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Open Minds:
Nonfiction for the Very Young

by Patricia Curtis Pfitsch

(Revised version of an article originally published in the April 1999 issue of Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute for Children's Literature)
"Kids love knowing things," says Harold Underdown, Senior Editor at Charlesbridge Publishing, a fact that fuels their love of nonfiction. This is as true of prekindergarten children as of any others. "Toddlers don't have any preconceptions," says Susan Hirschman, Senior Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Greenwillow Books. "They're open to anything and everything--they're absorbing everything."

Many publishers are seeing a rise in the demand for nonfiction, even in the pre-reading age audience. "Baby-boom parents are concerned that their children are successful in school," explains Bernette Ford, Vice President and Editorial Director of Cartwheel Books at the Scholastic Book Group. "They purchase books that look and feel educational at an earlier age."

The school curriculum shapes much children's nonfiction publishing, even books aimed at preschoolers. "Nonfiction has always been a mainstay in libraries," says Christine Zuchora-Walske, Editor and Researcher in the Curriculum Department of Lerner Books, but now, "More publishers who are not traditionally in the classroom are going there."


Historically, Lerner books have been directed at the school library market. But Zuchora-Walske is presently involved in creating the "Pull-Ahead" series.

"This is our first foray into the curriculum market, and also the youngest series, which aims at five to eight year olds." Each book focuses on a different animal, and is intended for classroom use, either to teach reading or as part of a science unit.

"Science standards suggest that children should be involved in inquiry; they should learn through their own curiosity rather than by rote memorization," says Zuchora-Walske. So the Pull-Ahead books ask questions to encourage children to examine the detailed photos. In Sneaky Salamanders, the first spread is a picture of salamander camouflaged against a log, and the text asks where the sneaky salamander is. Zuchora-Walske explains that the intent "is to get the kids thinking about how well salamanders can hide as well as to examine the picture."

Another purpose of the books is to teach children how to get information from nonfiction books. "They learn that you don't have to start at the beginning and read to the end, as you would with fiction," says Zuchora-Walske. They get practice using elements like the index and the glossary, skills they will need in higher grades when they begin using textbooks.

Educational Insights

Not all nonfiction for very young children comes from traditional books. Educational Insights is a company that offers products and books that encourage a highly hands-on approach. One of their products, the Talking Globe Jr., quizzes children on location of continents, countries and such, and also has a teaching mode. "The teaching mode uses visual cues and an interactive format that really helps students understand what a continent is, what states are--it gives a defined format," says Marsha Shank, Editorial Director. "It's an introduction to the globe for younger learners," Shank explains. "All kids learn differently, some are auditory learners, some are kinesthetic, some are visual, and our product line tries to attack these different ways of learning. Much of what we do is bring together these different ways of learning."

Educational Insights' many science products get children interested in science by providing plenty to do--hands-on activities that are engaging and prompt the child to investigate on his own. Ancillary content such as parent guides, kid journals, and plenty of discovery activities keep kids involved.

"We always try to provide a lot of extra so there's more learning going on while the child is using the product," Shank says. A child might be asked to collect a rock, examine it, draw its picture on a data sheet provided, do an experiment with the rock, and record the information. Prereading children may be asked to draw a picture of the bug they have found, then describe it to a parent or teacher. "Many of our activities involve recording data and then analyzing it, since that's what science is all about. You can do a lot of that at very young levels."

The company also publishes books. "Our Big Books are two or two-and-one-half-feet tall," says Shank. Its children's atlases, for example, have maps which are labeled with fun facts, and designed so an adult and a child can look at them together. "We try to make it easy for a parent or teacher to pick the book up and read it with the child. The large format is really popular with young learners." Some of the books are also meant to be used involving an entire classroom.

"Some have full class application and some are used with a single child. Kids can also use our products to fulfill class assignments. When a product is content driven, we make a huge effort to tie in with the curriculum. We have to stay up on how teachers teach." Educational Insights likes to foster parent involvement. "If we can pique their interest into doing things with their child, so much the better." Educational Insights often includes parent tips with their products, questions to ask, and adjunct activities.

"At the heart of it is fostering a love of learning," says Shank. "If you hit it in lots of different exciting way, if you can make it a memorable experience, the pay-off keeps growing. The experience a very young child has makes a big difference."

Shank uses writers in the creation of many of the products. "The lion's share of the writing is done in-house, but as needed we hire outside people. When the need hits, it usually hits big," Shank says. Right now, for example, she's working with four free-lance writers who are composing audio scripts for a future project.

"Some publishers work with a strict vocabulary list," Zuchora-Walske says. "We're being more flexible so we don't limit what kids might be curious about and capable of learning." But every word can be sounded out, and difficult words are defined in the text as well as in the glossary so the child doesn't have to stop reading to get the meaning.

Effective Couplings

G.P. Putnam's traditional market is in trade books--the kind sold in stores--much more than the librarian/teacher market. But they have begun to buy more books for the pre-K classroom.

