Lies My Textbook Told Me

George Washington never told a lie. Columbus discovered America. Newton watched an apple fall out of a tree and figured out gravity.

These are some classic examples of the lies our text books told us. Of course most teachers don’t still teach these “facts”, they use nonfiction, historical fiction, and “updated” textbooks to teach history, social studies, and science. Before I started learning more about children’s lit, I admit I blindly trusted the authors of the books I used. I didn’t really know how to decide which books were more authentic, accurate, or trustworthy than others. I’d use any book if I had heard of the author, thought the publisher seemed reliable from my experience with them (like National Geographic), or even if the cover just caught my eye.

How silly was I.

How do you decide if the information in a book is trustworthy? How do you decide if a book is good enough to teach your kids without having to worry about un-teaching its information later? And how can you get kids to think about what they read?

The first time the falsity in a book truly shocked me was in my nonfiction class last semester. We had just read the book Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Amos Fortune is the 1951 Newbery Award winner and a book I had taught in my classroom. A book I taught as fact.

The story is supposedly the true biography of Amos Fortune, an African-American slave turned free man. The author, Elizabeth Yates, begins the story with the kidnapping of Amos, an African Prince, who is eventually sold in the slave trade. An Amish man purchases him and then sells him to a tanner.  Fortune learns the trade of tanning and eventually buys his freedom. He frees his wife, and they move to New Hampshire where he acts as a beacon of light to his community.

I taught this book a couple of times when I was in New Hampshire, I think many NH teachers do. I taught it as fact. Why wouldn’t I? I found it in the nonfiction section.

Well, after I read this for class my professor asked us if we’d like to have our minds blown away now or later. We decided on now.

“Well” she said, “about 95% of this book is made up.”

She went on to explain that there isn’t any record of Fortune’s life before he moved to Jaffrey, NH. Yates apparently didn’t think she could make his story compelling enough with the information she had, so she just made up the rest of the man’s life.

And when you realize some of the things Yates made up about Amos’s life, like the following conversation between the tanner and his wife, you begin to think about how much politics influenced the book.

“What happened to him?” Ichabod Richardson asked.

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “Amos looked at himself in that little mirror he brought me and at first his image seemed to delight him. Then it affected him strangely.”

“Perhaps he thought he was white until he saw himself in the mirror (Yates 63).”

Really? Did this woman really think Amos was so stupid that he didn’t know what color he was? Or did Yates have to make Fortune inferior to white people in order to publish a book with an African-American protagonist in 1951? How could I trust this book?

Mortified that I had taught this book as fact, I made it my mission to make sure every educator and librarian in New Hampshire new to shelve this book in the historical fiction section. I swore to never use it in the classroom again.

But then I took a few breaths, settled down, and realized, that I could use this book in the classroom. I could use it in a way that is far better and more beneficial to students than just having them learn some facts about history from a book. In fact, you can apply this lesson to any book.

You have to teach your kids to think. Do you have to give your students reading fluency tests, like DIBELs? The thing I hate about most of these tests are that they focus on reading fluency and not comprehension. If a kid can read 132 words per minute but doesn’t know what he read, he’s not doing very well. In order for kids to understand what they’re reading they have to think about it. Teaching reading comprehension is one of the most difficult things for teachers to do, but hopefully this lesson idea will help.

First, pick a book (any nonfiction or historical fiction book works best). For the sake of this blog, we’ll stick with Amos Fortune.

You should do the lesson by yourself before you do it with your students. As the teacher you should know all the books you teach like the back of your hand. When it comes to nonfiction, you also need to know as much about the subject as possible.

Day One:

Let the kids get acquainted with the book. Give them a few minutes to flip through it.  Then have them write a list of everything they know about the subject . It’s okay if they don’t know anything about it and it’s okay if they write some things down that you know aren’t true.

Next tell them that they aren’t going to just read the book, but they’re going to judge it. They’re going to decide if and why they think the book gives accurate information or not. They’re going to love having the authority to judge something an adult created. Have them make predictions. What do they think about the books accuracy just by looking at it?

Day Two:

A: Show the students a few different books about the same subject. For example if your original book is about the Wright Brothers, then go to your library and grab at least five other books that are also about the Wright Brothers. Have the students spend a few minutes looking at each one and making notes about what they find. What does each book look like, is there an index, a bibliography, time lines, maps,a table of contents, diagrams, pictures, has it won awards, etc.? Have them decide which book (including the original book) they think is most trustworthy. Why do they think this? Leave these books on display for the next few weeks. Encourage the students to use them. If they come across an interesting fact in the book you’re reading ask them to see if the other authors included that information too. (Look at the pictures above… judge them. Which one do you think is most trustworthy? What about the cover made you make this judgement?)

