Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Do History Books Win So Many Awards?

While I was presenting at a recent conference, I tossed out a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time: Why don’t science titles seem to win the BIG awards in children’s literature as often as social studies titles? It led to an interesting discussion, so I thought INK readers might like to join the conversation.
Since I’m a scientist, here’s my data. I tallied Newbery and Caldecott winners since 1995. The Sibert was created in 2001, so I tallied the winners since its inception.

 
Newbery
Medal
Caldecott
Medal
Sibert
Medal
Total
biography
0
2
6
8
history
0
1
5
6
science
0
0
1
1


 
Newbery Honor
Caldecott
Honor
Sibert
Honor
Total
biography
3
10
16
29
history
7
0
9
16
science
1
3
7
11

 
I have to admit that when I’ve read through these lists in the past, I came away with the impression that history titles had science books beat hands down. But a closer look shows that history is only the clear leader among Newbery Honors. Biographies are the big winners overall with a total score of 37 (8 medalists, 29 honors). While history (22 overall) and STEM (12 overall) trail behind.

Next, I took a closer look at the people featured in the biographies. It turns out that 23 are key historical figures, and 8 are scientists. The rest are visual artists or musicians.

Combining all these figures, the totals work out to 45 winning history titles and 20 winning science books. In other words, history titles win the big awards more than twice as often as science titles. Why is that?

Frankly, I don’t have an answer, so I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.

8 comments:

Myra Zarnowski said...

I think you've hit on a really important issue, and I believe there are a number of reasons science books win fewer awards than history books. One simple reason is that they are not submitted to the award committee. When I chaired the Orbis Pictus award committee, I had to specifically request books from publishers. One book that went on to win the award was the result of a request. A second reason is that history educators know that reading is a major part of what they do. They know they need history books for young people that show historical interpretation. Science educators have learned that explicit instruction in "the nature of science" is needed and that much of this instruction can and should involve books. I think we will see more science books being recognized in the future, but these books will have to reveal the thinking involved in "doing science" and be more than a collection of facts, no matter how interesting thse facts are.

creatingcuriouskids said...

Melissa, do you think it has to do with narrative? Biography and history books have an implicit narrative. Scientist biographies obviously do well since they are written as a story. Do you think we crave narrative? Kirsten Larson

Sue Macy said...

I agree with Kirsten that narrative—story—is an inherent part of most nonfiction books in history, and certainly biography, while that's not necessarily the case with science and other STEM books. When I was working on Scholastic's math magazines, we went the extra mile in finding people who embodied the math concepts we were trying to teach, e.g., a mural artist who used scale to transfer his drawings from paper to large walls. But the person we were writing about necessarily took a back seat to the math concept. It's hard to have a personal connection to a math equation, and I think many people-even award committee members—look for that when they read.

Susan E. Goodman said...

This is a really interesting issue. And I think that each of the previous comments hit on parts of the answer. Sue mentioned narrative, which indirectly infers people. I think that subject matters that seem to be about people is also a huge factor. People are social animals and want to hear about other people. They are the filter through which readers like receiving information. Some science books don't have people in them; some do. But I think they are perceived as having less to do with people than these other subjects.

Slightly off subject, I've also noticed that books that use human to transmit info don't win awards either.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Perhaps the reason the the Scientists in the Field series has done so well and lasted so long is that it combines biography with science.

Jim Murphy said...

I wondered if there was a common thread to the science books that have been recognized? I often read award winning books (of all sorts) and ask myself why exactly did they stand out. It's a constant exercise I do to help me understand trends and to try to see ways to improve my books.

Myra Zarnowski said...

I've found that the thread in books like those in the Scientists in the Field series is inquiry. Kids can read for (1) the problem scientists are trying to solve, (2)what they do to try to solve the problem, (3) what they learned, (4) and what they still want to know. I refer to these books as the literature of inquiry. Many of these books also highlight the features of mystery and refer to scientists as detectives. The mystery aspect is appealing to kids and can be a focus for their reading.

Vicki Cobb said...

I think this may have to do with basic science literacy. My guess is that reviewers don't have a lot of science in their backgrounds and would prefer to acclaim books in their own personal comfort zones. When my book, I Face the Wind, was the only Sibert honor book in 2004, it was the first science book and the first picture book to ever have won that award. I had deliberately disguised the book to look like a traditional picture book to fool people into picking it up.

Writers have traditionally treated basic scientific principles much as the toaster manual in Jim's hilarious post this week. Since much of settled science is non-intuitive, I work very hard to integrate see-for-yourself, hands-on activities into the concepts I discuss. This means that the reader has to do a lot more than just read. Often, making science fun and accessible has required novel approaches to content. To paraphrase a scientist (whose name I forget)_-the less well-understood a phenomenon is, the more likely it will be condoned or condemned.