Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stretch Your Mind

In the front of the children’s room of a local library I was excited to see a new display with a sign “Stretch your mind with some new Nonfiction.” I immediately thought of Susan Goodman’s post about alternative phrases for nonfiction. "Stretch Your Mind" might be the most appealing one yet. The children’s librarian saw me looking at the books and rushed over to me to tell me they had lots of great new nonfiction and pointed me to the shelves. She’s my new favorite librarian.

Time to fess up. I can be very finicky about my nonfiction selections. I read a lot of nonfiction yet I can easily pass over (aka be very judgmental about)some things that look to me to be fictionalized accounts, mostly photos with little information, or 250 pages on a subject I never gave much thought to. This time I decided to go with the motto-- stretch my mind-- and try some books I might otherwise have past up.

One book I picked up had the first section dated 1678, accompanying paragraph written in the first person. I would normally drop such a book immediately or at least try to reshelve it properly in fiction. I must admit I actually wound up liking I, Vivaldi by Janice Shefelman.
After reading through the story of the young Vivaldi's life, I realized that fictionalizing some of the story of this 17th century composer's life may have been the only choice. The book does a great job of showing how someone can follow their passion even if other responsiblities sometimes get in the way. I love that the author recommends a specific recording of The Four Seasons, adding to the feel that the author and illustrator had a special connection to the music.

I don't usually go for any nf book with a commercial connection but I do enjoy facts so I tried Kermit's 501 Fun Facts and was pleasantly surprised.
The facts were interesting, varied and fairly specific given the small amount of space allotted to each one. I think this was way above the level for the average Sesame Street age viewer and no self-respecting fourth grader would be caught carrying around a Kermit book. Maybe they can go back to the old paper bag book covers for a while because any fact loving 4th or 5th grader would really enjoy this.

How Big Is It? is the kind of glossy, big photo nonfiction book that I usually pass over for a more erudite choice.

So when I pushed myself to read it I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually chock full of information, some of which I had been trying to find on my own. On one spread about airships, Hillman juxtaposes photographs of a modern 747 next to the Wright Brothers plane, next to the Hindenburg. When I was researching dirigibles, I spent hours trying to get the actual dimensions of these different airplanes so I could compare them to a dirigible. And now, there it was, in both words and photo, with the impact just as dramatic as I had imagined. As Steve Jenkins mentioned in his post, scale can be very important in helping a reader relate to a topic. This book uses that concept very successfully.

After having expanded my nonfiction horizons, I went home to face the book on World War II that had been sitting on my desk for weeks. I feared this would be a really dull read and had been avoiding it. When I finally picked up The Causes of World War II by Paul Dowswell, I couldn't put it down.
It was a very concise, well written account of what led up to the war, the major players,and the position of the many countries that entered the war. It answered many of the questions I had been struggling with in my research and I was sorry I hadn't read it sooner.

Lesson learned. Follow your friendly librarian to the nonfiction section. Inhale deeply. Stretch.


BookChook said...

I enjoyed this, Linda. I'll look out for the books you mention, but more importantly, I'll try not to be such a Nonfiction Nazi, myself!


Alison Ashley Formento said...

Great post. I tend to brush aside books that are out of my interest zone. I love the idea of stretching out to try something new, especially these books that you profile here.