Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Common Core and Nonfiction: How Does It All Fit Together

I had the pleasure of being on a panel for on April 25, 2013 as part of the Massachusetts Library Association annual conference at the Hyatt in Cambridge Massachusetts. For anyone interested, these are my written comments for THE COMMON CORE AND NONFICTION: HOW DOES IT ALL FIT TOGETHER. The blurb:

The Common Core and Nonfiction:  How Does It All Fit Together?
The Common Core is here, but what does it mean for library collections?  Join the MLA Youth Services Section for an overview of the curriculum changes as well as some highlights of the future of nonfiction publishing.  Presented by the MLA Youth Services Section.

Speakers:  Kristine Carlson Asselin, Author; Deborah Kops, Author; Rebecca J. Morris, MLIS, PhD, Assistant Professor, School Library Teacher Program, Simmons College; Lou Pingatore, Pingi Bookstore.

 The Common Core and Non-Fiction: How Does It All Fit Together?
I first have to give a shout out to the staff of the Reuben Hoar Library in Littleton! They are awesome—I use the library and the interlibrary loan program for almost all of my research.
I have published exclusively with educational publishers (Capstone Press and Abdo Publishing) on a work-for-hire basis. So basically, I work on assignment. I get a call or an email from a publisher or an editor and they ask if I’m interested in taking on a given project. My first project was assigned in the fall of 2008 (WHO REALLY DISCOVERED AMERICA), with the first book being published in January 2010 (THE EARTH SIGNS).
As a freelance writer, my strength is my ability to research, not any particular field of study.
According to Karen Springen in an article from the July 18, 2012 issue of Publisher’s Weekly titled What Common Core Means for Publishers, “Core authors want students to think more critically about what they’re reading, rather than just summarizing text; to compare multiple sources in different formats; and to give more sourced evidence, and less personal opinion, in their writing.”
What that tells me is that educators are going to be looking for more material on a lot of topics. And that librarians are going to feel the trickle down effect as kids come looking for nonfiction. I’m not an expert on the Common Core, but I’m excited about the opportunities that seem to be available for us as writers with the new standards. It seems like there will be an increased demand for nonfiction material, across a variety of topics, in different reading levels, and with different source material. So that’s good for writers; more demand means more work for us.
When I get an assignment from a publisher, they usually give me a sense of the length, style, timeframe, and the salary—and then I decide if I can do it or not. Some projects are easier than others, as you can imagine; it often depends on the topic, but sometimes I have to make decisions based on the deadline or the pay.
For the most part, I attack the project like an intense term project—it all starts with good research, much like what we are training our kids to do through the new Common Core standards.
Research is always easier said than done. One question I’m often asked is about the standards for writing non-fiction. I can only speak to Abdo and Capstone, but the standards for those two publishers are very high. Every things is footnoted. My two most recent biographies for Abdo were on Martin Luther King, Jr. (due out in August 2013) and Jennifer Lopez (published in January 2013), for the essential lives  and contemporary lives series respectively. They are both written for a 6th grade and up level, 14,000 words, and both have almost 300 footnotes. However, those source notes are VERY different. JLO sources were live interviews from the web that I transcribed, podcasts, pop culture sources (like magazines and websites). MLK sources were more academic, newspapers, and books. Those notes don’t appear in the final text, but the publisher fact checks the entire document after I submit. Capstone Press books are shorter—closer to 4,000 words, but  the word to footnote ratio is about the same (about 90 footnotes or one footnote per every 45 words).
Both publishers demand that the text be accurate, but it also needs to be interesting. High Interest. As an author, this is a no-brainer. For me, most of the time, the voice/narrative comes second, but it’s no less important to make the work come alive for the reader. Ultimately, as a writer, that’s the passion—that a child read my book and the subject matter comes alive.
So…when I read that the common core requires “well-researched informational text, well-crafted narrative text, and readings that engage critical analysis and reward rereading,” (from a PW article on 4/10/2013 called WHAT IS COMMON CORE),  I’m left wondering what are we going to be doing that’s that much different from what we’re already doing: Writing cool things about interesting topics that make kids think and want to read it again.
 For this panel, I looked at my body of work in a statistical sense. Since my first assignment in 2008, I’ve written fourteen nonfiction books for the school library market with educational publishers. Three are biographies, five are history (US, and/or ancient history), three are science, two are “how to research”, and one is pop culture (astrology). I think that these stats say more about my editors needs than any specific trend, but it is interesting that the variety of subjects has been so wide.
Capstone Press has a comprehensive mission statement around the Common Core, which they sent me when I asked about what they were doing. It includes the creation of instructional pieces that support classroom teachers, as well as the creation of new publications aligned with the new standards. Of creating new material to specific tenants of the common core, 4 out of 6 action items relate to nonfiction. (from Capstone text about Common Core).
I think we’re going to see a big influx of nonfiction being written; both in the trade publishers and educational publishers. It’s not all going to be great, but some of it will be amazing. My advice to librarians is to make decisions about nonfiction purchases the same way you make decisions about fiction; recommendations, reviews, and reputation. Trust that the publishers are still working out what common core means just like we are; but the good ones are going to try to align their products with what kids and teachers and librarians need to be successful.

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