Reviewing Nonfiction: Transcript from December 3 Chat

Editor Kiera left this message 17 days ago:

Hello SLJ Reviewers! We’ll be hosting the next chat right here on Thursday, December 3 at 4pm ET. See you then!

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Hi everyone! Welcome to the SLJ Reviewer Chat. We are going to get started in about 4 minutes. In the meantime, feel free to say hi and tell us where you’re from. :)

Editor Kiera joined the chat 69 minutes ago

Hilary: Hello. I’m Hilary from Lexington, KY.

Minerva Alaniz: Hello, Everyone

Lisa N: Good Afternoon from cold and dreary Dayton Metro Library in Ohio

Editor Mahnaz: hi everyone!

Jennie: I’m Jennie from Arlington, VA

Minerva Alaniz: I am from Texas Tech University in Lubbock TX

sstone: Hi everybody! I’m Sarah from San Francisco.

Carol E: Carol from sunny Denver. It’s sunny today at least.

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vreutt joined the chat 65 minutes ago

Liz Friend: Liz Friend from Frisco, Texas.

Maggie K.: Maggie Knapp from Fort Worth Texas is in da houze

Kristy joined the chat 64 minutes ago

Kristy: Kristy from Wellesley, MA

vreutt: Vicki Reutter from Syracuse NY

Patricia joined the chat 64 minutes ago

vreutt: What’s the theme today?

Editor Kiera: Alright everybody–let’s get this party started! For those new to the chat format, it’s pretty easy and informal. Today we have a set topic: evaluating and reviewing nonfiction. Mahnaz Dar, our brilliant nonfiction editor, will be giving us tips and best practices. She’s also here to answer all your pressing nonfiction questions. With that, I’ll hand the “mic” over to Mahnaz.

Editor Mahnaz: Hi everyone! Mahnaz Dar here, SLJ’s nonfic editor. I’m happy to be here, and I see some familiar “faces,” too! :)

Minerva Alaniz: Hello Mahnaz.

Editor Mahnaz: Nonfiction is awesome, and these days more than ever! So I just wanted to share some tips and best practices, as well as launch some possible conversation starters.

Patricia: I’m in Newport, RI–but not in a mansion . . .

Editor Mahnaz: hi Minerva :)

vreutt: I recently thought I saw a book by Myra and Marc Aronson about nonfiction literacy? Can Myra confirm?

Myra Zarnowski: I think you mean a book from ILA that Marc and I had a chapter in. That’s us!

Editor Kiera: Oh, very cool topic, Myra!

Editor Mahnaz: One really important thing to note with a nonfiction review is to remember to focus on the book. If you want to describe the person or event (if they are obscure), do so, but remember to tie it back to the book. How does the BOOK describe Beatrix Potter or Thomas Jefferson?

Editor Kiera: Great point, Mahnaz. I’ve edited some reviews that talk a great deal about the subject itself, but don’t spend enough time on evaluating how the author treats the subject.

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Patricia: How much fact-checking is the minimum (because it could go on indefinitely!), or is there no rule of thumb?

Maggie K.: As a buyer, I always appreciate when the reviewer notes the “look” of the book as well. For example, are photos B&W or color? Are pages glossy (if photos are a main component) or not. In other words, will the book be appealing on display?

Tamara: What if the book focuses more on the events and the other person around the subject, because they have limited information on the subject itslef?

Editor Kiera: Patricia: Re: Fact-checking… it can be a book-by-book determination. As editors, we do try to send you books that we think you may have a knowledge base of. For example, we have just a handful of reviewers who do hard sciences. I, for one, couldn’t fact-check that kind of information. But I know several reviewers who have some good hard science backgrounds.

Editor Mahnaz: Good point, Maggie K.! The design is so important, and we definitely ask reviewers to note the look in their reviews.

Editor Kiera: We aren’t in the business of fact-checking each and every point presented, but if something doesn’t feel right to you–if it’s not documented or cited, for example, that is a red flag.

Editor Mahnaz: Back matter matters! Remember to check out things like notes/sources, bibliography, author’s note–these are all key elements of a nonfiction text. For instance, are there really difficult words in the book that aren’t mentioned in the glossary? That could be an issue.

Editor Kiera: Tamara: Do you have a specific example in mind?

Brenda: I know one thing that bothers me whenever I’m reviewing non-fiction is the lack of backmatter, even indexes!

Tamara: Just finished Marroned in the Artic to review, but most of the book focuses on the men and the events, because so little is known of Ada Blackjack.

Tamara: All you know is she joined to earn money for her sick son, and that she wrote in her diary Thanking God she survived, and what the men wrote in their diaries about her.

Maggie K.: Any comments to make on the recent practice of bringing out “young readers” editions of adults books? Ex: I am Malala, The Finest Hours, Unbroken — seems more and more popular. Would reviewer need to read both books to know what parts were abridged or left out?

Editor Mahnaz: Hi Maggie, that’s a good question. I do suggest that reviewers read or at least familarize themselves with the adult version, just so they can see how well the abridger did their job.

