Originality—the Nonfiction Advantage

by 2014 Literacy for All Featured Speaker and Guest Blogger, Sneed Collard III

FireBird.finalCovOnly lo-resLike many people, I enjoy reading before going to sleep every night. Lately, a curious thing has happened. Despite a stack of novels next to my bed, I’ve found myself exclusively reaching for nonfiction books to wrap up my day with. Many factors could explain this phenomenon, but I think I’ve figured out the real reason. Nonfiction, unlike fiction, is more likely to offer me something I crave: originality.

I should explain here that I make my living as a writer, and have been writing both fiction and nonfiction children’s books for thirty years. And while I’m very proud of my novels, I’m the first to admit that the stories in them have been told before. Sure, I offer new characters, voices, plots, and twists, but the basic barebones stories are as timeless as storytelling itself. I recognize this in my favorite adult novelists, too. I enjoy their work, but I rarely encounter something fresh and original.

The same cannot be said of nonfiction.

Unlike fiction, nonfiction has the potential to offer readers almost limitless refreshing, thought-provoking, and often delightful experiences. In the past month, I’ve read three amazing books: Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, and Mark Karlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Each of these books provided pleasurable, surprising reading while inducing me to think about the world in a slightly different way. How can that be?

Simple.

The world is an astonishingly complex and fascinating place. Furthermore, it is filled with the myriad experiences of more than seven billion people. Almost every thing and every person has a fascinating story to tell—one that probably has never been told before. For the nonfiction writer, it’s not too difficult to come up with a story that breaks new ground. Nowhere is this more true than in my primary field of expertise, the biological sciences.

About two years ago, for instance, I got interested in woodpeckers and heard that Professor Dick Hutto, an ornithologist at nearby University of Montana, happened to work on them. I called him up and asked if I could buy him a coffee, and find out exactly what he’d learned about these birds. Our chat amazed me.

It turns out that, although Dick Hutto did know a lot about woodpeckers, what he knew even more about were burned forests. After the fires of 1988, he and his wife began poking around burn areas all over the West. All the press had been negative about the fires, and he wanted to see for himself if the fires really were the terrible, destructive force everyone was claiming.

Turns out, they weren’t.

In his first year of looking through burn areas, Professor Hutto observed more than 100 species of birds nesting in and using the burn areas. That launched him into studying the importance of burn areas not just to birds, but to thousands of other species of animals and plants, too. Over the next few years, in fact, Dick would discover that burn areas aren’t just important, they are essential for many species of life. In the West, for instance, dozens of bird species use burn areas, and 15 species use them more than any other habitat. These birds include American Robins, Mountain Bluebirds, and the ultimate “fire bird”, the Black-backed Woodpecker.

Not surprisingly, once I heard this story I knew that I had to write about it. I began reading scientific papers, going out into burn areas with Dick, and interviewing other scientists as well. The result is the book Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (Bucking Horse Books, Missoula, 2015). I’m very proud of this book, and not only because it’s a fun, engaging story. What I love about it is that the book offers young readers—and, I hope, adults—a topic that they’ve never seen before, one that has the potential to change how they think about our world.

And that’s the beauty and power of nonfiction. We humans still know so little about the world. What some of us do know often isn’t ever transmitted to the rest of the world. I am so excited when I discover a new interesting person or historical event or natural phenomenon, and children are too. Recently, there’s been a big push to incorporate more nonfiction books into classrooms and to me, this is a no-brainer. While fantasy and other fiction books are often shoved down young readers’ throats, I’ve never found one half as interesting as the real world around us.

If you are an educator, I encourage you to look beyond Common Core requirements in choosing the books to share with your students. Instead, embrace the remarkable complexity and diversity of our planet. When you start sharing real stories with your kids, you won’t need to force them to read. Instead, you’ll join them in a great journey of discovery.

Sneed Collard will be presenting at the 2014 Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI:

LCB-2 — Common Core Canines: Great Dog Books to Use in K–8 Curricula (Grades K–8)

LCD-3 — Exploring the Frontier of Children’s Literature (Grades K–8)

In addition to Sneed’s sessions, there are two other sessions at the conference that will focus on nonfiction literature:

LCF-11 Best Nonfiction Literature (Grades K–2) with Catherine Desjardins, Julie Connors, Julie Murray, and Nicole Daly

LCD-14 The Reality Is: Nonfiction Books Kids Will Want to Read (Grades 3–6) with Susannah Richards

One thought on “Originality—the Nonfiction Advantage

  1. Thank you for sharing these inspiriting thoughts about nonfiction. As the mother of three children who loved nonfiction when they were kids, and enjoying reading books about the natural world myself, my classroom library was filled with informational texts. As my students read these books, they naturally generated questions that led to reading even more books on related topics…thus expanding their knowledge of the world around them…just as your curiosity brought you to learn more about the place of woodpeckers in the life cycle of forests. We have so much to learn!

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