B: If there aren’t any other books on the subject (like Amos Fortune) then try to find other sources of information. Use websites, pamphlets, articles, etc. Have them look over the information and decide what information they trust.

Day Three:

Ask the students to find the copyright date. Explain that world events can influence the production of a book.  Discuss the events that were going on in the world during the books publishing date. Anything from political movements, to natural disasters, to popular trends  can influence how and why a book is published (for example many books about Christopher Columbus were published in 1992 because it was the 500-year anniversary of Columbus sailing the ocean blue and in 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, there was an increase in information books about hurricanes).

Day Four:

Begin reading the book. I will eventually write a post about techniques to use during small reading groups. Just make sure your students are paying attention. Never have the students take turns reading a page or a paragraph or anything because the students won’t follow along, they’ll just wait until it’s their turn to read and daydream in the meantime. Have someone begin reading, when you think they’ve read enough call on somebody else. Do this randomly, even in the middle of sentences, this will keep them on guard and motivated to stay focused. Make sure there are consequences for when your students aren’t paying attention.

As the students read have them pay attention to how the author crafted the book. Does the author use quotations or invented dialogue? Is the author using references or do they seem to come up with their information out of thin air? Are there footnotes? Photographs? Illustrations? Diagrams? Author’s note? Make the children constantly question where the author is getting their information. Have them keep notes as they read for the next few days.

After Reading the Book:

Review what you’ve read. Discuss the book’s accuracy. Discuss the comparisons they made with the other books. Then have them decide whether they trusted the author. Would they read another book by them? Have them look at the original list they made of things they knew about the subject. Have them correct it and add to it. They’ll be surprised at how much they’ve learned.

As a final project have the students write a book review (allow them to use their books and notes). If they are able to make a decision about whether they trusted the information book and can defend their opinion then they have successfully learned a new comprehension technique. It’s perfectly ok if they don’t agree with your opinion about the book as long as they can defend themselves. Post their work up in the classroom. As a challenge have them pick another nonfiction book and write a report about why they think the author and information are reliable or not.

This activity should get your students (and maybe even you) thinking about books, especially nonfiction books, in a new way. Nonfiction is a world that adults always seem to tip-toe around. But students love nonfiction. Next time your students have some free reading time notice how many are reading the Guinness Book of World Records, or a book about sharks, skateboarding, ballet, or football. This activity is going to help them think about the books they already love!

Enjoy and happy reading!

(Grade level: k plus. This lesson can be modified for all ages)

Here is a list of nonfiction books I’ve read over the past year that I think are particularly exceptional:

**For anyone who is waiting for my response to the 2011 Caldecott awards, it will be up soon. I wasn’t expecting A Ball for Daisy to win and need some time to think about it! But congrats to all the winners! (Winner: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka. Honors: Blackout by John Rocco, Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, and Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell!)


A Writer’s Guinea Pig

Picturebooks are simple, right? I mean, they’re short and they’re full of pictures. Couldn’t anybody just slap one together?


Well, not completely wrong. They are often short, and they’re filled with pictures, and anyone could attempt to write one, but creating a picturebook is not as easy as it seems. The process is actually quite complicated.

I’m currently earning a Master’s degree in Writing for Children, and last semester I had the opportunity to work on my  first picturebook – my guinea pig, you could say – with a well-known publisher in the Boston area. The point of the mentorship is to learn how to get a book as close to submission as possible.  The process was grueling, and I have some grey hairs to prove it, but it was well worth it. I thought I’d share my experience with all of you in hopes that it might give you a better understanding of the picturebooks I share on this blog.

So first of all, there are rules. The rules aren’t etched in stone, but they’re pretty universal in the world of publishing. Most beginners can’t get away with breaking them, but you will occasionally see well-known authors bending or breaking them. The first major rule is that the book needs to be 32 pages long, not one more or one less (including copyright and title pages). Truthfully, publishers just want the book to have a page count that is a multiple of eight because that’s how they bind the paper, but the standard length is 32 pages. Another rule is that you need to watch your word count. Publishers first and foremost want a good story, so if you think cutting words will devalue your story don’t cut them, but the trend in picturebooks is the fewer the words the better. Many of the books currently being published have 100 words or less. Books with no text at all are called wordless picturebooks and are also quite popualr. Those are the two main rules I’m going to throw at you now, but that’s not where they end.

Before you start writing you need a good idea. Good ideas are hard to come by and you need to be careful not to be cliché. For example, many beginning authors create stories with little animals as their protagonists because they think that’s what kids want. But your characters shouldn’t be animals unless there’s a reason why they are animals. If the character can be a human, try that. There are thousands of picturebooks with cute fuzzy creatures as characters, don’t bore us, try something new.

