Saturday, March 17, 2007

Nonfiction That Makes the Grade: Disasters Up Close

If everybody talks about the weather, almost all kids love reading about extreme weather phenomena such as tornadoes and hurricanes. In fact, books on natural disasters of the meteorological or geological variety are almost as popular in the nonfiction section as books about animals. And publishers are right there, churning out new series on these subjects at cyclonic speeds to meet the demand. Fortunately, a lot of basic science can be learned through these popular books. Case study in point: Tornadoes, by Michael and Mary B. Woods, one of the Disasters Up Close, series published by Lerner Publications. Other books in the series include Earthquakes, Fires, Hurricanes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes.

How do you evaluate nonfiction for young readers? Actually, it's simpler and less subjective than judging the merits of a novel. If you remember the five W's from English class, you're already an expert. Begin with the table of contents. Do the chapter titles and subtitles seem to answer the who, what, when, where, why, (and how) questions? For example, in the case of Tornadoes, who forecasts tornadoes and how do they do it? What is a tornado? When and where do they occur? Why do they happen where and when they do? How powerful are they? How can people protect themselves from the damage tornadoes cause? If the book has an introduction, skim through it to see what methodology the author plans to use to engage with the subject. For example, the authors of Tornadoes use first-person narratives and newspaper accounts of famous tornadoes to focus on the whys and wherefores.

The next step is to skim the text to determine how well the author answers the questions his chapter headings pose. Are there section headings that tell the reader what the main ideas of each chapter are? Does the author explain key concepts well, or does he or she stick primarily to the "gee-whiz" aspects of the subject. Then check the book's layout. Is color used to enhance the reading experience? Are the illustrations helpful in understanding the text, or are they there mostly to be decorative? Even great photos, poorly placed in the text, can divert the reader's attention from the development of the subject and make important concepts difficult to recall.

Finally, look at the back matter of the book. A good nonfiction book should have a glossary to define and reinforce the significant terms used in the text and an appendix (under a variety of names) which leads the reader to other sources of information in a range of media, including museums, video, and Internet sites. A bibliography is an asset, and an index is essential.

What else? Well, check the copyright date for currency. Read a few paragraphs to see if the writer's style is appealing and the reading level and sentence length are appropriate to the reader. That's all there is to it.

Right now there are many excellent nonfiction series out there, books which cover a subject (such as tornadoes) amazingly well in 34, 48, or 64 pages. From anatomy to zoology, there are great nonfiction books just waiting to make young readers into experts on their favorite subjects. Put these books in their hands and you'll soon be hearing, "Hey, Dad (or Mom), listen to this!!"



  • Excellent advice. Thanks! This seems like a very useful blog.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:11 PM  

  • My 9 year old boy loves stories when I read them, but prefers nonfiction when he is the one doing the reading. I will use your method for helping him choose good books! Thanks!ww

    By Anonymous margaret, at 11:09 PM  

  • Thank YOU both!

    This post grew out of a lesson I did with fifth and then fourth grade students. Some of them reported back that the exercise was a real help later when they had to write research papers.

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:59 AM  

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