According to most studies of reading habits and reading preferences, right around fifth grade we begin to “lose” many readers, especially boys. Up until then, boys and girls seem to like reading in equal measure and enjoy a wide variety of books. But as students mature, societal pressures and other factors impact their reading choices more and more. Even as young adult readers choose contemporary realistic fiction, girls tend to choose more stories about growing up, families, and friends, and boys tend to choose more survival, sports, and adventure stories. And many boys stop choosing to read fiction all together, preferring nonfiction, magazines, and graphic novels. Of course, this is a big generalization and there are many girls who enjoy adventure and boys who read stories about friendship, but we need to be aware of the prevalence of this pattern.
Most youth services librarians are women and may not realize that their own experiences and tastes as girl readers are influencing their selections and choices. We all have to step outside of our comfort zone from time to time to consider the needs of a variety of students and how to serve them better. When it comes to working with boys, in particular, author Jon Scieszka has launched a special program to promote reading among boys called “GuysRead” (http://www.guysread.com/) with helpful booklists and guidelines, as well as printable posters, stickers, and bookmarks. Check out the audio component of this program too at http://www.guyslisten.com.
Nonfiction generally dominates the bestseller lists of adult books, but we don’t often recommend it for leisure reading for young people the way we could. Many bestsellers of adult nonfiction are being adapted and published for young adults, such as Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. And, the topics of current nonfiction for YA are wide ranging, from It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! by Chelsea Clinton to The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose to Tommy: The Gun that Changed America by Karen Blumenthal to Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin.
Informational books for young people today are written with respect for the young reader, providing careful documentation of the research process. As author, editor, and teacher Marc Aronson has observed, “Notes, then, are not just proof that the author did his or her homework, nor assurance that basic facts are recorded correctly, or that quotations have been passed on accurately, rather they open up the version as given by the author to greater inquiry by the reader, the librarian, the teacher, the parent. Plus, they are a place for the author to put all the cool stuff he/she found that doesn't fit the main narrative.” A growing body of nonfiction books provides the supportive structure, in depth coverage of new concepts, and visual cues to assist with comprehension for student learning and motivates young adults to ask questions and read critically.
Awards for Nonfiction
The publishing world continues to deliver a good variety of nonfiction for young people as reflected in the growing list of outstanding recipients of the YALSA Award for Nonfiction, Sibert Award, and Orbis Pictus Award. The range of nonfiction books adds to their usefulness across the curriculum, their appeal as sources of scaffolding for literacy and concept development, as well as for leisure reading on topics of personal interest.
YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults http://www.ala.org/yalsa/nonfiction
The Young Adult Library Services Association established this award in 2010 to honor the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18). A shortlist of up to five titles is named in the first week of December and the award-winning book is announced at the annual Midwinter conference of the American Library Association in January. Recent winners and honor books have included The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb, Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different, a Biography by Karen Blumenthal (Macmillan, 2013); and Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel (Amulet, 2010).
Robert F. Sibert Award http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/sibertmedal
The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award established in 2001 is given annually by the Association of Library Service to Children to the author (and illustrator, if appropriate) whose informational book has made a significant contribution to the field of literature for young people, ages 0-14. Award and honor recipients are announced every January and are listed on the ALA website. Recent medal books have included Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2012), Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), and Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick, 2009).
The Orbis Pictus Award http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus
The National Council of Teachers of established the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children in 1990 for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for young people (grades K-8). Award and honor recipients are announced every spring and have included The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade, 2014), Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson (Roaring Brook Press, 2014), and Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick Press, 2013).
Common Core and Nonfiction
A quick look at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts & Literacy reveals specific standards that address learning to read informational text and nonfiction, in particular. This area is a major emphasis of the CCSS and this has some people concerned that we might neglect teaching and promoting fiction. But I hope we’ll simply add a new emphasis on sharing nonfiction literature too—particularly since we have often neglected this genre in the past and since it appeals greatly to older readers, particularly boys.
The standards charge us with developing student skill to “perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews.” There are specific skills for reading and understanding “Informational Text” for grades K-12 in each of the four main areas below:
Reading: Informational Text
- Key Ideas and Details
- Craft and Structure
- Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
- Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity
Whether you work with teachers to find materials to support instruction in developing these Common Core standards or simply amp up your recommendation of engaging nonfiction books to the students you serve, it is wise to familiarize yourself with the latest relevant standards and with current titles that are getting recognition from both students as well as from award committees.