Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

When I read aloud nonfiction titles to my class, it takes a long time. Often, we stretch a read aloud over weeks. Lots of reading aloud is happening in our room – a novel, various picture books, selections from titles we are book talking and always, always, one or more nonfiction titles.

No, my students don’t forget what was happening between read aloud sessions. Connections are made in the days between. We pick the title up and we loop back into our previous wonders, observations and learning. We bring more to the next time we read because there has been space for more thinking, more questions. And always, our nonfiction read alouds are titles we use to talk and share our thinking.

Turn and Talk. Share out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Lots and lots and lots of talk.

We retell. We predict. We infer. We look for evidence. We list questions. We share observations.

The talking is rich so the learning is rich.

It sounds like:

“I noticed that . . . “

“But we are still wondering why. . . “

“Last time we learned _______ so .  . . “

“My partner and I have a question still.”

“Oh! Now I get how . . . “

“This is connected to what _____ just said: . . .”

So when I finish a nonfiction title, the book has become part of our classroom community. Our shared knowledge. Our shared thinking. Our layers of learning. Often, when I read the last page, the students clap. The jiggle about. We have come out the other side a little more enriched with knowing more about our world. We are celebrating.

Am I reading a variety of nonfiction titles aloud? I think so. I am so very conscious of this thanks to the conversations I have had via twitter and blogs with authors and educators who read, write and share nonfiction titles. I am particularly indebted to author Melissa Stewart and educator Alyson Beecher for stretching my thinking. When I think back to titles we have read deeply and meaningfully, I find narrative non fiction like biographies and nature themed books feature big. But I also read a lot of expository titles. And I often share snippets from what Melissa Stewart calls Fast Facts titles. See her Pinterest pages for specific examples.

So if I am exposing my students to a variety of styles, what do they think? Are they enjoying the genres we are reading? Starting with picture book biographies, I asked :-)

 The Tree Lady  Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

Yesterday, we finished The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. When I closed the book, there was the reaction I love. The big smiles. The big breath in. The sitting up straighter. The perfect time to grab their thinking while the reactions were fresh. I asked questions and wrote down all of these thoughtful responses. Sharing here:

Me: “So what words describe how we are feeling right now?”

Class: “Hopeful.” “Energized.” “Joy” “Like standing up and connecting to the Earth.” “Smarter.” “I like Kate so much. It happened a long time ago but her soul probably still speaks for trees.” “She was one person who did so much.”

Me: “This is one of many picture book biographies we have shared together. Last year we read Me . . . Jane (by Patrick McDonnell), Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman), The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos (written by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham), etc. Why biographies? Why do you think I share these with you? Why do you like these titles? What are you thinking?”

Class: “I like to know about what other people did.” “I like those books that tell the story of someone who can’t but then they did.” “Kids can learn a lot.” “It inspires us.” “”I respect people who helped us in the past.” “I feel grateful.”

Me: “Why do you think authors keep writing biographies?”

Class: “We are really interested. They know we will be.” “People can know about the past.” “It’s so we can know that one person can change things.” “So we will know history.” “Kids should know how things have transformed.”

Me: “How do these books make you feel?”

Class: “They show me not to be scared.” “They make me feel happy and inspired.” “Yeah, lots of inspired.” “People can do big things.” “I am learning history. About people who changed a city, or a country or the world!” “I like learning so much.” “This book also teaches us about community and dreams. We should think about that.” “Yeah. Cuz we will grow up and be adults. So we need to learn lots now.”

Me: “Okay. But here’s the thing, I usually read these titles to you. Then, a lot of you read them again. Or take them out from the library. But . . . would you choose to read these books on your own?”

Class: “Yes! Because I get to know facts and share them with other people.” “I don’t know where to find them in all libraries.” “Yes, because now I know there is lots of science in them.” “The librarians should make a big sign and an arrow – learn about interesting people in these books!” “It’s books that inspire you. We like that.” “It’s all new stuff. It’s nonfiction. I love nonfiction!”

Me: “But what if I had never read any picture book biographies to you? Would you choose to read them on your own?”

