Jul 28, 2019

Literature Elevates Learning of All Kinds: Nonfiction

I oppose many things happening to young learners in schools, changes that are driven by political forces. I base that on my four decades as a public school educator for ages three through middle school. Among my objections are rigid accountings of instructional minutes, high-stakes tests via bubble sheets filled in with number 2 pencils or keystrokes, and  inappropriately shallow questions to complex content as a measure of learning success. Worst of all is the replacement of authentic literature with poorly written packaged commercial programs.
One positive outcome of these various movements has been the publishing industry's awareness of and response to a demand for quality nonfiction in classrooms.
As a result, recent years have witnessed a steady increase in the numbers of picture book releases in STEM subjects (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math). I've shared some of my favorites in past posts, including these: STEM/MOON, ANIMALS, INSECTS, GIRL POWER HERE, and  HERE, and HERE.  
BIOGRAPHY is a particularly successful area of current publishing, including both famous and unknown individuals, past and present. I've read quite a few as I work on writing a creative biography. Three titles I especially enjoyed and learned from are featured here:

Balzer & Bray, 2019
THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN is written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby. If the name of author Margaret Wise Brown isn't familiar, click her name for a wonderful profile from NPR. Her books are among the best known across many generations. This title plays on a well known classic, THE IMPORTANT BOOK. Throughout this engaging and informative biography, other titles appear in word play and images: GOODNIGHT MOON and RUNAWAY BUNNY, to name just two. Brown was known to shock people with her quirky ways throughout her life, and readers of any age will find surprises in this book. Author Barnett addresses his words to those readers to reveal quirky aspects of this book: there are 42 pages, several  specifically matching events in Brown's life at that age, including dying at age 42. Bottom line: Brown believed children deserved to read important books, and I believe that, too. This is one of those important books.
The resources and references are listed on the copyright page, but I would have loved to see a kid-friendly listing of titles by Margaret Wise Brown as back matter additions, including cover images of each. I love it when readers see a beloved book and say, "I didn't know she wrote THAT!"

Cameron & Company, 2019
Another creator of that era is profiled in SPARKY & SPIKE: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, written by Barbara Lowell and illustrated by Dan Andreasen. Lowell is an experienced biographer and Andreasen is the master of multiple art styles. Together they provide the perfect blend of story and image to capture the era. In those days Schulz was actually young SPARKY, lover of comics and best friend of Spike, a dog who rang the doorbell to come inside, who served himself drinks from the faucet, and understood more than fifty words. He could also tell time and ate nearly anything without getting sick. 
Sparky set out to be a cartoonist at an early age, and his drawings were sought out by peers, but he wasn't popular with peers. 
The true story of how he overcame frustration, developed his talent, and found encouragement from a surprising (famous) source will reassure and inspire young readers who may feel thwarted in their goals and unliked by peers. 
This book has outstanding back matter, including another inspiring artifact, archival photos of Sparky and Spike, and many added details that make the book even stronger as an authoritative biography. You'll never look at misfit Charlie Brown or Snoopy in a Peanuts strip again without thinking of Sparky and Spike after reading this book.
Creston Books, 2019
Finally, SWEET DREAMS, SARAH is written by Vivian Kirkfield with art by Chris Ewald. Sarah Goode's story was well known in parts of Chicago where she lived after the Civil War, but it was news to me and has likely been lost to many over the years. She and her family were enslaved in the south before the war, owned as property like "a cow, or plow, or the cotton that grew in the master's field." Even though enslaved, her father was a skilled furniture maker and Sarah clung to a dream of doing that work when she grew up. 
Emancipation let her follow her dreams north to Chicago, where she married a kind and skilled man, had a child. There she worked, saved, and achieved her lifelong dream- her own furniture store. 
This alone is inspiring, and the narrative and art are equally inspiring. But it is only the beginning of Sarah's contributions and successes. She invented a new kind of furniture that met a serious need in her community. Her trial-and-error persistence, pursuit of a patent, and documentation to support her claim along the way allowed her to win ultimate victory, despite frustrating setbacks. The lyrical text and luminous scenes are irresistible, bringing to life a vibrant and impressive woman, her community, and her times. 
The back matter is equally compelling, including an informative author's note, information about patents, a timeline of Sarah's life, and a timeline of Black Women Patent Holders. 
Selected sources for research are included on the final end paper.
Harking back to my opening lines, SWEET DREAMS, SARAH is a prime example of my irritation about some school practices. In some cases, books that "fit into" theme months, like BLACK HISTORY MONTH, are hauled out on February First and packed away on the 28th. A good book is a good book, and a book about Sarah E. Goode must be available and celebrated all year long. It "fits" in biography studies, in STEM and MAKER themes, in social studies, math, and science, and across many ages and grades. 
One last note in my litany of irritations about educational practices:  
Please, teachers, honor the true purpose of this and any quality picture book. First and foremost, share them for what is their truest purpose-- as quality literature. Read them aloud and honor them as such, in their entirety. AFTER that has happened, Display them, circulate them, return to them often and for multiple purposes, as above and more. Never forget the immeasurable work behind the creation of the text and the art, the editing and book design, the story and research that underlie it all. These are examples of literature to love, and with which to learn.


  1. Thank you so much, Sandy. I just happened to be on my Goodreads page and saw your outstanding review of Sweet Dreams, Sarah. I wanted to thank you, not only for your words of praise for the text, illustrations, and back matter, but also for your shout out to teachers and for
    I love uncovering these precious gems and bringing history alive for young people. If you'd like an early look at one of my nonfiction pbs that launches January 14, Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, please let me know and I'd be happy to email you a PDF. viviankirkfield@gmail.com

    1. Vivian, it's wonderful to have you stop by and read the post. I'll be reaching out to you in a few moments to have that advance read of you upcoming book. The unexpected pairing of interests and talents represented by these two women sounds like the only alchemy that really could create gold!
      Thanks for the invitation to share the news with readers.


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