Growing a Nonfiction Reader
and Even a Nonfiction Writer

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

—Rachel Car­son

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.

Virginia history

Strange Beasts of the PastYet 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.

Strange Beasts of the Past

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.

Candice Ransome Nonfiction Recommendations

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.

Bones in the White HouseThe 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.     

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Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky
3 years ago

Yes, I remem­ber those kinds of books. And then came full col­or! I loved get­ting my week­ly vol­ume of The Gold­en Book Illus­trat­ed Ency­lo­pe­dia, 59¢ at Safe­way, because my Mom bought at least $40 in gro­ceries each week. I thrived on those books. 

A won­der­ful his­to­ry of your love for Non­fic­tion Can­dace. Thanks for shar­ing your journey.

candice ransom
Reply to  Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky
3 years ago

This is so late, it’s unfor­giv­able. But I found the Gold­en Book Illus­trat­ed Ency­clo­pe­dia, the whole set, in Good­will for a few dol­lars. I’d nev­er seen it before and was enchant­ed. I also have a few vol­umes of the Gold­en Illus­trat­ed Dic­tio­nary. I love my vin­tage non­fic­tion col­lec­tion – books that are col­or­ful and cheer­ful, unlike so many of today’s non­fic­tion books, slick with pho­tos and fussy with sidebars.

Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky
Reply to  candice ransom
3 years ago

I agree. They were marvelous!