Editor Mahnaz: Plus, in some instances, the adult book isn’t all that difficult, which often makes you think…well, could, say, a teen reader just read the adult version? is the abridged version necessary?

Editor Mahnaz: I am reading both the abridged and adult version of Charles Mann’s 1493 and I think it’s a good example of a very complex text, where the abridger was necessary to make the book accessible to a younger audience.

Editor Kiera: Tamara: I would say it depends on the subject, but it’s definitely worth mentioning in a review. For example, you’d probably want to mention in your review that most of the facts we have about Ada Blackjack are secondary sources–like the examples you just gave. And you’d want to think about how good a job this book does on presenting a picture of this person–given the limitations of the sources.

Carol E: Is that part of the review?

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Tamara: I read I am Maala the adult one, and it wasn’t that hard.

Myra Zarnowski: I have noticed more and more of these young readers editions. I am concerned about the writing style of these books. Sometimes someone other than the author is doing the “writing.” What this can mean is that the author’s original sentences are shortened and less descriptive. On the other hand, if the original author does the writing, it is usually better.

Editor Kiera: Carol: Which part are you referring to?

Carol E: Referring to is the kid or teen version necessary?

Tamara: Um, no Ada doesn’t really seem present much in the books. After reading Typhoid Mary, which was mostly secondary sources, Ada seems flat.

Editor Mahnaz: That’s true, Myra. I would be curious to know how much input authors have when it comes to new editions of their books.

Editor Kiera: Carol: Oh, I see. Usually we include the fact that it is a young reader or teen adaptation within the bibliographic header. But when the abridgment either hinders or helps the presentation of the material, then it could very well be worth noting in the review itself.

Editor Mahnaz: Or if something is “lost in abridgement,” that might be worth noting, too!

vreutt: I think teachers are conflicted – wanting titles for less fluent readers, but being asked to find rigorous texts for close reading

Carol E: I have a hard time placing the book within context of what other material or resources have come before, noting the design, the handling of the material and all within the word limit. Hints and help?

Editor Kiera: Tamara: I see. So yeah, sometimes it’s a matter of there simply not being enough sources for an author to make a full presentation. Other times it’s a failure on the part of the author to paint the picture. As you mention–the Typhoid Mary one did a great job, even given the lack of many primary sources. So that’s an excellent thing to be looking for as you evaluate.

Jennie: I do like that more and more often the writers they bring in are authors who write for young readers on a regular basis (such as Patricia McCormick or Susan Campbell Bartoletti). I often find they’ve had much better editing

Editor Kiera: Jennie–agree. A very skilled children’s/teen author can do wonders with a tome that even adults might snooze through. But it’s tricky. I’ve seen great and terrible examples of abridged nonfiction.

Editor Mahnaz: Carol E, that’s a really good point. It’s really good to make comparisons to other materials, but what’s most important is to convey what the book does/how it does it. Often if you’re running over wordcount, you can put a list of similar titles in the notes field, and yr editor can help edit it down.

Maggie K.: Just to say Jim

Jennie: Me too–but they seem to be getting much better in general

Tamara: I love Bartoletti’s writing. Also, Steve Sheinkin is great. Reluctant readers can really get into his writing.

Editor Kiera: It certainly helps if, as reviewers, we are as least somewhat familiar with the adult or original version.

Maggie K.: Murphy’s new Breakthough is fabulous

Editor Mahnaz: Oh yes, we loved that one! :)

Maggie K.: OK, I am a bad typist. Jim Murphy’s new Breakthrough is fabulous! Only seen an ARC, but loved it.

Tamara: What is Breakthrough about? Am curious. . .

Editor Mahnaz: So a big part of reviewing NF is noting mistakes or omissions the author may have made. Because we are dealing with facts/info, it’s really good to support your points with page numbers. Even if you dont have space for everything in your review, you can use the NOTES field to list problems/page numbers to back up, for instance, an assertion that the author has made mistakes about a person’s life.

Editor Kiera: Yes–and anytime you want to let an editor know about something that you–for whatever reason–don’t feel you can put in the review, use the Notes. for example, if you suspect a book of using harmful stereotypes or of being culturally insensitive but you’re not quite sure how to articulate that in your review, flag it for us in the Notes field and we’ll investigate.

Hilary: Mahnaz and Kiera you just answered a question I was about to type. Thank you!

Editor Kiera: Some reviewers use the notes field simply to tell us “This book is a STAR! And here’s why…” That’s also useful for us

Editor Mahnaz: Yes, sometimes it’s best to chat these things out with a friendly editor. :)

Maggie K.: I will need to run soon. Thank you so much for helpful commne

Editor Mahnaz: Thanks for coming, Maggie! It was great having you, and we hope you return to future chats!!

Editor Kiera: Thanks for joining us, Maggie. I’ll try to save this chat archive later so you can catch up on what you missed.

Editor Mahnaz: Something I’ve noticed lately is that there are a lot of books that fictionalize and blur the lines between speculation and fact. Can it be done? Do you critique a book more heavily if it fictionalizes? Are there examples of books that do this well? How much fictionalizing is TOO much?

