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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:

  1. nonfiction chock full of facts “as if children were vases to be filled”
  2. 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
  • Magazines

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.

Vardell says that contemporary realistic fiction is appropriate for and popular with “intermediate grade readers who want stories that seem true to life and characters with whom they can identify.” (p. 139)

I found it interesting that Vardell echoes what many experienced librarians have insisted time and again: that for tweens age is a major factor in their involvement in the story. This is to say that they typically prefer to read about protagonists who are about one to two years older than they are. I can see how this is true for many tweens, but I must say that it is my experience that some tweens actually prefer books with younger protagonists– these are usually the kids who are reluctant readers (and who may struggle with more difficult language in books for older kids) or kids who are less emotionally and physically mature than others their age, who take a certain comfort in reading the books of their “childhood” rather than looking forward. Some of these, (usually girls), may also be nostalgic for “the days of their youth” (in this case youth being back in grade two or three). However, I can see that what Vardell asserts is probably true for the majority of tweens, who are, as she says, ostensibly looking for “a glimpse of the growing up years ahead.” (p. 140)

Vardell mentions that studies of tween preferences show that that they have a preference for realistic fiction in the following categories (see below). Below each bulleted category I have listed some of the authors and titles she highlights as well worth reading and popular draws for kids and tweens.

  • self, family, friends
  • mysteries (in my opinion this section was someone dated in terms of authors and titles mentioned, and bears some more research)
    • Nancy Drew series
    • Hardy Boys series
    • Ellen Raskin
    • Zilpha Keatley Snyder
    • Avi
  • adventure and survival stories
    • Gary Paulsen
    • Carl Hiaasen
  • animal stories
  • sports stories
    • Matt Christopher
    • Mike Lupica
    • John H. Ritter
    • Gary Soto
    • Dan Gutman
  • humorous writing
    • Beverly Cleary
    • Judy Blume
    • Betsy Bryars
    • Sara Pennypacker
    • Lisa Yee
    • Lauren Child
    • Jack Gantos
    • Andrew Clements

On page 143, there is a section written by international school librarian Mia Steinkamp, in which she discusses an intriguing idea for developing more connections between youth and literature at the library. This idea is the “Readers Theater Club.” Steinkamp says that scripts for well-known and loved works of contemporary realistic fiction are freely found on the Internet, and can be used as a basis for a Readers Theatre Club. Here is how Steinkamp organizes her club:

  1. pass out scripts to all participants and have them highlight their own part
  2. give them time to read the script silently to get to know the story and get used to the language (also an opportunity to sound out difficult words)
  3. divide them into groups who will present together and give them time to practice with their group
  4. they then present their story to the rest of the club – and perhaps even to a larger audience!

The beauty of this type of program is that it yields a high level of active participation and engagement with a minimal input of energy and preparation. No actual “acting” is necessary, so there is no need for a stage, so this can be done even in a library (like mine) that has limited space. Simultaneously, it seems to me that the amount of potential satisfaction and excitement that this activity can create is incredibly high, as long as care is taken to choose the right stories and scripts for the children and tweens.

While Steinkamp says that the majority of children participating in her Readers’ Theatre club are in second through fourth grade, I think this would be a great activity for my Creative Writers group (consisting of 5th graders and middle school students) to try, as they are a verbally active bunch, and would love the opportunity to try telling a story in this manner. This could also be a bridge activity to a future writing activity.

One point made by Vardell that will stay with me as I read and evaluate various works of realistic fiction for children and tweens is that contemporary realistic fiction needs to reflect “society and the child’s place in it.” (Vardell quoting Tunnell and Jacobs’ 2008 work, Children’s Literature, Briefly.) Vardell goes on to say,”Child readers, in particular, want a book that is realistic, and will often discard novels that are overtly didactic or moralistic, in favor of stories with strong character, exciting plots, and subtle themes.” (p. 158)

In this blog entry, I continue to discuss Children’s Literature in Action, an invaluable text by Sophia Vardell. The chapter on poetry is particularly rich in ideas for practical use by librarians who work closely with children and tweens. Here are some ideas for activities and displays gleaned from the Poetry Chapter:

  1. Celebrate birthdays of poets (I can see doing this with both famous and less well-known poets) by sharing a sample poem or book by the “birthday poet” on that day.
  2. Organize poet visits to one’s library.
  3. Choose a variety of poets to highlight on a rotating basis in a display.
  4. On page 135, she explores an idea for promoting poetry, entitled “Living Anthology,” in which one takes ones favorite poems from the collection and places them around the entire building. This idea, given by poet Georgia Head, can be used effectively by both school and public libraries that serve elementary and middle school children and tweens. In fact this is an activity idea I plan to put into practice during National Poetry Month this coming April.
  5. At my library, I have a group of tweens (mostly sixth and seventh graders) who participate in a weekly Creative Writing workshop. In the first week of April, I will ask the creative writing tweens to explore and find their favorite poems from our existing collection.  After having a couple of weeks to explore poetry and time to pick out some of their favorite poems, we will create poetry “posters” to place around the library, complete with a cover of the book that the poem was taken from, and an invitation to other kids, teens and perhaps even adults to submit their most loved poems for a similar display as well!
In addition to these simple and yet ingenious ideas for drawing attention to the poetry collection, this chapter’s “Authors in Action” section (written by poet Kristine George, p. 120) discusses various ways of celebrating children’s poetry in the virtual world. On her website, Ms. George has created a space where librarians and educators can discuss various ways they incorporate and enjoy poetry in their libraries and classrooms. In conjunction with the publication of her book Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems, and as a way of involving middle grade children in discussions about middle school life, Ms. George instituted a forum entitled Middle School Musings. Originally she expected just a few students, but thousands of tweens have weighed in on their experiences and have also participated in writing and photography challenges as well.
In this chapter author Sylvia Vardell also takes time to explore and explain the different poetic elements (rhythm, rhyme, sound, language, imagery, and emotion). She uses this discussion to elucidate how to evaluate poems and poetry books for children. She also discusses strategies for sharing poems with kids, including reading aloud, highlighting various forms of reading aloud. Below I have highlighted several of these strategies:
  • Chorus reading – An adult reads, and children echo a reoccurring line or word.
  • Call and response – The group is divided into two, each take turns reading lines in a kind of ‘back and forth’
  • Line-around – individual kids volunteer (they should not be forced) to read a single line… Ideally, the whole poem gets read line by line in this way.
This chapter not only leaves one dizzy with possibilities for connecting kids and tweens to poetry, but also makes clear the pivotal role poetry plays not only in “required reading” but in reading that children and tweens choose for pleasure, and encourages librarians to re-connect to the elemental power of poetry to draw one through sound and rhythm as well as emotion to reawaken us to how important this genre is in the formative years, and how crucial it is for children to encounter poetry in a positive, enjoyable way, rather than as more literary drudgery foisted upon them through school.

On page 73 of Children’s Literature in Action, Vardell challenges readers to take a “First Lines Quiz” online, on Kaye Vandergrift’s website at Rutgers University (http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/firstlinesindex.html)

The idea is to read the first lines of many children’s books, and then to guess the book title. I approached the quiz confidently, sure that I would know many if not most of the books. However, I was astonished to find that I remembered (or had read) only a few of these books. Books I remembered well included Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte’s Web, The View from Saturday, The Hobbit, and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, among others. But there were many I had never read. One that I did remember well  (and fondly) was the first line from A Little Princess, which I like so much that I have quoted it below:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

There were several parts to this first-line quiz, comprising in total of five different pages. I will challenge myself now to read at least one “new to me” book from each of these five pages and discuss them on this blog.