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Avi: We Need to Honor That

Catch You Later, TraitorEvery par­ent, teacher, and librar­i­an wants chil­dren to read. The rea­sons they wish for this are end­less­ly var­ied, rang­ing from edu­ca­tion­al skills, enter­tain­ment, to learn­ing a les­son. Some­times, how­ev­er, we need ask, what is it about read­ing that chil­dren like?

I’ve come to believe the answer lies in the dif­fer­ent way kids and adults read books. When adults read a book, they encounter a sit­u­a­tion, a char­ac­ter, a detail, which enables them to say, “That’s some­thing I have expe­ri­enced.” Or, “How inter­est­ing. I have seen that hap­pen.” “Oh, I’ve done that.” And so forth. That’s to say, they see the fic­tion as a con­fir­ma­tion of their own lives, some­thing they rec­og­nize as true.

When young peo­ple read fic­tion, they absorb the depict­ed expe­ri­ence as if it were about them. Just the oth­er day I asked a sev­enth grad­er why she liked fan­ta­sy so much. “Because I’m always in the clouds, dream­ing,” she said. “Those books are what I want to do.”

In oth­er words, young peo­ple engage with read­ing best when they can put them­selves into a book. The expe­ri­ence relat­ed in a sto­ry becomes their expe­ri­ence. Yes, lit­er­ary qual­i­ty can enhance that expe­ri­ence, but it’s most­ly what hap­pens in a sto­ry that engages kids.

When one writes for young peo­ple, you have to find a way to allow your read­er to con­nect to your sto­ry in this very per­son­al way. The young read­er must rec­og­nize himself/herself in the tale. The sto­ry must — ulti­mate­ly — be about them, their world, even if they can­not artic­u­late that fact. Indeed, some­times what engages the young read­er is that they want the expe­ri­ence depict­ed in the sto­ry.

WouldbegoodsYears ago, for bed­time, I was read­ing E. Nesbit’s, The Would-Be-Goods (1899), a charm­ing British Edwar­dian nov­el, to my six-year-old boy. As far as I could tell, there was absolute­ly noth­ing in the book which was sim­i­lar to his life. All the same, he was enjoy­ing it immense­ly.

One night — hav­ing learned that kids wrote to authors, he said, “Can I write to the author (Nes­bit) and tell her how much I love this book?”

Me: “That would be nice, but I’m afraid she died many years ago.”

My boy sat bolt upright in bed. “That’s impos­si­ble!” he cried.


Because she knows so much about me!”

It was a great book — for him — because it was, in some way, about him.

I did not know that. I doubt if he could have explained it to me. I rather sus­pect he iden­ti­fied with the char­ac­ters in the book because they con­stant­ly got into some kind of mis­chief. It’s the kind of life he would have liked to have lived.

That’s why it’s so impor­tant to allow kids to choose the books they wish to read. Some­thing about the title, the image on the book, the open­ing para­graph, some­thing, has caught the atten­tion of the young read­er. They wish to con­nect to that. We need to hon­or that.





Melissa Stewart: A Fresh Look at Expository Nonfiction

No Monkeys No Chocolate

No Mon­keys, No Choco­late Allen Young, co-author illus­trat­ed by Nicole Wang Charles­bridge, 2013

by Melis­sa Stew­art

Nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion. The words have a nice ring to them, don’t they?

Expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion? Not so much.

Rhymes with gory, pur­ga­to­ry, deroga­to­ry, lava­to­ry. Gesh, it’s no won­der expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion gets a bad rap. And yet, plen­ty of great non­fic­tion for kids is expos­i­to­ry. Its main pur­pose is to explain, describe, or inform.

As far as I’m con­cerned, this is a gold­en moment for expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion because, in recent years, it’s gone through an excit­ing trans­for­ma­tion. Once upon a time, it was bor­ing and stodgy and mat­ter-of-fact, but today’s non­fic­tion books MUST delight as well as inform young read­ers, and authors are work­ing hard to do just that. The expos­i­to­ry books we’re cre­at­ing fea­ture engag­ing text, often with a strong voice, as well as dynam­ic art and design.

Here are ten of my recent favorites:

  • A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Car­olyn Cina­mi DeCristo­fano
  • Bone by Bone: Com­par­ing Ani­mal Skele­tons by Sarah Levine
  • Born in the Wild: Baby Mam­mals and Their Par­ents by Lita Judge
  • Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee
  • Crea­ture Fea­tures by Steve Jenk­ins & Robin Page
  • Feath­ers: Not Just for Fly­ing by Melis­sa Stew­art
  • Frogs by Nic Bish­op
  • Look Up! Bird-Watch­ing in Your Own Back­yard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
  • Neo Leo by Gene Bar­ret­ta
  • Tiny Crea­tures: The Invis­i­ble World of Microbes by Nico­la Davies

Sarah S. Bran­nen, illus­tra­tor
Charles­bridge, 2014

There is also a sec­ond kind of expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion books. Some peo­ple call them data books. I pre­fer to call them fast-fact books to dis­tin­guish them from the facts-plus books list­ed above.

Facts-plus books focus on facts as well as over­ar­ch­ing ideas. In oth­er words, they present facts and explain them. Fast-fact books focus on shar­ing cool facts. Peri­od. They inform, and that’s all. Exam­ples include The Guin­ness Book of World Records and The Time for Kids Big Book of Why. These are the con­cise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read togeth­er and dis­cuss.

