Readers’ Advisory: Nonfiction Children’s Books
In today’s web-connected, social-media-driven world, children are exposed to information — and misinformation — at a younger and younger age. Teaching them to become critical readers and consumers of information is more important than ever.
The good news is that one key component of the Common Core standards that many school districts have adopted is an increased emphasis on informational texts. Increasing exposure to and analysis of informational texts is seen as one of the keys to developing students’ comprehension abilities. Just as important, becoming critical readers of information is essential for their lives as workers, students and citizens.
And there’s more good news. Children’s literature offers a wealth of wonderful nonfiction that can engage children while offering opportunities for essential lessons — not the least of which is separating fact from conjecture and fiction.
George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale
Margaret McNamara plays with the very idea of fact versus fiction in George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale. This picture-book account of a day in the life of George Washington’s childhood is a cleverly entertaining lesson in not believing everything you read. McNamara’s playful look at Washington’s seventh birthday offers up a series of contrasting facts and myths, including the famous — and fictional — chopping down of the cherry tree incident.
For every myth or inaccuracy intentionally referenced in the main narrative, McNamara provides a fact box pointing out the truth, including clarification on Washington’s adult life. So when young Washington’s father tells him to powder his wig, the boxed fact explains that Washington never wore a wig as either child or adult. But he did powder his hair. As for Washington crossing the Delaware? After young George crosses an icy creek, he declares that he never wants to do anything like that again. In the fact box, we learn that General Washington’s crossing of the Delaware was not a single trip, but many journeys back and forth as the Revolutionary Army prepared for what became a key battle in the war.
McNamara’s account ends with a first-person commentary from the adult George Washington — yet another teachable moment. Yes, it’s filled with facts, but is this really the voice of George Washington? Deconstructing George Washington’s Birthday offers children the opportunity to understand the importance of approaching every text with eyes wide open.
Henry’s Freedom Box
The story of Henry “Box” Brown, the African American born into slavery who, as an adult, devised a way to ship himself to Philadelphia — and freedom — is the subject of two artful, moving picture-book histories for children. In Henry’s Freedom Box, author Ellen Levine details some of the hardships and heartbreaks of slavery, as well as Brown’s creative resiliency. Levine’s account begins with the child Henry, who is cautioned by his master to never tell a lie when the master gives Henry to his son as a gift. “Henry didn’t say thank you. That would have been a lie.”
Did that conversation between Henry and his master really take place as written in this story? This discussion point is a way to get children thinking about the difference between factual and fictionalized accounts of an event. Both are viable ways to explore history, but understanding the difference between them is critical.
Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown
Levine provides minimal documentation in a brief author’s note, but Sally M. Walker covers more ground in the author’s note in Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. Walker cites a published book about Brown and includes a letter written by an abolitionist who met Henry following his escape. However, she also takes poetic license in telling the story, using music as a touchpoint throughout the narrative. Henry, she’d learned, was a member of his church choir. Walker combines this knowledge with the importance of music in the lives of slaves, and she makes music a source of strength for Henry throughout his life.
The Incredible Life of Balto
Meghan McCarthy offers up a different kind of lesson in her account of the life of the sled dog Balto — famous for leading the last leg of a journey to get lifesaving diphtheria serum from Nenana (near Fairbanks) to Nome in 1925. In The Incredible Life of Balto, McCarthy opens with the serum run, but her primary focus is Balto’s life after the serum run ended. Hailed as a hero, he skyrocketed to celebrity status — he was even in a Hollywood movie! — but fame and fortune waned. Soon he and his fellow sled dogs were on the side show circuit in a life that was anything but glamorous. But when a man in Cleveland heard of their fate, he began raising money to buy Balto and the other dogs. The schoolchildren of Cleveland became huge supporters of the campaign. Eventually, Balto and the other dogs were purchased and lived out their lives in comfort in Cleveland’s Brookside Zoo.
McCarthy’s text and her accompanying illustrations, featuring an irresistibly googly-eyed Balto, are engaging enough. But instructors will also find a treasure trove of material for students to consider in her author’s note. This account of her research, titled “Detective Work,” discusses the challenges she faced in determining some basic facts about Balto, including the color of his coat. She talks about sources she used, some of which conflicted, and in doing so showcases the rigorous work of research. She also highlights the essential idea that sometimes, the truth is not easily discerned. You must gather as much information as possible and evaluate what you believe is most reliable.
My Heart Will Not Sit Down
Even wholly fictional stories are often grounded in fact, and an author’s note can illuminate the background of a story and provide critical information for extending meaning or understanding it in a broader context. Mara Rockliff’s picture book My Heart Will Not Sit Down is about a little girl living in an African village during the Great Depression. Her teacher, from New York City, tells the children about the difficulties in his homeland. The little girl worries and wonders if she can help the people from the teacher’s “village,” but her community has so little it seems there is nothing they can do. Or is there? One by one, the villagers turn up at the school with a small but significant offering of coins, each one noting after hearing about the struggles in America, “My heart will not sit down.”
Rockliff’s author’s note tells how the mayor of New York City received $3.77 from Cameroon during the Great Depression to help feed the hungry. From there, Rockliff goes on to explain about the Great Depression and how she conjectured people in Cameroon may have heard about it from a teacher at one of the schools run by American missionaries. She establishes the setting of her story as among the Bulu ethnic group in the south of Cameroon and gives examples of other instances when people in places around the world have sought to help strangers in need.
Reading lessons for clarifying fact from fiction abound in children’s literature. As we teach children to become critical consumers of information and readers of stories, let’s encourage them to value both, even as they learn to understand the difference between them.