It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know
than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
One would never guess from the following excerpts that a certain nine-year-old would grow up to write more than 50 nonfiction children’s books. This is from my fourth-grade booklet on Florida:
The Cypress swamp is a part of the Everglades.
The Cypress swamp is smaller than the Everglades even though it is a part of the Everglades.
It has Spanish moss clinging from the trees. It has wild animals and lovely birds. Maybe even alligaters [sic] and crocodiles.
I pulled the usual report-writing trick, padding paragraphs with repetitious sentences. Only when I departed from facts and reimagined my mother and father’s trip to Clearwater did my prose loosen up.
Clearwater is one place where people go in Tampa, Florida.
Tourists take a hotel near-by and with time off of packing they take a glassbottom boat to Clearwater.
Amazingly, I got an A- (for misspelling “depths,” teacher didn’t catch “alligaters” because her eyes were probably glazed), most likely for the maps and drawings I included. While I enjoyed writing stories, writing nonfiction was a chore.
Yet I loved reading nonfiction. Kids today would revolt if they had to read what we did back then, long blocks of text leavened with occasional two-color spot illustrations. Since that was all we had, we didn’t know the difference. But the nonfiction books I checked out of our school library sparkled like stars next to our classroom units.
Our textbooks were packed with dates, battles, generals, and photosynthesis. I earned Ds in Virginia history and Cs in science. Educational TV, new in the early 60s, featured segments even duller. I would sit in the back of the classroom squinting at a library book while onscreen a hand dissected a lima bean. My family grew lima beans; I would rather learn how to get to Mars.
After elementary school, I stopped reading nonfiction. Report writing became even harder. Information seeped in through recreational reading — historical novels and science fiction. Fiction tapped into emotions previously blunted by facts. Characters made me care. Soon I wanted to know more about the Civil War, archaeological discoveries, Sylvia Plath, and picked up nonfiction again. I could have just as easily stayed off the nonfiction path, but my childhood curiosity came roaring back. In my late teens, I began writing articles for children’s magazines and, later, nonfiction books.
Children are still tasked with writing reports. But they have a wider variety of sources: the internet, visiting speakers, field trips. Best of all, kids today have fabulous nonfiction books. A very young child can flip through a board book on the solar system, pick up a picture book on the sun, segue into a transitional reader about the planets, then delve into a middle-grade biography on Galileo, assimilating facts at each stage.
My fourth-grade self would have been delirious to find the inspiring nonfiction published in recent years, such as Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca, And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz (best opening paragraphs ever!), Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant, Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum, and Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust by April Pulley Sayre.
The expedition from my tepid Florida report to my latest book, Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mammoth (which combines history and science) has been rewarding because I’ve sampled and studied nonfiction children’s books that often rival adult nonfiction.
I’ll continue to research and write nonfiction, help pave the way for new nonfiction readers, who might also grow up to be nonfiction writers.