About a year ago, I was sitting on my couch, when I realized with a shock that I had an implicit bias against nonfiction, and that this bias had not only unknowingly affected my impressions of my loved ones but of my students as well. If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into how I came to that realization, read my post on PLOS SciComm.
Ever since, I have been consciously trying to read more nonfiction books to my students to make sure I am piquing the interest of all readers in my classroom, not just the readers who prefer fictional narratives.
So, when I heard my friend and mentor, Melissa Stewart, would be a guest on Science Friday with Ira Flatow to discuss the best children’s STEM books of 2022, I knew I had to hear what she had to say. Ira also invited education technology specialist and author, Kristina Holzweiss, to be on the show.
When Kristina Holzweiss said there was a fascinating fact-filled book about place value, I knew which book I would be buying. Every year as a fourth grade teacher, I have to teach place value. And every year I wish I had a fun book to teach it with. Of course as a writer myself, I thought I should write one. But that was as far as I ever got, thinking about it.
But not Anne Richardson. One day she saw 16 ants march by her door, and she wondered how many ants would march by her door in a 24-hour period. She and her kids began writing down all the questions they had about numbers, and then she organized the facts into a book centered around place value.
Even before I realized I had an implicit bias against nonfiction, my class participated in Melissa Stewart’s Sibert Smackdown. You can read more about what I do with the Smackdown in my class on Melissa’s blog. But even though I loved Octopuses Have Zero Bones, I knew I couldn’t include it in our Sibert Smackdown because the illustrator, Andrea Antinori, doesn’t live in the US.
So instead, after we finished Octopuses Have Zero Bones, I asked students whether or not they thought Octopuses could be a contender if it could participate. Many of them thought the book could be a contender. Many students liked the whimsical illustrations. ID wrote the following:
“I think that Octopuses Have Zero Bones should take part in the Sibert Smackdown if the book could enter the contest. It has illustrations that stand out. In my opinion, I actually like that style of drawing. For example, one of the drawings was a picture of raindrops and information about how big the raindrops are. Amongst all the blue raindrops there was one little pink raindrop. Also on another page of the book there was a drawing of a bunch of bananas and information about how many bananas you eat every year. Very similar to the raindrops, amongst all of the bananas, there was one bright red apple.”
Another student appreciate the call to action in the author’s note. CJG wrote the following:
“I think Octopuses Have Zero Bones could win. First, the pictures are playful, and it could keep young kids entertained and not look off and not pay attention. Second, even though it goes through a lot of different stuff it stays all in the same category because numbers. Last, in the back matter it asked you to do your own experiment with figuring out how many times something happens or how many feet away something is or how many things you see.”
Other students enjoyed the mathematical format of the book. Here’s what HP had to say:
“I think Octopuses Have Zero Bones should be a Sibert Contender because I like how it goes from 0-9 and teaches everything in number order. It also teaches so much stuff that most people don’t know and answers to questions that people would probably not think of. It also has great illustrations that I love because they’re so creative.”
Of course not every reader loved Octopuses Have Zero Bones. Here’s why JB thought Octopuses Have Zero Bones wouldn’t be a Sibert contender:
“I think that the book my partner and I chose, Good Eating: The Short Life of Krill, is much better. Reason one: Octopuses Have Zero Bones is constantly switching from object to object, animal to animal. I just can’t keep up!
Reason two: say I was on number 9 in the book and sometimes it was confusing because they would say that you could find 9,000,000,000,000 leaves on a tree but on the same page it would show you 4 types of leaves on 4 types of trees, like, I thought we were on 9! Why not show this poor child 9 types of leaves that grow on 9 types of trees!
Reason three: on page ? (why doesn’t it have page numbers?!) it says that I was on number 6 and it says ants have 6 legs but then (here’s where the problem starts) it says spiders have 8 legs and goes off topic. Worse, it is still on the same page when it says that roly-polies have 14 legs, I thought we were on number 6.”
Other students shared JB’s dislike of the book and found it confusing as well, but that’s okay. Not every child is going to like every book. What’s not okay is only showcasing fictional narratives. Why? Because different types of books appeal to different readers. If we’re going to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have to start talking about showcasing different types of nonfiction in the classroom.
By Kate Narita