Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Power of Non-Fiction

Alex Grant, the young man pictured here, is the subject of this post. Before I get to him, I wish to make an announcement that is tangentially, but delightfully, related.

The power of non-fiction, and the myriad ways that educators, authors and other creative people can harness it, will be the subject of The 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, to be held on June 14-16 at SUNY New Paltz, about 80 miles north of New York City. Among many stellar speakers are INK’s own Vicki Cobb and Melissa Stewart, along with Kent Brown of the Highlights Foundation, Robin Terry of National Geographic Children’s Publishing and other luminaries. The conference includes 23 workshops, three intensives, two panels, six meals and unlimited networking opportunities. Details at http://www.childrensNFconference.com; further information from organizer Sally Isaacs, sisaacs@starconsultinginc.com

Now about Alex. We met early on a chilly February morning on a footbridge in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 60 mile east of Phoenix. We were among a dozen or so birding enthusiasts who had gathered for the weekly guided bird walk sponsored by the Arboretum. Alex and I discussed two related birds, initially indistinguishable to my eyes. Both were wrens, small songbirds with barred tails and thin bills. Binoculars lifted, Alex pointed out the differences: the canyon wren had more distinct coloration  —  reddish brown wings and back, and a bright white throat, compared with the paler, grayish brown rock wren whose throat lacked the lustrous white. Alex spoke eagerly, with the facts at his command and a confidence that belied his age: 15. Very soon he might be leading walks like this, as his reputation had reached the Arboretum and a ranger had invited him to become a volunteer bird guide — the Arboretum's youngest by far. He and his parents had come on this walk while he considered the offer. 

Rock Wren
Canyon Wren
Later, as the sun finally warmed the air enough for us to shed an outer layer or two, I asked Alex’s mother, Sonja Grant, about her son’s zeal for birds. It had begun during the summer between first and second grade. The catalyst was a book called Birds of the World. Alex had checked it out of the library and it had changed his life. True, he had already shown a keen interest in nature, and he'd owned books about birds as well as sharks, insects and other taxa. He’d read some of them so many times that their pages had fallen out. But with its dazzling photos and engaging text, Birds of the World had taken Alex to a new level of interest that he calls “a deep passion.” Before long, the passion spread to both of his parents, and the family had a new hobby. School vacations became extended birding outings in Arizona, California, Texas and Maine, the trips oriented around an important statistic—the number of species seen between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of the year. That number had reached 306 in 2012. Birders refer to a year in which they keep count as "a big year"; the Grants decided to do another big year in 2013, and by mid-May their list was up to 263 species.

Finishing his freshman year at Gilbert High School in Gilbert, AZ, Alex is homing in on a college education and career in ornithology. And it all started with a non-fiction book.

I am reminded of a quote I once saw from a Jo Carr (if you know who she is, please let me know): “You can almost divide non-fiction into two categories: non-fiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and non-fiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit.” I don’t know anything about the book that turned Alex into a bird lover (a fair number of books bear the title Birds of the World). It may even fall in the “stuffs in fact” genus in Jo Carr’s taxonomy but clearly it ignited Alex Grant’s imagination and illuminated the apparent direction of his life. 

Many modalities of non-fiction (in the form of books and other media) will be explored at the New Paltz conference. Perhaps the one you teach or create will ignite a child’s life, or your own.


Vicki Cobb said...

Thanks for the plug, David. This is iNK's first corporate sponsorship, so we're in the spotlight.

I once acknowledged my favorite elementary school teacher by dedicating a series of books to him. He was astounded and said to me,"Teaching is such a blind profession. You never know where a seed you planted will bloom." The same thing can be said for us authors. Thanks for the reminder.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Nice post, David. On my tired or discouraged days, I sometimes think about the possibility that a kid could be introduced to a subject or idea for the first time by that paragraph I'm struggling over. It makes me try harder.

Alicia said...

Really enjoyed this post and the great quote from Jo Carr. I'm already signed up to attend the New Paltz conference so this was just another exciting trailer for the program...