Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Teacher's Wish List

When I was thinking about what I would write for this post, after a month filled with family medical stuff, which included intense nerve pain for a month (me); a middle of the night dramatic collapse (husband) followed by 34 hours in a NYC Emergency Room (if only I wrote for grown-ups I'd have enough material for the rest of my life just from the set of rotating characters in the bed next to us), I decided I would take the easy way out and ask some teacher friends of mine to give me a list of books they wish someone would write.

[By the way, so you pay attention to the rest of my post and don't worry too much about us, as I write this, my husband is walking around the apartment strapped to a portable heart monitor, which I've named Halle Berry so he doesn't hate it so much, and which I am convinced will show as that his AFib was not a common occurrence; and my pain has, in the first words of ?John Stuart Mill? (someone else?), somewhat abated. I have every reason to believe we both are going to be o.k., though I must say the most commonly used word around our place lately is "vulnerable"...]

Anyway, thinking I'd let some teachers do the work for me (which in no way reflects my history with teachers, I swear), I started with my friend Jane Ribecky Geist, whom I've known since fourth grade. Jane teaches fifth grade in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we both grew up. Her school is Union Terrace Elementary school. I visited there as an author many years ago and then volunteered in the reading lab, where I got to know the dedicated teachers and the circumstances of much of the student population. I have decided to start and stop with Jane today because what she wrote to me was so moving--and, incidentally, fit emotionally in a profound way with our last month (think vulnerability)--that I don't see the point in going farther right now. But I do hope teachers will chime in with their own wish lists and suggestions.

I asked Jane what was her wish list for nonfiction books for her kids, and here is what she said:

"I wish there was more nonfiction for kids on the unsung heroes in our history. I am just finishing Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I was telling my kids about it and they were enthralled! I even brought the book to school and selected sections for some of them to read. Any time we talk about history - and I mean truly talk about it, no Hallmark card renditions allowed - they don't want to stop! From the explorers to present day (thank you, Miss Laudenslager, for giving us background knowledge), there are people who made our nation what it is today, but they are not written about enough. [Note: Miss Laudenslager was our fifth grade teacher.] Spies, women who did their part, tales of defiance and survival - even the tricky strategies of the known people....when Washington decided to attack the Hessians (Valley Forge) and ignore the generally accepted policy of abstaining from battle on holidays...are excellent topics. My kids don't want to hear that everyone was smart, motivated, and morally sound. Let them know that these people may have been a lot like them. But they were passionate! And that is what allowed them to persevere - something kids in the Allentown School District must do everyday - continue to continue despite the hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives."

What Jane means about the "hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives" is this:

"Most of my kids are emotionally deprived, lacking almost any kind of attention - almost an after-thought by their parents....(due to their parents' struggles)

socially deprived

living at the poverty level


severely lacking in life experiences/background knowledge (some never heard of a groundhog, in 5th grade!!!)

very below grade level

lots with learning disabilities (due to mother's choices while pregnant or lack of nutrition when young or experiences sustained - eating lead paint chips - ??? who really knows...there's just soooo many of this type of child in our school)

often very street-wise

severe lack of boundaries within the home

First hand experience with a lot of violence - seeing dad burn mom, seeing sister shot in gang-related issue, shots outside of their homes, beaten/cigarette-burned themselves, often by those they 'love'

people doing drugs/drinking while kids are right there...."

And yet, they go to my friend Jane's class and she brings the world of history to them. However she can. And those kids, kids who get free breakfast and lunch at school, kids who probably have no books at home, have parents who work two jobs, or don't work at all, kids who have close relatives in jail, etc., these fifth graders are hungry to hear about success. They are captivated by heroes, real-people heroes with foibles and hard lives; people who make bad choices, who struggle and ultimately achieve success.

