This is a book about writing (and reading) nonfiction with children in their elementary years of schooling. In these chapters we define how we have come to understand nonfiction, and we describe what it looks like in our classrooms. Recent educational policies and standards have encouraged the use of nonfiction in earlier grades than has been common in past practice. And, in fact, there seems to be every reason to do so. Many studies suggest the use of nonfiction with young children is a valuable classroom practice. Reading and writing nonfiction offers opportunities for children to develop conceptual understandings and acquire scientific language in a familiar picturebook format. In turn these same picturebooks act as mentor texts for children as they begin to write their own texts, using features common to the nonfiction as they combine genres to create a hybrid text or approximate a more mature representation of the genre. Underlying all these educational practices, moreover, are the curiosity and wonder that are a natural part of the process of nonfiction writing.
Throughout this book we use the term nonfiction (rather than the equally common term, informational) or nonfiction picturebook (writing picturebook rather than picture book indicates that pictures and words can’t be separated). From our experiences in our own classrooms and from observations of other elementary classrooms, the term nonfiction comes closest to capturing the understanding that teachers and children have when writing this genre. As author Penny Colman (2007) states: “Nonfiction is writing about reality (real people, places, events, ideas, feelings, things) in which nothing is made up.” Echoing Colman’s words, many teachers of young children use similar language (e.g., real, not made up, not fake) when describing nonfiction to their students.
Moreover, we all understand that nonfiction literature for children uses many of the literary characteristics and qualities of the genre—it is about much more than just writing the facts. The wide variety of picturebooks we classify as children’s nonfiction use many creative, and sometimes fantastical elements so that in some of the nonfiction for young children it is “acceptable for school buses to fly, animals to speak and rocks to tell their life stories” (Kiefer & Wilson, 2011, p. 291). These books, often referred to as hybrid texts, introduce our youngest writers to the genre in ways that create excitement and interest.
This notion of hybridity is one of the themes that runs throughout the chapters of our book. Many of us have found throughout our work with young children that nonfiction and fiction overlap in the picturebooks we read to our students, in the writing that our students do and in the ways that we approach the genre in our teaching. Another idea that is common to all of the chapters is the understanding that as teachers of writing we need to be writers ourselves. All of the authors of these chapters strongly believe this and it permeates the way they teach and write about that teaching. Finally, throughout the chapters the authors address the ways in which as teachers they help their students deal with complex material and how these young students take up that knowledge as learners.
Each of the chapters stands on its own; thus, readers do not have to read the chapters in any order. What follows is a brief overview of each chapter. Charlie Otting, in the first chapter, writes eloquently about how he associates wonder and curiosity with nonfiction. As a literacy coach, his own interest in nonfiction led him to structure his teachers’ professional development sessions so that they spent time writing nonfiction themselves before working on nonfiction writing with their students. Elizabeth Ingraham describes a classroom culture in which Kindergarteners are encouraged to take risks in their writing. Often the use of mentor texts and the moves the mentor text authors make in their nonfiction writing support her young writers as they try out something new. Based on her many years of teaching experience, Kathy Havens describes how she pairs fiction and nonfiction describing a unit with her second graders where students produced a nonfiction text to support a realistic fiction picturebook. Michelle Coneglio takes us on her journey across several years of writing research reports with Kindergartners using bees as the content topic. Amy Nolan, who works with special education students with nonfiction writing, describes her collaborative-interactive writing process as her fifth graders write nonfiction. Melissa Wilson writes about the scientific imagination and reasoning that occurs as first graders write nonfiction. Examples of hypothesizing based on lived experiences and textual content, metaphorical language, and play are some of the ways in which children do this kind of reasoning described in this chapter. Sara Kersten, who worked with Kathy Havens for a year, describes the characteristics of quality nonfiction picturebooks and how Kathy’s second graders came to understand nonfiction in relation to fiction. Sherry Bentley further blurs or hybridizes nonfiction as her fourth graders use literary forms to write nonfiction content. Finally, Kate Corson ends by talking about the three types of writing she does with her fourth graders—technical, nonfiction narrative, and research writing.
Melissa Wilson, editor