I’m not saying that my idea is necessarily good, but it’s the idea I thought was best to work with. The idea came to me while I was driving home from Boston one night. I was thinking about my old guinea pig, and how many of my students have guinea pigs. Kids love guinea pigs and there aren’t too many books out there about guinea pigs, so I thought why not (and I know I’m being hypocritical here, because guinea pigs are cute fuzzy creatures, I obviously have to work on this too)? But what about a guinea pig? What’s the story? Story is the key.

The first idea I had was to write a story from the guinea pig’s point of view. I stuck him with a kid who wasn’t too great of a pet-owner, and the guinea pig decided to fight his way back to the pet store. I thought I was brilliant, until my editor read it and said “but, why would a pet want to go back to a pet store?” My character seemed very confused, so my editor gave me this great activity to do that would help me figure out who my characters aer, what they want, and why it matters. The activity was just a list of questions that you answer for each character: what matters? What is the matter? Why does it matter? What are the stakes? What does the character do/want and what are the consequences? What are the moral lines of your character? What is “home” for your character, where does he/she feel safe? If you google “character sketch” you’ll find a whole bunch of activities that can help you too. If one doesn’t work, try another.

So after some character studies my editor told me to come up with a few different story ideas. She wanted me to play with a few ideas and then pick which one I thought was the best. I came up with about four different stories and finally decided on one that was completely different from the original story.

The next thing I did was write my whole idea out. I didn’t write it as the story would read later, I just wrote out what happened the way I envisioned it. I wrote out what the plot and the emotional arc were.

Next, I practiced writing the manuscript. There’s a lot to keep in mind when writing a manuscript for a picturebook. You need a great first line to hook your reader. You need to make sure the reader (usually the child) will connect with the character (usually children connect more with child and animal characters and not adults, but there are exceptions such as in last year’s Caldecott winner “A Sick Day for Amos McGee”), you need to make sure it reads well, that every word fits logically, thatyou’re constantly prompting the reader forward (this can be done with the  illustrations as well as the text) the in the story, and don’t forget that you have to reach that 32 page mark. I handed in my first manuscript only to have it handed back dripping with red ink. I revised it twelve times, and it’s still nowhere near perfect. The truth is, you can revise forever and it will never be perfect, eventually you just have to stop when you don’t think there’s anything else you can possibly do to make it better. When you’ve done your best then it’s time to submit it and let the editors and agents help you from there.

                                                                               From “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” by Philip and Erin Stead

Once you have the text as tight as possible, then you have to think about the illustrations. Are you going to be the one illustrating? If so, then you’re like me, and I’ll show you what some of the next steps are. If you are not going to be the illustrator then submit your text making sure to be as clear as possible that you are not going to do the art. Do not include any notes on how you imagine the illustrations. The art director and illustrator will take care of that, and the last thing they want is input from someone who doesn’t know anything about art. Also make sure you don’t have a friend whip up some sketches for you, editors hate that! If you’re going to have a friend do the illustrations, make sure they’re committed to the project. They should have as much input in the story as you do and they should work with you from the start.

So, I plan on being the illustrator for my project, so then next step was to do some character sketches. You need to think about design, texture, medium, etc. See my post “Caldecott in the Classroom” and its comments for information and suggested reading to help you think about picturebook art.

When you think you know what your characters are going to look like begin some thumbnail sketches. I make my own thumbnail sheets by dividing a standard sheet of paper into 33 1/2″ x 1″ rectangles. Leave the first two spaces for the title page and the copyright pages (you can always start the illustrations on these pages) and then space out your story. Make sure you’re thinking about what text will be on each page and where you are going to place it. I have about seven revisions of my thumbnails, and still plan on doing more.

Once you’re satisfied with your thumbnails, it’s time to make the dummy. This is my favorite part because it’s when all your hard work finally begins to resemble a book. A finished dummy will give you a real sense of accomplishment. Here are some pages from the dummy of my book “Felix & Gadget: A Mixed Up Story of Friendship”:

The dummy is most likely what you will send to an editor or an agent, along with a copy of just the text. Although, obviously you should always check submissions guidelines which can be found on most publishing houses and agent websites.

When you’re pleased with your dummy you should do some finished art work. You’ll send a copy of your finished art work in your submission package (make sure it’s a good copy, spend the extra cash and go to Staples). Here’s a piece of my artwork (of which I’m not exactly satisfied, I plan on revising this whole story when I’m done with my second mentorship).

I still have a long way to go before I’m ready to submit this. The process of creating a book takes years, no matter how long or how short they are, but don’t give up. The key is to keep plugging away. Keep those characters alive. You breathe a little more breath into their two-dimensional lungs each time you give your project another try, so keep going. Pick up your pencils, papers, and pens, your laptops, your tablets, your crayons and paint, and get writing!