Let's see what we can do to help--fellow writers, publishers, librarians and teachers. Please, first of all, suggest some books you think Jane might be able to use in her class. Remember that although she teaches fifth grade, she needs books that are written on lower reading levels. (A quick aside, my friend who teaches fourth grade in a private school said she also needs books on historical and scientific topics on lower reading levels.) Second, let's all look for ways to write and publish books, on lower reading levels, about people these kinds of kids can relate to. As I finish this post (on Monday morning) my son just put "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor song on the stereo--

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth

Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

First, Deborah, I'm sorry to hear how rough these past weeks have been and am glad you all seem to be on the mend. (Halle Berry, clever.)

This is an important post, on at least two other levels: reminding us of kids our paths cross who don't get the love and cultural nourishment they should, and reminding our industry that we NEED nonfiction on subjects that have not been covered before in our formats (or ever!). Yes, this is partly self-serving because that's the kind of nonfiction I like to write, but I like to write it largely because it feels fresh. And if a topic feels that way to me, an adult who has read his fair share, wouldn't that go double for young people?

On various occasions I've reminded editors of this - when I sense hesitation due to unfamiliar material - yet there often seems to be a disconnect between what appeals to librarians (and kids) and what the publishers are willing to take a chance on.

Liz said...

Wow. Moving & inspirational post, Deb.

This left me with much to ponder & much to do.

Your friend is a true "unsung hero" and her work is not only kind, generous and important ... it is brave.

Storystitcher said...

As a children's librarian in a public library, I've come to realize that the books Jane wishes for NEED a Jane to bring them to children. When families come to the public library for biographies, I booktalk those unsung hero biographies like crazy, but they most frequently leave with Washington, Lincoln, Helen Keller, or Brittany Spears. (Don't worry. I'll keep on keepin' on.)

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Jane, I for one thank you!

Karen Romano Young said...

This is fantastic and important, Deb. (and Jane!)

Cheryl Harness said...

What knocks me out, greathearted w/ a brain to match, Deb, is that you spin out this moving & provocative posting w/ all the worries you've got going on. May they go & not come back. Your post leads me to wondering if, as the publishers' traditional role continues to shift & crumble, there will be more opportunities to bypass the gatekeepers and serve up more nutritious stories to young readers & their librarians.
And allow me to add that in my post yesterday, I neglected to mention Rosalyn Schanzer's wonderful & vivid How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning.
That Ben - now there's a boy born in hard times who made his way in the world.

Cheryl Harness said...

greathearted & brainy - had I proofread I'd more clearly indicated that I was absolutely referring to Ms. Deb H.

Susan Kuklin said...

Here, here, Deborah. Terrific post.

You managed to get Halle Berry and John Stuart Mill in a single paragraph. Impressive!

More to the point, you remind us why we write for young people.

Let's all acknowledge that lower reading levels does not mean dumb-DOWN. It means raise UP!

Jeri said...

So insightful, Deborah. Thanks for posting your teacher friend's wish list and for your encouragement to those of us in the NF field even while you are dealing with serious problems of your own.
For your friend's class I suggest, among other bios by many great authors, my bios of Benjamin Banneker, Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Matthew Henson, Marian Anderson. These are, except for Abigail, minority men and women who helped make America great, written for just your friend's grade level, and spanning American history from 1776 through the Jim Crow era.
Thanks again for your work.

Caroline McAlister said...

Dear Deborah,
Thank you so much for this post. I almost skipped reading it because I was so busy at work this morning, but I am glad I did. It gives me good ideas for how to craft a query letter for a biography of an unsung hero I am working on.
In Peace,
Caroline McAlister
Author of
Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief

Gretchen Woelfle said...

There are THOUSANDS of great stories about unknown events in history and unfamous people who did great things. But for years now, (and just last weekend,) editors have told me that "we don't buy and can't sell books about people no one has heard of." Catch 23 or what???? Nevertheless, I am still writing books about unfamous people who did great things. Bit of a masochist, I guess.

Anonymous said...

This is such a fabulous and inspiring post. Jane is a treasure. And I so admire all of you here at INK who write literary, accessible nonfiction --

(p.s. Deb, I hope you both are better soon!)

