Vardell explains why this chapter is entitled “informational books” rather than “nonfiction books as follows: Many in the field of children’s literature prefer not to use the term “nonfiction” as it “suggests a negative association, a definition by non-example.” She does point out that “informational” is not entirely accurate either, as even fiction books do contain information, and then explains that she chooses to use the two terms interchangeably, depending on the intended audience.
I like the fact that she is more intent on good practices than on splitting hairs, as evidenced by the following:
“The key is understanding the genre and recognizing its purpose, seeing the wealth of information available on a wide range of subjects and the variety off approaches and formats that can engage readers of all ages.
The thing to keep in mind is this: usually the purpose of a nonfiction book is to inform. The purpose of fiction is to entertain or provide escape… Don’t worry about memorizing literary genre definitions as much as about making sure children have a steady diet of informational books. not only will you find that children enjoy them immensely, but this provides excellent preparation for the vast amount of information they’ll be processing for the rest of their reading lives.” (Vardell, p. 236)
Vardell quotes critic Jo Carr’s statement that there are two categories for nonfiction:
- nonfiction chock full of facts “as if children were vases to be filled”
- nonfiction to ignite the imagination – “as if children were indeed fires to be lit” (Vardell, p. 234, Carr, 1982)
But then Vardell goes on to explain that over the past thirty years the genre has become robust, full of a greater variety of topics and even formats.
Here are some types/categories of informational literature as set out by Vardell:
- Survey books
- Photo Essays
- Concept books
- Social Histories
- Informational Storybooks
- Activity Books
- Trivia Books
- Series Books and Reference Tools
One subgenre that she does not include above, because she dwells on it in a longer, dedicated section is that of Biographies.
Vardell states that in the past, (similar to other informational books), biographies written for children were limited in scope (both of the type of lives covered – “dead white men” – as well as the type of information provided about the lives (information to glorify rather than give a well-rounded sense of the person’s life). However, now the trend to have biographies available “on all kinds of people–women, people of color, ordinary citizens, even villains (such as Adolf Hitler. In addition, biographies now include a more well-rounded portrait of the subject that shares the flaws as well as the successes of the person.” (p. 244)
The types of Biographies, according to Vardell:
- Complete bios – a way of introducing kids to famous historical figures. One book that Vardell singles out as a stellar example of this type of bio is Russell Freedman’s Lincoln, A Photobiography
- Picture Book bios – this format makes it easier to entice reluctant readers of nonfiction to read biographies. Vardell points out that as the illustrations are key to the book, they must be as carefully researched as the actual writing.
- Series – these tend to be used as supplementary-to-curriculum materials by schools
- Celebrity bios – self-explanatory. Vardell mentions that this type of bio is a more recent trend in publishing. I notice that these biographies are quite popular, especially with the tween crowd, at my library. While many a librarian might bemoan the latest bio about 16 year old Justin Bieber, it’s important to keep in mind what Vardell astutely points out:
These may not be the most in-depth or well-balanced types of biography writing at its best, but they are often very popular with children and may lure them into reading and discussing the genre of biography when no other subject will. In fact, this is a good example of how biography reading can become pleasure reading, and not just reading about famous people for an assignment.” (p. 246)
- Collective bios- as the name suggests, these are compediums of several short biographies, organized around a theme. One example that Vardell puts forth is Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought), illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
- Autobiographies- Vardell recommends the autobiography series “Meet the Author collection”
I appreciate the advice provided on how to evaluate biographies. It is key is to “hold them to the to the same rigorous criteria we apply to all nonfiction: accuracy, organization, design, and style.” She goes further to discuss the idea of “documentable dialogue.” She warns that if a biography contains dialogue, it should be documented in a primary source such as a journal, and that if it is not verifiable, then the biography runs the danger of turning into historical fiction. While I understand her point here, that especially for children and tweens, it is important that informational books be well-researched and painstakingly accurate, I find myself wondering. Is there room for the genre of “creative non-fiction” in youth literature? And where do memoirs fall? Can they be considered biography? These issues are tricky enough in adult literature, but they are compounded when it comes to kids, probably because we hold ourselves to a higher standard of accuracy, as there is the implicit belief that kids and teens are susceptible to believing as truth anything that is considered “nonfiction” and are less likely to critically evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of the research for themselves.