Friday, September 28, 2012

Hands-On Activities = Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

A few months ago when I realized that my manuscript was due two days after my blog post date, I asked Kerrie (my fellow CRP-mate) to please guest blog for me this month. Thankfully, she said, "Yes."  Please join me in welcoming Kerrie Logan Hollihan for this month~~~ 

     My thanks to Anna Lewis for asking me to guest post for I.N.K….this is one wonderful blog! So many good authors to learn from. So much to share. And so little time…..
     Two years ago, “Electric Speed” social media guru Jane Friedman
( talked to our local SCBWI group about how to blog effectively.  Most critical, she told us, is to blog only if we could offer something useful to our readers. Jane’s advice spoke volumes to three of us: Mary Kay Carson, Brandon Marie Miller, and me.  Among us, we’ve published 12 38,000-word books with Chicago Review Press Along with each we’ve developed something like 250 activities. Per Jane’s observations, we decided that our activities are “useful,” so we launched “Hands-on-Books” ( in the fall of 2010. We rotate posts about our books, each one with a downloadable activity. 
     (Which leads me off topic for a moment…. Speaking of the value of networking for aspiring authors… I met Mary Kay and Brandon through SCBWI. One night they saw me leaving the library with books up to my chin about Isaac Newton.  They said their editor at Chicago Review Press was looking for a book on Newton… I got in touch, wrote my first proposal, and “the rest is history.”)

     I admit it; writing activities is complicated, and our editor at CRP, the always-gracious Jerry Pohlen, helps when I get tangled up in writing directions.  But I have to say I find great delight in taking a subject -- Queen Elizabeth I for instance -- and sitting down to brainstorm a bunch of activities to connect my middle grade readers to Tudor England.  Granted, building a gibbet or teaching the art of pick pocketing wouldn’t sit well with our audience of parents and teachers, but it’s fun to think about how to show kids they can dance the pavanne, picture themselves as Tudor women or men, or set sail like the Spanish Armada with an umbrella and a skateboard.

     As I mentioned in a recent post, sometimes our activities take hits, as when Kirkus, which otherwise praised my new book Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote, had this to say:
            The only downside is the activities, which range from slightly silly (dress up like an ancient Greek for suffrage!) to simply wrong (cake mix does not taste as good as a cake made from scratch).
That left me scratching my head. Yup, I rely on cake mix in an activity in Rightfully Ours. Readers can “Bake a Cake for Suffrage” iced with a recipe from the Woman Suffrage Cook Book (1890). But it was the reviewer’s take on the dress-up activity that made me wonder whether s/he had read the whole book. Suffragists did indeed dress up like Greek goddesses.  (Jump to our blog to see proof of that as well as the activity in question.J)
     We believe that hands-on-learning enhances a child’s nonfiction reading.  Some activities we write are very simple, but teachers say that even some seventh graders have trouble with directions and assembling small projects.   Other activities have long lists of materials and more complex directions -- again because we know there are kids out there who want to tackle them.
     I’d like to hear back from I.N.K. readers what you think about activities in kids’ books. Do you use them?  What’s your experience working with them in the classroom or at home?  What works for you?  What doesn’t?


Anonymous said...

I say YES to activities in NF books. Even if my kids do not undertake the activities, the idea of making something, reading directions, jumping between the activity and the book content, adds a fun and valuable dimension.

Melissa Stewart said...

I absolutely agree that hands-on as well as minds-on activities can enhance what a child takes away from a nonfiction book.

Just as some readers prefer nonfiction rather than fiction, some kids really love activties and the process of doing rather than passively just reading makes all the difference in whether or nto some kids will truly understand a concept. I've seen thsi over and over in school visits and in lteers I get from kids (and teachers).

It's too bad that reviewers sometimes nitpick and that publishers sometimes worry too much about liability (a couple of publishers I know have policies that forbid activities in books). But there's usually a work around, such as creating a teachers' guide full of fun and meaningful activity ideas.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Cheers for Chicago Review Press and their wonderful series of activity books for kids. I published my first book, THE WIND AT WORK, with CRP back in 1997 with a second edition out in 2013. It was so much fun to see what a broad range of activities I could come up with re: wind and windmills - science, music, cooking, art, community activism, etc. I hope readers had as much fun as I did.

dj said...

As a former teacher, I think it's wonderful to have activities to go along with nonfiction. They help kids understand and relate to the material better, and they provide a fun way to repeat concepts (which is often necessary for learning.)Making activities available on your blog is a great idea!

Unknown said...

As someone who's known for her activity books (science is learning through experiments, aka "activities") I have a LOT to say on this subject. But this is not the place. Two things:
1)Do a writing exercise with students by having them write directions for making something, going someplace, or doing something. Give the directions to a classmate and see if they can follow.
2) The simplest activity has tremendous import if it is in the context of a BIG idea. Catching air in a plastic bag is simple and boring unless you understand that you are proving that air is real stuff. It makes five-year-olds scream with delight, "I got some!" I always integrate simple activities with the concepts they demonstrate. Too often, in science, there is a disconnect between the lab and scientific ideas.