Does Nonfiction Equate Truth?
reviewed by Natalia Ward & Amber Warren — January 11, 2019
Does Nonfiction Equate Truth? Rethinking Disciplinary Boundaries through Critical Literacy, edited by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, Laura Anne Hudock, and Ruth McKoy Lowery, invites teachers to do just this by presenting a thoughtful exploration of the use of nonfiction texts in the classroom. Instead of simply contrasting it with fiction, the authors offer insightful conceptual frames and classroom examples that can inform decision-making about the use of nonfiction texts without being prescriptive. As the title suggests, this edited volume, written in an accessible and engaging way, invites its audience to engage their students in examining truthfulness, bias, and the utility of informational texts.
The first chapter, Why Critical Conversations on Nonfiction Childrens Texts?, lays the foundation for the rest of the book by providing definitions and a theoretical backdrop for what constitutes truth(s) in our society. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw poses essential questions for educators interested in thoughtfully utilizing nonfiction:
How do we equip young readers with critical literacy skills that may enable them to investigate these truths in meaningful ways without becoming jaded? How do we support them to cultivate critical mind-sets that may help to maximize the use of their creative imagination to afford them more opportunities to participate in truth seeking and truth making, as informed readers who engage in dialogue with texts, authors who create texts, and researchers who are committed to inquiry? (p. 7)
These questions set the tone for the subsequent chapters, in which readers are encouraged to consider how the use of nonfiction texts has shifted over time and how best to utilize nonfiction within and across various disciplines.
Chapter Two, Defining and Describing Expository Literature, provides a historical overview of how expository writing changed over time, with particular focus on expository literature, or texts that present facts with a creativity often associated with fictional texts. By describing key features of expository literature such as strong voice, point of view, purposeful structure, and rich language, the chapter helps to inform readers about books that could be used as mentor texts to engage and educate young readers and writers.
After sharing this chapter with our pre-service teachers, they grew excited about the possibilities of offering their young students texts like Can an Aardvark Bark? by Melissa Stewart (2017) and What Makes a Monster? by Jess Keating (2016). Our students also shared that engaging with these and other exciting informational texts eliminated some of the anxiety they felt about using nonfiction books in the classroom and encouraged them to think about possibilities for teaching the craft of nonfiction writing.
Chapter Three, Using Nonfiction to Motivate Students: Classroom Engagement, offers ideas for how to incorporate nonfiction into the curriculum in order to help students think critically through text-mapping, games, music and movement, room transformations, and debates on current events. Chapter Four, Teaching Young Readers Using Nonfiction Texts, emphasizes the enticing nature of nonfiction as a way to engage young students with books that can help them improve their reading skills and motivate them to keep reading. This chapter emphasizes the importance of identifying complementary texts of multiple genres and levels of difficulty. Chapter Five, Critical Questions about Photographic Truths in Childrens Nonfiction Books, argues for adopting a critical visual literacy lens when interrogating and reading against images in nonfiction texts.
Chapter Six, Science Inquiry in a Fifth-Grade Classroom, describes a study in a rural school where, in addition to physical experiments, nonfiction played an essential role in science learning. This chapter demonstrates how using nonfiction books in science and capitalizing on student curiosity through open-ended questions took student learning outside the classroom and enabled teachers to move beyond textbook-based instruction. Chapter Seven, Engaging Young Adolescents through Science, discusses how nonfiction can engage adolescents in science literacies through tackling wicked problems that require students to engage in integrative thinking processes (p. 78). Integrative thinking requires students to draw from various sources of knowledge, critically examine all potential solutions, and develop new unexplored possibilities. The authors argue that when students are able to focus on the discovery and the integrative thinking process rather than having particular objectives that need to be fulfilled, educators can find more engagement and enthusiasm (p. 85).
Chapter Eight, Engaging Students in Conversations about Mathematical Truths, discusses the use of nonfiction in mathematics classrooms. Seeing math as a tool for telling stories (p. 98), the authors argue that through trade books, students can discover that mathematics can be an important part of literacy (p. 100). The final chapter, Some Nonfiction Resources for Engaging in Critical Conversations, provides a list of potential online resources that teachers will find useful, followed by a list of nonfiction-specific awards that can be used to engage students in discussions about and around nonfiction texts. The list includes teachingforchange.org, zinnedproject.org, the Orbis Pictus Award, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, and Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12, among others (p. 109).
Does Nonfiction Equate Truth? Rethinking Disciplinary Boundaries through Critical Literacy makes a valuable contribution to the field of education by demonstrating how educators can thoughtfully and effectively use nonfiction texts in K-16 classrooms. It will serve as a useful guide for teachers and teacher educators interested in adopting a responsible and critical approach to using nonfiction in the classroom.
Keating, J. (2017). What makes a monster? Discovering the worlds scariest creatures. New York, NY: Knopf.
Stewart, M. (2017). Can an aardvark bark? New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.