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Regarding Gretchen's comment, I have also tried very hard but without notable success to get my publishers excited about the amazing lives of the not-so-rich-and-famous. Unfortunately, this wonderful but sometimes frustrating business is all tied directly to the publisher's bottom line and to the limits of the school curriculum.

I'm also extremely familiar with schools like Jane's, and I have noticed that picture books written for multiple grade levels work wonders with student like hers.

Betsy Parkes said...

I like books by Steve Sheinkin for this reason. He writes in an irreverent tone that makes historical figures seem a bit more real.

Also, Kathleen Krull's "The Lives of..." books are great for showing the humanity of heros. They don't always get positive reviews from readers (ie: on Amazon). Clearly some people like the cleaned up stories better! One book from her series that might help your friend is "Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame, and What the Neighbors Thought".

For your friend that teaches 4th grade and is looking for a range of books on different history and science topics, maybe this website I've been creating over the last year will help:


There are sections specific to science and history in the navigation at right.

As for books on unsung heros, I'm with everyone else. They are so needed.

Great post. I'm new to your site, but have just bookmarked your page to check back often!

Betsy Parkes

Anonymous said...

Jane and I would like to thank you for your comments. We really appreciate it. And keep them and any suggestions for books coming. Feel free to email me (you can do it through my web site). And thanks to everyone who sent get well wishes. I really appreciate that, too. --Deborah

takefive said...

My students are about the same age as Jane's....I teach 6th graders in both social studies & science. what is particularly unique about my class' needs is this....most books are written for much younger children or for older. It's terribly difficult to find books that are for this upper group.

If I use picture books with this age group (and you can find wonderful books that aren't too young), then they need lots to keep them reading. It puts a huge strain on the library...because they have do interlibrary loaning to keep up with the kids' demands. A picture like Tracking Trash is a perfect example of a great picture book written for my kids. It's not too simple; and it's not too hard; and it can't be read in a single sitting.

The other thing that is a problem is that most non-fiction science books are about planets or animals or life science. No one wants to write much about earth science. If they do, it's rare and hard to find. believe me...we have more than enough titles about planets, space and life-science stuff. I don't know why but people seem to ignore how compelling books about volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, exploring the plates of the earth, and so on can be if you just find the hook.

We also need stories about how these unknown scientists/engineers came to be. The Giants of Science are some of the kids' favorite titles but they are super famous and there are already tons of books about Galileo, Einstein, Newton and so on.

The last category I don't authors have fully explored is historical fiction for this age group. Rick Riordan has done a ton for our age kids...but the reading level is lower than their ability and the stories get pretty predictable if you've read more than one. Contrast that with a book like Crispen...full of history and still compelling. It's also pretty easy to find books for kids related to either the middle ages or ancient Egypt...but what about all the ancient civilizations that are so cool. For example, right now we're studying ancient China. They are fascinating by things like the practice of cricket keeping or how they built the houses so high during the ancient times. Somewhere in all this is a terrific story. Think about the parts of the world that will be important in their lifetimes...and it isn't anything Europe. It will be India, China and the Middle East. Our kids need to understand these parts of the world so much better so that when the headlines breakout with all the violence & distrust; they'll have some understanding of why and those cultures apart from acts of aggression. Imagine the kids surprise when we studied the major religions of the world and they saw that Jerusalem was the holy city for all three religions of that area and there is much to unite those peoples. They just thought they should/have/will always be moral enemies. Or how flooding in Pakistan, Australia and Brazil are being fueled by the same forces...but it so dramatically impacts those populations in much different ways.

These are the topics that will make social studies & science come alive for this age kid. The message isn't diluted to factoids, but put in the context of how it impacts their world.

I encourage you to write for this age group. They are ignored, in my opinion. When they create book awards, they're too young to really read many of the YA type books and too old for others. Another examples of the hard spot it is to be a tween!!!!

Deborah Heiligman said...

Takefive--will you email me please?

Jane Ribecky Geist said...

Thanks to everyone for so many positive comments and suggestions! I have a lot of browsing to do - can't wait to start! Thanks mostly to Deb for keeping me in her loop. To all NF writers...keep on keepin' on! I love what you do.