Class: A pause happened.

Then everyone started talking at once and I couldn’t write down specific comments. But I can summarize. Most students said that teachers need to show their students about these books. My language/their sentiment: Lots of exposure to this genre as classroom read alouds (where you get to talk and write and think together) will hook kids on this genre. Many expressed that they like that these books are written like a story that they can just settle into and at the same time learn facts and be inspired. Some said they wouldn’t like to read a biography organized like other nonfiction titles with fact boxes, etc. because it would distract them from the person’s story. Some pointed out that some of the language would be too hard for some kids to read on their own. So that these titles could first be read alouds and then be books they could read on their own when they were older. “Because we won’t forget about them,” one student added.

Me: “Should we read more picture book biographies this year?”

Class: “Yes!” “Six thumbs up!” “Like next week?”

My learning? It is still settling in. But a few things stand out.

  • It is imperative that we expose children to a variety of nonfiction genres
  • We need to name the genre. Talk about its purpose. Discuss how we feel and what we have learned.
  • Stories hook us. Stories that are full of learning and one particular story touch us deeply.
  • Conversation with children about what we are reading and talking about is so very rich

I wrote a series of blog posts in the summer about teaching with nonfiction titles. This post: Part 3: Interacting with nonfiction: getting students reading, thinking and talking together highlights some of what I am trying to emphasize here.

I plan to engage in conversations with my students about other nonfiction genres and share their thinking. Please let me know if this is helpful or interesting to you as you think about read aloud choices, nonfiction purchases, instruction around reading and sharing nonfiction titles.

*Note, my class is a Grade 3/4 class that I looped from a Grade 2/3/4 last year.



Celebration: Friday favourites

Some mornings we just have no idea. I left for work Friday in the pouring rain. In the dark. Feeling tired. Not looking forward to a weekend of report card writing. It seemed to be a Friday to finish. To get on the other side of. Instead, it was a Friday of wow moments. My smiling started before the first bell had even rung and it just got brighter. This was a beautiful teaching day. A day of funny. A day of focus. A day of inspired moments.

Sharing five favourites.

#1 Why is it so important to have a classroom library full of fantastic books? Because of moments like this. A student who brings her little sister in early to read to her.

“Should I read you this book? Okay, sit down. Let’s start.”

My classroom is a room for readers. Present, future and past. Nothing is better than that.

Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

#2 Reading Workshop is in full swing and full of conversations that make me know it is all coming together. I had the pleasure of listening to this reader read aloud to me today. We talked about fluency. It went something like this (I took notes!).

Me: “Your reading is becoming so much smoother. You are changing your speed, your tone, your volume. It is so enjoyable to listen to you read. What do you think has helped you improve so much? What has worked?”

S: “It’s not just me. It’s you. Because you talk about all of those things and you show me when you read aloud. You teach me when you show me. And Reading Workshop really helps me. I get to read so many books and all of the words in so many books.”

Me: “So you like all of the time we have to read everyday? It makes a difference for you?”

S: “Yes. There’s a lot of books in here. Kids need lots of books.”

Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

#3 We finished reading The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry today. Our discussion was so thoughtful and mature. It stretched into a conversation about nonfiction picture book biographies and reading preferences. I was so inspired, I think it will become a blog post. I love learning from my students.

Update: It did. Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

 Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

#4 Math was wonderfully focussed today. We worked on representing  and solving multiplication equations with multiplies of 100. Students recognized that 300 x 3 (300 groups of 3) can be switched to 3 x 300 (3 groups of 300) and more easily solved. “I’m doing the switch thing,” they kept announcing. So, wonderful. A productive math class. And then part way through lunch, 5 girls showed up. “We’ll be quiet. Can we do more math?” How do you say no to that?

Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

#5 Every year my Mom makes hats for every child in my room. And all of the Ks and all of the 1s at my school. She also knits hats for my sister’s K classroom and the K classroom across the hall from her. Yes. Really! My students got their hats today and wore them all afternoon. We wrote poems about our new hats. We kept them on through Choices time at the end of the day. These girls are writing songs. With their hats on. I think it improved the creative process!

Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

At the end of the day, I asked for some group pictures. Just smiling is never enough for my class. We have to pose doing various emotions. I call them out, they eagerly comply. “Show me silly.” “Show me excited.” “Now do tired.” “Big smiles.” The photo below is “shocked”

Can’t get much cuter.

Celebration:  Friday favourites There's a Book for That

This week I celebrate fantastic days that come out of nowhere. Days that make me so happy I do what I do. Days where I get knocked over by the awe and joy I feel for my students.


Thank you to Ruth Ayres, for the inspiration and her Celebration Link up that she hosts each week. I love how being a part of this #celebratelu community reminds us weekly to look for the positive and take some time for gratitude.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Student Voices

Mingan: My village Poems by Innu Schoolchildren by Rogé

With participation of Joséphine Bacon, Rita Mestokosho and Laure Morali.

 Mingan My village Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Student Voice There's a Book for That

I have the feeling I could write nothing about this title and that just from the cover image, you will seek it out.

Anybody nodding?

And really, you should. Seek. Read. Share it with students. It is beautiful on every level.

After spending a few days with children in Mingan, an Innu village in northeastern Quebec, Rogé painted portraits of the children he photographed. Through writer’s workshops, the children wrote the poetry that is shared in this book. The writing could speak of so many things in these children’s experiences. These poems depict a rich connection to nature, an honouring of the natural world and an awe of the beauty that surrounds us.

Some poems are written by one author. Others are collaborations. I love much of the imagery. Here is a portion of a favourite piece:

It snows on the planets

When we walk on the sky

And these words just stopped me.

When the ravens become white

I will stop loving you

More than forty percent of the students who attend my school are Aboriginal. I have just ordered my own copy of this title so it can be a part of our classroom library. Student voice. Student expression. The magic of poetry. I want all of these things to be inspiration to my students. I want them to find their power to observe, to share and to connect through the words of these children on the other side of our country.

When I ordered this title, I also ordered another title by Rogé that has been getting a lot of recent attention for its gorgeous illustrations:

Haiti My country: Poems by Haitian Schoolchildren

Haiti My Country  Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Student Voice There's a Book for That

Are these titles nonfiction? Yes and no. I think they can be stretched between genres. That these poems capture so much truth, that they inspire the reader to think about a place and a specific time and seek out maps and more information, this is my reason to nudge these titles, for today, into the nonfiction world.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2014. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


My goal is to read 65 nonfiction picture books for 2014. Progress: 121/65 complete!

Monday November 17th, 2014

It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

My favourite reading photo of the week is of these two boys acting out Elephant and Piggie titles during buddy reading. They got completely into the roles!

Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Join Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and share all of the reading you have done over the week from picture books to young adult novels. Follow the links to read about all of the amazing books the #IMWAYR community has read. It’s the best way to discover what to read next.


I found a wonderful bunch of picture books this week. Sharing my favourites here:

Countablock written by Christopher Franceschelli; art by Peskimo

This book is literally a block. A chunk of interesting pages in a sort of board book format but think super size. Count up to 100. Throw in a little cause and effect (Three boxes become. . . (turn the page) three forts) Lots of counting. Bright colours. And a surprise at the end. So much fun that I had to buy it for our classroom buddy reading collection. I know the kindergarten kids will delight in sharing this title with my students.

Countablock Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Waiting is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Piggie has a surprise and Gerald needs to wait to find out what it is. If you know Gerald, you can imagine that waiting is not a talent he has. His impatience is very amusing. What exactly is the surprise? Well . . . it is worth the wait. And, no, I’m not telling.

Waiting is Not Easy! Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Norman, Speak! written by Caroline Adderson and illustrated by Qin Leng

So what happens if the dog you get from the animal shelter doesn’t understand your language? Well, Norman’s new family are willing to do a lot so that they can begin communicating with Norman. My students found this book very interesting!

norman, speak! Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

May the Stars Drip Down written by Jeremy Chatelain and illustrated by Nikki McClure

A beautiful, soothing lullaby. A work of art.

