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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Strong, vivid narratives inspire, in nonfiction, too!

November 28, 2012

Sid Fleischman was best known for his novels. His fiction often demonstrates a sense of humor and always provides insight into human nature. Fleischman brought his writing skills to several longer biographies (and a memoir).

In a preface to Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini (Greenwillow), Fleischman writes that "In a delightful way, nonfiction is easier to write [than fiction]. The plot and characters are already served up …. But nonfiction has a harrowing downside. I could not invent new scenes or punch up old ones. I was boxed in [writing about Houdini] by the recorded past."

But Houdini's life and times come alive because of a strong narrative. It reads like a story unfolding through an informal writing style with carefully chosen and placed illustrations to extend the information. Almost certainly Fleischman was a reader who wrote.

An awful lot of what is considered nonfiction or informational texts for children are simply a series of facts. While these may be useful for a quick answer, this kind of writing is not likely to engage or inspire.

This notion is echoed in a recent New York Times opinion piece, "What Should Children Read?" — a question that has deeper resonance now with the adoption of the Common Core Standards. The writer contends: "What schools really need isn't more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call 'narrative nonfiction' — writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways."

Isn't that the power of narrative in nonfiction — and fiction? It conveys information or ideas or emotions or whatever vividly, effectively — and if done well, memorably.

Let's not limit our view of how "informational text" is appropriately presented nor its potential impact on readers. Information can either be dry as dust or wildly engaging. It depends on the writer — and the reader.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase