Nonfiction books for kids can be a good holiday gift — if done right

I see now that I was wrong. For one thing, my grandsons are unlikely to lose their love for me in any circumstance, as long as their grandmother and I continue to supply them with disturbing amounts of ice cream and video game time. But I also realized, after consulting with experts, that I had put too much emphasis on the dearth of nonfiction in the irresistible “What Kids Are Reading” lists put out each year by Renaissance Learning.

Last year, the company’s lists had no nonfiction among the 20 most-read books from kindergarten through third grade. Nonfiction was also rare in the lists for older grades, a notable exception being Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night,” about being a teenage prisoner at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps during World War II.

I have since found research indicating that such reading habits are not the fault of nonfiction-hating children but of lazy adults like me, unconsciously motivated by our own preference for fiction when we were young.

This year, Renaissance Learning put out new and differently organized “What Kids Are Reading” lists that expose my ignorance. Instead of revealing just the most popular print books, the lists show the top 12 print books and top 12 digital books for each grade. And the digital lists are loaded with nonfiction titles, such as “Fast Cars,” by Barbara Alpert, for kindergartners; “Scarlett the Cat to the Rescue: Fire Hero,” by Nancy Loewen, for first-graders; and “Lion vs. Tiger,” by Isabel Thomas, for second-graders.

The ninth-grade list of old-fashioned print books has Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” at No. 1 and “Night” at No. 5. But the digital book list for ninth grade reveals a yearning for real-life spookiness in that age group. The nonfiction “Take Your Pick of Monster Encounters,” by GG Lake, is No. 2, right below the fictional “Creepy Urban Legends” by Tim O’Shei.

Shortly after my flawed rejection of nonfiction for kids in December 2020, three award-winning nonfiction authors, Cynthia Levinson, Melissa Stewart and Jennifer Swanson, scolded me in this newspaper. “The nonfiction books of today are not the textbooks of yesteryear,” they said. “Many kids love nonfiction and would be thrilled to receive an info-licious book on their favorite topic as a gift.”

The 2021 “What Kids Are Reading” report supports their view. The portion of young readers choosing nonfiction print books, it found, climbed from 11 percent in 2003 to 26 percent by fall 2020. In the 9 million hours of digital book reading monitored by Renaissance in fall 2020, 43 percent of that time was spent with nonfiction.

Renaissance Learning, used by about a third of US schools, began 35 years ago when Judi Paul and her husband, Terry, sought ways to motivate their children to read. She created the company’s Accelerated Reader program while sitting at their kitchen table in Port Edwards, Wis.

Gene Kerns, the chief academic officer at Renaissance, said the rise of nonfiction reading by students using its system is somewhat inflated: About 70 percent of the books on its digital reading platform are nonfiction. But that doesn’t alter the fact, he said, that “students are reading more and more nonfiction, and access seems to be a significant factor.”

Levinson, author of “The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art,” told me recently: “The best nonfiction books to get for kids relate to the topics the kids themselves are curious about. Then take into account their reading level and preferred style.”

She gave me a list of nonfiction titles she thought might interest my grandsons. They included “13 Ways to Eat a Fly,” by Sue Heavenrich and David Clark; “Black Hole Chasers: The Amazing True Story of an Astronomical Breakthrough,” by Anna Crowley Redding; and “Flip! How the Frisbee Took Flight,” by Margaret Muirhead.

This year, though, I am not forcing my book choices on the boys. I am waiting for them to tell me what they want.

One of them has already made a request, and it suggests his generation may be rejecting the fiction vs. nonfiction duality. He asked me to give him “Would You Rather?” by Lindsey Daly. It is a game book, and it will let him and his friends compete in making bizarre choices. Points are awarded under a system so complicated I don’t understand it yet.

One choice the book offers: “Would you rather drink a gallon of milk minutes before sprinting in a track meet or eat an entire pizza just before riding a roller coaster?” I don’t know where this is taking us, and I’m not sure whether it would count as fiction or nonfiction, but I bought the paperback for $6.99 and will wrap it soon.

Reading it, at least, will inspire lots of laughter. Perhaps that is what our kids think they need, after the year they’ve just had.

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