Gold Fever and Tattered Sails, both by Verla Kay, feature a four-line stanza of bouncy verse on each page. "They are intended for use in the classroom," says Susan Kochan, Editor at G.P. Putnam Sons. Both books have fictional characters and tell a story, but they teach children about historical events. "All the details are well researched. They include a lot of information for a very young age group."

Touchdown Mars!, a Putnam book by Peggy Wethered and Ken Edgett, educates very young children about astronauts on Mars. It's set up as if a child were going to Mars, from the countdown to the return to Earth. The co-authors are a kindergarten teacher who attended the U.S. space camp in Huntsville Alabama and a former director of the Arizona Mars education program. "They're a perfect pair," Kochan says. "They know what teachers want, they know about the science details, and they have lots of resources for fact-checking."

Cartwheel Books is a Scholastic imprint for young children that sells mass market books--less expensive titles often sold in discount and other stores. Although Cartwheel Books don't follow the curriculum, Ford says, "We work closely with the classroom book clubs. Firefly, the preschool book club, seems to do very well with nonfiction aimed at preschoolers."

Ford says that almost everything Cartwheel does entails a learning experience. The "I Spy" books by Jean Marzollo "have a lot of early learning concepts, colors, counting, visual discrimination." Marzollo also writes their "Hello Reader" science books, an easy reader series which includes topics such as weather, seeds, leaves, snow. "They're very simple kindergarten-age science books," Ford says.

Cartwheel's overall philosophy in early nonfiction is to create very clear, lively, entertaining books. "Because of this, we often do nonfiction in novelty or board book format," Ford explains, as in the "You Can Name" series. You Can Name One Hundred Trucks features "very busy two-page spreads filled with labeled trucks," Ford says. "The preschool world is small and concrete. We try to do subjects that aren't totally foreign to the preschool frame of reference."

Simple Complexity

"Charlesbridge started as an educational publisher twenty years ago," Underdown reports, and "added trade publishing ten years ago. We still sell a lot of our books, if not directly to schools, for some kind of school use."

Many Charlesbridge books have a dual purpose. "The text might be at an informational level appropriate for preschoolers with additional information for an older child to appreciate." Underdown points to a new book, Bugs for Lunch by Margery Facklam. "There's a simple text about animals that eat bugs to be read by a parent to nursery-school-age children. But the illustrations are complex and sophisticated with the kind of detail that their older siblings would find interesting."

One Tiger Growls by Ginger Wadsworth is a counting book of animal sounds. "The reader has animals to count and reads the characteristic sounds they make." Underdown says, "That's probably enough for the young child. But there's an additional paragraph on each page for older children."

An Author's Process

"Writing books for six-year-olds and under is probably the most difficult of all," says Caroline Arnold, who writes nonfiction for the very young and for older children, too. "The few words you choose to put on the page must be true. They must make sense. And they also must have a rhythm, they must come together as a whole. It's much easier to write for older kids because you have more words to work with."

Arnold discusses this issue in relation to her book African Animals. "This book is definitely written for young children," she says. "The challenge in writing it was that I was limited to a few sentences about each animal. By grouping the animals according to where they lived, I could show young readers how they shared Africa's various ecosystems."

Is it necessary for a children's nonfiction writer to be an expert in the field? Most editors will agree with Harold Underdown, who says no. "Sometimes scientists complain about publishers using non-experts to write nonfiction. But scientists usually don't know how to write for children." In fact, most editors prefer to work with people who are willing to research a topic thoroughly and who have the special skills needed to write for children.

Arnold finds that it's better not to be an expert when she begins researching a topic. "The secret is coming in from the outside as a child might. Then you'll ask the right questions, the basic questions which an expert might see as obvious." Most critical "is to have an enthusiasm for your subject. If you do, that will convey itself into your work. You'll be able to communicate the information to young children."

A recent title from Arnold, edited by Underdown at Charlesbridge, is Shockers of the Sea, a book about fish who produce electricity. It's a topic she's written about before, in a book for older readers that is out of print. "I found that when I was speaking to children, they would perk up at the idea of fish producing electricity. So I redid it in picture book format."

The book has big illustrations and very little text, and Arnold admits that it was quite difficult to pare the words down to the exciting essentials. Most nonfiction books for young children have only one or two sentences per page. Arnold advises, "Ask yourself 'what is the most important point?' Or, if you have several points of equal importance, ask yourself 'what is the most exciting point, or the one with most most child appeal.'"

Arnold also avoids describing things readers can see in the illustrations or photos. "There's very little visual description," she explains. "I concentrate on abstract concepts, action, or the other four senses--to hear, smell, feel, taste--on things you can't see."

She has occasionally written a book about a 'hot' topic. Dinosaurs All Around, which studies how artists make models of dinosaurs for museums, was released at the same time that the movie "Jurassic Park" came out. "The country was awash in dinosaur fever," Arnold says, "but I had no idea that was going to happen."

In fact, Arnold recommends not thinking about 'hot' topics when you choose a nonfiction subject. Instead, think about your own interests. "When you choose to write, choose something you think is exciting," she says. "If you're not enthusiastic about the topic, you won't be able to convince anyone to buy your book."

