Turning kids on to nonfiction

I drove my daughter to school this morning; not because I don’t believe in school buses. I do. I drove her because aside from her knapsack, she also had her field hockey bag and her tenor saxophone (and we thought ants were the only creatures supposed to carry at least 10 times their body weight).

We decided not to listen to the news, both of us tired of the too pumped up talk surrounding tonight’s vice presidential debate, and because frankly we don’t care what each candidate has on their playlist.  Instead, we talked about one of our favorite subjects: books. I asked my 6th grader what she looks for in a nonfiction book. I respect her opinion; she has suggested some marvelous books for me to read.

We both agreed that it’s not easy to find well-written nonfiction history for young adults. That’s why I was delighted to meet Dwight Zimmerman at the Military Writers Society of America meeting in Daytona, Ohio. Zimmerman has adapted many adult books for the middle to advanced reader. I just finished reading Saga of the Sioux , his marvelous adaptation of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

There are many elements to consider when choosing a non-fiction book including the author’s writing style, tone, accuracy and added elements such as glossaries, charts, tables, time lines and photos or illustrations.

“I don’t like it when they write like they’re a teacher,” my daughter said. Zimmerman adapts but he doesn’t condescend. Kids know when adults are talking down to them; they don’t like it any more than adults. If kids sense an author is pandering to them or condescending they will shut that book faster than Usain Bolt in the 100-meter sprint.

“I also want to feel like the author is there. I want it to be descriptive so I understand,” my daughter said. Kids like the Edward R. Murrow ‘You Are There’ approach to writing just as much as we adults do.

Most importantly, a good young adult nonfiction is direct, authoritative and doesn’t trivialize what happened, particularly when dealing with tough stories including Wounded Knee, the Holocaust or perhaps the Vietnam War. Facts don’t need to be glossed over, they just need to be presented in a way that a young reader can absorb.  American Library Association has a comprehensive list of nonfiction books suitable for children and teens. Another good source is the Young Adult Services Library Association.

History is important because it helps children learn to care about and understand their place in community, country and the world.

Finding young adult non-fiction history
Finding young adult non-fiction history.

Above all, my daughter said, “I want to feel like I’m having a conversation with the author.”