Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Flush the Format

When it comes to the joy of browsing, adults have it a lot easier. You know what I mean. Those precious times during the day you squeeze in reading what you want to, not what you have to: scanning the newspaper over the morning cup of coffee, perusing the school newsletter while waiting to pick up the kids, even checking out a months old ragged copy of People magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office (although I certainly wouldn’t know this from personal experience).

Kids, on the other hand, are told what to read. “Half an hour a night from your leveled reader. Yes, it must be that book. Yes, you must write post it notes to summarize what you read.” Read from the assigned book? Annotate? Yuck. All right then, do your assigned reading and then read for pleasure. Given how overscheduled kids are these days, not likely.

But kids love to browse. It’s a big reason they love nonfiction. Flip through a NF book and just enjoy looking at the photographs, quickly scan the captions, and then check out the box of interesting stuff next to it.

That’s a big part of what has made world record books, almanacs, fun encyclopedias, and books of lists among others, so popular in recent years. Read the parts you like, skip what you don’t. Seek out what interests you and turn a few pages. Start in the middle and work backwards—it’s all good.

Recently, more typical narrative nonfiction has been experimenting with changing up the standard format to tremendous success. Scrapbook designs like Candace Fleming’s The Lincolns. A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary appeals to the browser in all of us.

Although it definitely has a chronological narrative throughout, the scrapbook style layout of information encourages reading the pieces that appeal to the reader. When the reader feels the freedom to pick and choose, the heft of the 156 pages no longer seems so overwhelming. A young reader is likely to not only enjoy this kind of read but retain certain bits of information that might have otherwise been lost.

So let's flush the format. Let's boldly allow kids to read what they want to. Let's actually let them choose. And publishers, lets change things up a bit and stop worrying about how one defines the parts of a picture book and look instead to what makes an interesting book. But you’d better start pre-ordering. Nonfiction will be in demand as never before.


Unknown said...

“Flip through a NF book and just enjoy looking at the photographs, quickly scan the captions, and then check out the box of interesting stuff next to it.”

That was definitely me as a kid (and now, for that matter!) I haven't looked at that Lincoln book, am intrigued!

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more, Linda. Creativity is fostered by building singular intellects. Browising for what interests an individual is a part of the picture. In my instructions on how to use my new science fair book I say "Begin by browsing...." Glad you spoke up. Great post.

Bruce Frost said...

Excellent article! This type of format is intriguing and should be explored even more. I think it also makes sense now, when kids are used to browsing on line. More and more, they are becoming used to searching and finding pieces of information.

Michelle Cusolito said...

I agree!
But, I have a question...How does one go about pitching such a book to editors/agents?
I am working on a non-fiction book right now that fits this description, though it is much shorter- likely the usual 32 page picture book length. There's a narrative- a true story that holds the book together- plus a bunch of "extras" (scrapbook items you might say) thay I envision in sidebars, insets and the like. It has a story, yes, but also lots of intersting facts and snippets that enrich the story.


rglaser said...

Michelle: Turn it into a series if possible--there are a lot of series nonfiction publishers out there. And have a clear synopsis of what it does. And submit it like you would any other nonfiction book. Don't worry about the length, 32 pages is fine for anything aimed at elementary school.