Some peo­ple don’t have a very high opin­ion of fast-fact books, and to be sure, they don’t build read­ing sta­mi­na or crit­i­cal think­ing skills. BUT they do entice many reluc­tant read­ers to pick up a book, and IMHO that alone makes them worth­while.

Why do stu­dents need to be exposed to a diverse array of expos­i­to­ry texts? Because it’s the style of non­fic­tion they’ll be asked to write most fre­quent­ly through­out their school years and in their future jobs. Whether they’re work­ing on a report, a the­sis, a busi­ness pro­pos­al, or even a com­pa­ny newslet­ter, they’ll need to know how to sum­ma­rize infor­ma­tion and syn­the­size ideas in a way that is clear, log­i­cal, and inter­est­ing to their read­ers. Today’s expos­i­to­ry children’s books make ide­al men­tor texts for mod­el­ing these skills.



Heather Vogel Frederick: Borrowed Fire

In Absolute­ly Tru­ly, my new mid­dle grade mys­tery set in a book­shop in the fic­tion­al town of Pump­kin Falls, New Hamp­shire, a first edi­tion of Charlotte’s Web goes miss­ing. There’s a rea­son this par­tic­u­lar book fea­tures so promi­nent­ly in the sto­ry — it’s a nod to my lit­er­ary hero, E. B. White.

E.B. White

E.B. White and friend

E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the rea­sons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young read­er (it still is). It tops a short list of what I con­sid­er per­fect nov­els — a list that includes Harp­er Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice, among a hand­ful of oth­ers.

The year I turned 12 and declared my inten­tion of becom­ing an author, my dad slipped a copy of Ele­ments of Style into my Christ­mas stock­ing. It was an inspired present, as the book on writ­ing and gram­mar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both val­i­dat­ed and grown-up. I dis­played it promi­nent­ly on my desk, and if I read it with more enthu­si­asm than com­pre­hen­sion, at least I felt very sophis­ti­cat­ed as I did so. Lat­er, in col­lege, I would dis­cov­er White’s col­lect­ed let­ters and essays, which helped inspire my ear­ly career as a jour­nal­ist.

Of all the gifts that E. B. White has giv­en me, though, the one I trea­sure most are his char­ac­ters. I can’t even imag­ine a world with­out Char­lotte and Wilbur, or with­out Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Tem­ple­ton the rat. Mem­o­rable char­ac­ters such as these are what make for mem­o­rable sto­ries. Sure, set­ting is impor­tant, research is impor­tant, and a sto­ry with­out a plot is a hot mess (any­body sat through Wait­ing for Godot recent­ly?), but for me, mem­o­rable char­ac­ters are the main course, the engine that dri­ves the train, the beat­ing heart of a book.

Charlotte's Web coverChar­ac­ters like Char­lotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, how­ev­er. Writ­ing is a delib­er­ate act. It is arti­fice; it is craft; it is inten­tion­al. While the con­cept for a char­ac­ter may come to a writer in a flash, the con­struc­tion of that char­ac­ter is the result of much effort and care.

So how does a writer go about cre­at­ing char­ac­ters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?

It comes down to some­thing I call “bor­rowed fire.”

There are oth­er tools writ­ers employ in cre­at­ing char­ac­ters, of course — tools such as descrip­tion, dia­logue, and voice. But all of these ingre­di­ents would be noth­ing with­out bor­rowed fire. With­out this ele­men­tal flame, char­ac­ters remain as life­less and cold as the paper on which they’re print­ed.

I live in the Pacif­ic North­west, just a few miles from the end of the Ore­gon Trail. While read­ing about the ear­ly set­tlers at one point, I learned just how cru­cial fire was to sur­vival. The pio­neers depend­ed on it for warmth, for cook­ing, for light, and for cheer. If a camp­fire or cook stove went out in a log cab­in or along the wag­on train, some­one would be rapid­ly dis­patched to a neighbor’s with a lid­ded pan to “bor­row fire” — a few embers or coals with which to rekin­dle their own.

In writ­ing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emo­tion to light up our sto­ries and stir our read­ers, ignit­ing in them a sym­pa­thet­ic response. 

But from whom do we bor­row this fire? 

Fiery HeartFrom our­selves. From our own lives, our own expe­ri­ences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the read­er.” Writ­ers have to be will­ing to dig deep. I’m not talk­ing about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talk­ing about tap­ping into your own unique well of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence and shar­ing it with your read­er. We all know what it’s like to be anx­ious about some­thing, to be envi­ous or fear­ful or alight with hap­pi­ness or crazy in love. Invest­ing our char­ac­ters with these emo­tion­al truths cre­ates the point of con­nec­tion. That’s the moment at which a char­ac­ter walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.

E.B. White was nev­er an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was nev­er a wor­ried piglet or a lit­er­ate spi­der or a schem­ing rat with a soft under­bel­ly of kind­ness. But he knew about friend­ship, and love, and loss, and he bor­rowed those embers from his own life to kin­dle his char­ac­ters, and the light and warmth they radi­ate have touched the hearts of read­ers down the years.

Bor­rowed fire is where the mag­ic hap­pens in a sto­ry. It’s by the light of this fire that mem­o­rable char­ac­ters are made.


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