May the Stars Drip Down Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Watch this video of Nikki McClure talking about making the images for this book. Soothing. Calm. Slow. Beautiful.

Big Bad Bubble written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Rubin and Salmieri are quite the team. They make quirky books. This one is especially silly and the monsters especially fetching. It will not appeal to everyone. Some might find it too odd.  I think as a read aloud it has big potential and will be one of those books that certain kids will obsess over.

Big Bad Bubble Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

More monster love. Leonardo may not be the best monster but he has some pretty great endearing qualities.

Leonardo Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Small Medium Large: A Book about Relative Sizes written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Tomek Bogacki

Amazing title to support the vocabulary around describing sizes from minuscule to enormous. So very clever.

Small Medium Large Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle

Oh Flora, on ice and with an energetic penguin, you are the perfect blend of graceful and flummoxed as your skating partner appears and reappears mid move. Absolutely charming.

Flora and the Penguin Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen

Reading Sam & Dave Dig a Hole pulls you deep into a “theorizing hole” and digging in, around and out is highly satisfying. Picture book brilliance through and through.

I loved that after reading this title, I could finally read Travis Jonker‘s fantastic post:

6 Theories on the Ending of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole

I am not going to add any of my theories here. I just love that 1) Right from the cover, the wondering begins.

I hope they don’t bury the dog,” my husband commented when I handed him the book to read.

And 2) as soon as you finish, you have to start again to deal with that “Huh? Hold on” kind of feeling.

Can’t wait to share this with my class.

 Sam & Dave Dig a Hole Monday November 17th, 2014 IMWAYR There's a Book for That

What Can a Crane Pick Up? written by Rebecca Kai Dotlich and illustrated by Mike Lowery

I bought this book for many reasons. So many that I will actually start a list.

  1. I love the rhyming text. And I don’t usually like rhyming text.
  2. I think this is a perfect book to read and reread to get the rhythm right.
  3. So . . . it is the ideal buddy reading book and will go in our buddy reading bin.
  4. Any excuse to visit the nostalgic place of construction equipment that I no longer get asked to read since my son is 12 and not a toddler anymore. Sigh.
  5. The bright illustrations.
  6. And . . . there is a page of cartons and cartons of library books (held up by cranes using chains and hooks). Yep!
  7. So with number 6, I was pretty much sold. Which is probably obvious.
  8. I need this crane to come with me to the library :-)

What Can a Crane Pick Up?

I also finished the brilliant Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Verse novels hold so much power to literally wrap us up in evocative images and in this case, personal history. In some senses, it feels like spying to be so close. A beautifully written memoir of a time and a place – oh so personal but yet, with connections and links to many more than young Jacqueline Woodson. A gift to readers.

brown girl dreaming

Next? I am in the middle of  Nest by Esther Ehrlich and then plan to read Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

It’s Picture Book Month! This week I shared two posts in celebration:

pb month logo

Picture Books that Celebrate Courage

 Picture Books that Celebrate Courage

Picture Books that Model Perseverance


Reading Goal Updates: 

2014 Chapter Book Challenge: 72/100 novels complete

Goodreads Challenge: 531/650 books read (38 books behind)

#MustReadin2014: 21/30 complete

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: 120/65 complete

Picture Books that model perseverance

It’s Picture Book Month and I have picture books on my mind. I am beginning to think in lists. Often. It may be a syndrome. Picturebooklistitis? Something like that.

On Friday, I had some parent meetings in the a.m. It was lovely to talk about students who have demonstrated improvement in goal areas due to persistence, determination and creative approaches to problems. Heading home, after school, I started thinking about picture books on this theme of persistence.

What exactly was I thinking about? All of the synonyms for perseverance: persistence, tenacity, determination . . . But also being able to solve problems with creativity or a different/unique approach. A lot of it has to do with being able to focus but also being able to think outside of the box. Sometimes it is just about, simple but tough, hard work and diligence.

I think all of these picture books highlight a particular aspect of this theme and in their own way, model perseverance.

