboard with multiple scenes. Save one of these prints to make a title page for the story.
For this activity, we recommend students leave the background of the styrofoam plate empty so they can draw in different backgrounds as the story progresses. Then, they can divide their corresponding written story into sections (three, four, or five, depending on the number of prints they made).
For each story section, they can draw in a related background setting, additional characters, or objects to help complete the scene.
In the end, they will have a multimedia print that has their character marker-printed and the background drawn in with pen, marker, or other tools.
Jennifer Sanders is a Professor of Literacy Education at Oklahoma State University, specializing in representations of diversity in children’s and young adult literature and writing pedagogy. She is co-founder and co-chair of The Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature and long-time member of CLA.
Courtney Shimek is an Assistant Professor in the department of Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies at West Virginia University. She has been a CLA member since 2015.
Supporting PreK-12 and university teachers as they share children’s literature with their students in all classroom contexts.
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