Philosophically, Charlesbridge doesn't segment pre-school readers from the rest of their audience, "except with a few practical guidelines. Keep the sentence structure and the vocabulary simple. We don't use controlled vocabulary, but we try to have a general awareness of what would be appropriate for a four-year-old."

Charlesbridge books almost always use illustrations instead of photographs. "The advantage is that you can focus on what you want. Sometimes you just can't get a photo of what you want from the angle you want it. Or you can't get the right things in the frame. Illustrations offer more options."

The Millbrook Press specifically targets the educational market with their books. "It's our philosophy to tie directly into the school curriculum," says Senior Editor Amy Shields. On a recent list is a book aimed at kindergarten through third grade: Barbara Lehn's What is a Scientist?. "It simply and basically explores the scientific discipline," says Shields, by folding advanced concepts into simple language such as that on the back flap. "Scientists are people who notice details. They measure, test predictions and keep on trying." Photos show children doing the things scientists do. "We've gotten a great response from this book," Shields says, "basically because it's so very simple and cleanly executed. It's difficult to present scientific discussion for such a young age group."

Strange Nests by Ann Stephens is an example of Millbrook's supplementary curriculum material. "The author is a birder. The book talks about the unusual nests she has come upon in her life, and interwoven with this are facts about nests in general," Shields explains. "Strange Nests is a quirky little subject and it's a quirky little book. It's perfect for a single person to look at." What is a Scientist?, on the other hand, was developed for two or three children to look at together or for the teacher to hold up in front of the class. It's larger and more exciting. Strange Nests is smaller, for a more intimate learning experience. "The size of the book makes all the difference in how it is approached and absorbed," says Shields.

Vision and Voice

Editorial Director Susan Hirschman says Greenwillow doesn't "make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction picture books," for preschool. "To us they're just books with enormous emotional content and beauty and pacing. One would hope that when the child got to the end he or she would say, 'Again.' If you start children as young as possible with the best, you set them up for life."

Books for the very young are one of Greenwillow's specialties. Hirschman points to Tana Hoban's books, including a board book called Who Are They?, a wordless collection of animal silhouettes showing mother animals with their babies on two page spreads. White on Black features black pages with white silhouettes of familiar objects--teddy bears, buttons, beads on a string, a rubber duck--for the youngest child to identify.

Whose Hat by Margaret Miller presents readers with a photo of a hat (say a chef's hat) and the caption "Whose hat?" Turning the page shows both an adult wearing the hat--the chef cooking--and children wearing the same hats.

Beach Feet by Lynn Reiser studies feet on the beach, human, puppy, and the feet of the many animals who live in the sand. The illustrations are presented as if a child were looking down at his or her own feet and what comes near them on the beach. The book combines large block text with very simple ideas and "footnotes" with more complicated information about the habitat.

I Spy: An Alphabet in Art, by Lucy Micklethwait introduces young children to the art of the masters by asking them to search for objects beginning with the letters of the alphabet in famous paintings. "I spy with my little eye something beginning with Oo" encourages the child to examine Matisse's "Interior with Etruscan Vase" and find oranges.

"Greenwillow applies the same standards to books for toddlers that we do for middle graders and young adults," Hirschman says. "The author has a vision. The more emotion, the more truth there is in it. I think emotion is truth. We don't try to fool the child. We look for authors who have something to communicate and feel it deeply. Then we give them space to say it. We don't look for different things in books for very young and books for older readers. For all our books we ask, "Do I believe it? Do I care? Would I want to hear it again?" Hirschman looks for books like Good Night Moon that will never be dated. "There's no reason it should become dated if it's aimed at the core of the child. It's not nostalgia; it may be the first time anything like that has happened to to the child. It's hitting at the deepest level."

No Fat

Creating nonfiction for very young children presents some unique challenges for the publishers. "It's hard to find strong writing in nonfiction submissions," says Kochan. "The text is usually pretty dry--informative but not lyrical, without an interesting voice." This is probably because writing nonfiction for the very young is extremely difficult. "Everyone thinks it's simple because, as renowned children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom said, everyone is an ex-child."

"Everyone thinks they could do it," says Hirschman. "But in fact, the simpler anything is, the harder it is. Everything shows more. Picture books are like sonnets--there's no fat." Kochan agrees. Speaking about Verla Kay's books, she says, "it seems simple to put those stanzas together, but a lot goes into it." Zuchora-Walske says, "It's a lot harder to write for this young age because you're trying to explain the same concepts in a quarter of the words. Every word has to be just right."

Places to Discover

Ford suggests that writers can learn to write for very young children by studying books already published. "Look at the books that the local children's librarians or children's booksellers recommend. They know what works."

Underdown reminds writers to check the yearly lists put out by various teacher's associations. The National Council for Social Studies and the Children's Book Council jointly put out a list titled "Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies." The National Science Teachers Association collaborates with the CBC to put out a similar list of notable science books for children. "They make a real attempt to include the best. Writers should know and read the books on these lists."

Finally, says Shields, "good children's writers remember what it was like to be a five-year-old discoverer. They remember what it was like to wonder about things and be amazed at this incredible world."

Copyright 1999 by Patricia Curtis Pfitsch. All rights reserved.

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