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Thursday, June 15, 2017

What It Means to Be a "Reader": Does Nonfiction Count?

Look, I love nonfiction. Nonfiction books can be amazing and informative and fascinating and gripping and wonderful. We did a whole Book Blab episode on all our favorite nonfiction books. Nonfiction is amazing, and I love reading good nonfiction books.

But.

When someone asks me my what my favorite book is (impossible question) the answer is always and forever going to be a novel. A fictional story. That's where my true love lies. To me, literature is fiction. I remember reading a quote somewhere (no idea where, so sorry I can't cite a source) about how even the word "nonfiction" sounds like an apology, denoting its inferiority. It doesn't get it's own word, it is identified simply as being not-fiction. Because obviously, fiction is the best.

So when I took my "Teaching Reading" course in college, and the professor talked about how many (maybe even most) people prefer reading nonfiction, I couldn't really believe it. Who are these people? I didn't know anyone who actually preferred nonfiction over fiction. How could I even begin to understand someone like that?

Well, over the past few months, I've slowly been coming to terms with the fact that my oldest child is probably one of those people. Here's the evidence.

1. He picked an easy reader book out at the library called The Adventures of BB8 that he absolutely loved, not because he knows or cares anything about Star Wars or the story, but because the book told a fictional story in a nonfiction format. Every page contained it's own heading, and every other page or so contained informational graphics like all the categories of different droids, or diagramming a starship, or something like that. He was the most fascinated with the Table of Contents, and ever since reading this book, all of the stories he's written on the computer have contained detailed Table of Contents, including notes for indexes and glossaries. I've never met another five-year-old who does this.

2. He was recently gifted a book about space, which he loves, but he tends to ignore the main text and focus on all the captions and factoids presented in bubbles. He's apparently really drawn to the visual layout and bite-size break up of text presented in these kinds of texts.

3. And, the most compelling piece of evidence by far is the absolute love and devotion he's shown for his favorite book of all time: Maps. I mentioned how cool this book was when we got it last year, and here's a picture of it (from last year):


Then my son got super interested in geography, and this became his new favorite book, and one year later, this is what the map book looks like today:


Yeah, it's been taped back together so many times, the spine doesn't actually exist anymore. We really just need to bite the bullet and get another copy of this book, but I'm waiting until his geography obsession abates a little so our next copy has a chance of being enjoyed by the younger children.

Anyway, the point is, my kid's favorite book is about maps. Geography. Nonfiction that is light of narrative text. I'm not denying this isn't a cool book (it is a super cool book, and deserves to be obsessed over), I'm just saying that at no point in my childhood was my favorite book about maps. Stories? Yes. Maps? No.

And it's totally, totally cool that my kid likes nonfiction books, or at least books that present bits of information alongside graphics. These are great books. It's just that when I think about people who I would define as "readers" (and I want my children to grow up to be defined as "readers"), they read fiction. Novels. And as children, they read and devoured all that wonderful children's literature. They love stories. That's what a reader is to me.

My son does enjoy stories (remember this?). He willingly participates in our nightly read-aloud sessions, and he'll sit and read both picture books and chapter books on his own, but he reserves his passion and enthusiasm for these nonfiction books. And I'm trying to tell myself this is okay. Right?

Do you count as a "reader" if the books you pour over are maps?

I actually think this was one of the things my college professor was trying to teach us English-major-avid-reader teachers-in-training, that we needed to re-frame how we defined what a "reader" was. Kids who read informational texts are "readers." Kids who read graphic novels are "readers." My kid is a "reader."

He may not love the same books I loved as a kid, or love fiction the way I love fiction, but he still loves books, and I will encourage a love of books and reading in any form it comes. When it comes to family read-alouds, I will always choose fictional novels, because everyone deserves to be exposed to classic children's literature. But when it comes to his own personal reading, he'll always be allowed to read his choice.

And if that's nonfiction, that's wonderful.

3 comments:

  1. Well, and the great thing is, nonfiction is worlds away from what it used to be---now, with memoirs and narrative journalism and all sorts of genres like that, it's a more appealing genre than ever before! I used to consider myself a purely fiction-over-nonfiction person, too, but in the past several years, about a third of what I've read has been nonfiction, and I've loved it!

    I think it's like you said--the important thing is that he loves reading, no matter what form it takes (although I totally get why you'd want him to be into stories, too--I want my daughter to like all the same books I loved as a kid so we can geek out together over them!).

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  2. Yes, I agree, adult nonfiction is totally amazing these days. My problem is that I have a harder time seeing these children's nonfiction books as acceptable, just because they are so picture heavy and the text is so broken up with just bits and factoids. I mean, he still has to read a lot of words, he's still picking up vocabulary and learning new things, but it's not a narrative so it's hard for me to count it as real "reading". But, whatever gets him excited about books and learning in general is not a bad thing.

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  3. This is Maxwell to a T. And I admit, I do try to bribe him into reading fiction. (During the school year, he had weekly reading comprehension questions. He could use any book he was reading at the time, but the questions were designed to be answered by a fictional story (i.e., how does the main character show emotion?), not a nonfiction text, so that stretched him a little.)

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