Twenty favourite titles:

These ten beauties:

Picture Books that model perseverance

And ten more:

Picture Books that model perseverance There's a Book for That

Twenty picture book titles that model perseverance:

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen

Rosie Revere, Engineer written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Prudence Wants a Pet written by Cathleen Daly and illustrated by Stephen Michael King

Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley

Papa’s Mechanical Fish written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Boris Kulikov

If You Want to See a Whale written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Rosyln Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth by Marie-Louise Gay

Ice by Arthur Geisert

Flight School by Lita Judge

A House in the Woods by Inga Moore

The Mighty Lalouche written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds 

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires 

A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead

Oscar and Hoo written by Theo and illustrated by Michael Dudok De Wit

Queen of the Falls by Chris VanAllsburg 

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Ten Birds by Cybèle Young

In case you’ve missed them, I have been making more lists:

Picture Books that celebrate courage

Picture Books to make you giggle

Happy Picture Book Month!

pb month logoAs always, please share your favourite titles on this theme!

Celebration: “I have 5 things to share.”

When we do our weekly gratitude circle I have a few girls who often announce, “I’ve got 3 (or 4 or 5) things to share.” And then they happily rattle off all of the things they are thankful for. It is quite delightful. I admire their focus. And their big hearts. So . . . today I celebrate that I have 5 things to share :-)

I am grateful that one Mom takes numerous photos at my son’s soccer games (great photos always!) and sends them out to all of the parents. As I am taking my daughter to her musical theatre classes, I don’t often get to the soccer games. These photos give me a peek! My son has the hot pink cleats.

Celebration: "I have 5 things to share."

I am grateful for strong coffee on Saturday mornings and a good book that I can fall into before most of the house wakes up. Currently, this is the novel I can’t put down. Celebration: "I have 5 things to share." There's a Book for ThatI am grateful for connections with authors. This week we got a letter back from Elise Gravel, author of The Disgusting Critters series. I read it aloud in gratitude circle. Can you say happy listeners? Celebration: "I have 5 things to share." There's a Book for ThatI am grateful for buddy reading with the kindergarten class. My class steps up and makes the entire experience magical. The Ks will see me in the hall and say things like, “Oh, it isn’t Wednesday. We don’t get to come to buddy reading today.” Or – “We’re coming to your class today! Your kids are going to read to us!” This is guaranteed happy time! Celebration: "I have 5 things to share." There's a Book for ThatI am grateful for the wisdom my students share during Reading Workshop. It is my pleasure to record and post them! Reading Workshop this week has been full of focussed reading, great conferences and student chatter about books they are enjoying. Celebration: "I have 5 things to share." There's a Book for ThatThank you also to Ruth Ayres, for the inspiration and her Celebration Link up that she hosts each week. I love how being a part of this #celebratelu community reminds us weekly to look for the positive and take some time for gratitude. celebrate-link-up

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: The Open Ocean

To celebrate Picture Book Month I am continuing to share conversations I have about particular picture books. This isn’t so much a conversation as an ooh and ahh fest I had with my own two children while exploring this nonfiction title.

The Open Ocean by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais is an oversized title that invites the reader to guess, read more, lift flaps and absorb amazing information. This title kept my two 12 year olds completely interested and engaged as we interacted with this gorgeous book. Our favourite 2 page spread was the section that showed closeups of shells, scales and other textures on various sealife. We didn’t guess any correctly! So much to interact with in this title.

 The Open Ocean Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday

Our favourite facts?

  • The compass jellyfish changes gender over its lifetime (“That’s just too strange,” remarked my son.)
  • The blue whale is one of longest living creatures.
  • The sea urchin is named after a hedgehog.
  • An octopus is super smart! It can open jars.(“But what are those scientists doing having it be in a lab to do experiments on? Terrible! Unless it is just tests? Do they release them after?” – this from my daughter.)
  • A sunfish can weigh over 500 pounds!
  • The swordfish is one of the fastest fish.
  • No one really knows how long lobsters live. They can live to be over 100 and they always seem to die for other reasons before perishing from old age.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2014. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


My goal is to read 65 nonfiction picture books for 2014. Progress: 120/65 complete!