Editor Kiera: Ahhh! Yes, Mahnaz. These questions are so important and we have spent so much time debating them here in our offices.

Editor Mahnaz: Indeed. :)

Myra Zarnowski: I think omission can be tricky to evaluate. There is only so much that can go into a picture book. And even in a longer work of nonfiction, an author may simply select those questions he or she wants to answer. That’s why I often suggest other books to read as well as the one I’m reviewing.

Tamara: Um, I felt the Boy Who Dared did a good job of fictionalizing non-fiction, even though based on real events. It is in our regular J, not JNF, but it is an engaging read.

Editor Mahnaz: Well said, Myra. No book can “do it all”!

Editor Kiera: Excellent advice, Myra. Keeping the intended audience in mind in key in picture books and offering suggestions for further, more detailed, reading is a great piece of advice for reviewers.

Editor Kiera: We agreed,

Editor Kiera: Tamara. We loved that version.

Editor Kiera: I’ve seen a good number of picture books recently, however, that really did seem to blur the line. For example–Drum Dream Girl, which was one of our Best Books of 2015.

Brenda: I wonder about fictionalization. The librarian I replaced in my first school library had all the Magic Tree House books in non-fiction. I moved them out to fiction. Then there was this great picture book a while back, Interview with a Tarantula or something that was filled with great facts but I put it in fiction. It made for a great lesson though. I had the first and second graders debate the choice.

Editor Kiera: I adore that book. But we went back and forth several times on whether or not it should be categorized as nonfiction.

Editor Kiera: That’s a great idea, Brenda. Use it as a teaching moment!

Brenda: Jackie Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming? Where do you have it in your libraries?

Editor Mahnaz: That’s very cool, Brenda! Very meta textual.

Brenda: :-)

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Hilary: We have Brown Girl Dreaming in the 811s

Editor Kiera: Sometimes we go straight to the publisher and ask them. In the case of Jack Gantos’s The Trouble In Me, I was ready to include that alongside his other memoirs. But the publisher told me they were marketing it as fiction. So we followed suite.

Editor Kiera: *suit

Jennie: We also split the difference between BIO and F (where we have several verse novels) and put Brown Girl Dreaming in 811

Editor Kiera: Sometimes I ignore the publishers, however, if I think they have it wrong. So, again, it’s often a book-by-book consideration.

Carol E: I hope the Gantos book was fiction!

sstone: We ordered Brown Girl Dreaming for j fiction, but our vendor put it in j biography and we decided to live with it. j811 would have worked too!

Editor Kiera: Jennie: HA! Great compromise.

Editor Mahnaz: You and me both, Carol! :)

Editor Kiera: Carol: Yes–seriously. Though it is Jack Gantos. P:)

Jennie: I’ve noticed more seeminly-memoirs being marketed as fiction “based on a true story”– the James Frey effect maybe?

Lisa N: 811 but I disagree with that placement…because it will die there.

Tamara: Our Brown Girl Dreaming is 811’s too. El Deafo started in the 330’s, but after some negotiating w/ our cataloging depart, got some in Juveninel graphics. In the 330’s that great would never circ. . .

Editor Kiera: Yes–the “based on a true story” books can be very tricky. Sometimes they are WAY too loosely based to be nonfic, imo

Brenda: Yes! The publication info in Brown Girl Dreaming has it as fiction. Yet, it’s her memoir. I recall she did this with her book, Show Way. And yet it’s a family story. So many kids asked me after I read it to them, “Is it true?”

Editor Kiera: Lisa: I guess it depends on your school/community and how heavily used the poetry section is.

Myra Zarnowski: I think there’s a big difference between fictionalizing and speculating. I really like it when authors speculate by using hedges like “possibly” or “might have been.” These blended books are the ones that are controversial.

Jennie: Honestly, Brown Girl Dreaming might die anywhere besides FIC. We catalog our graphic novel nonfiction as such and shelve it right after the graphic fiction.

Brenda: I agree 811 is a graveyard. I moved all “fiction” out of 811 to get it circulating.

Editor Kiera: In my old library, it would have died in the 811s, but some school libraries have a hopping and beloved poetry section

Tamara: My big hesitation w/ Brown Girl, is it is really a biography, but the only way kids will read or know it, is if it is shelved w/ J or the teacher requires them to read an award winner.

Editor Mahnaz: Memoir can be so tricky, because when it’s a person’s memories/impressions, we usually don’t give it the same scrutiny as other NF. I do remember folks looking a little side eyed at memoirs being included as YALSA NF fic last yr…

Editor Mahnaz: Diversity–it’s not just for fiction! Do you think about inclusivity at all? That is, if it’s a book on early U.S./colonial history, is it worth commenting if the book only looks at white men/white women? Do you look at things like how problematic language is?

Carol E: I do. Critiqued a book on the railroads as being too focused on the men. But honestly, that’s where the likely material will be found.

Allison: With history, I think language is much more important in fiction than non-fiction

sstone: Myra, I so agree! I also love when reviewers make it clear whether a book is blended or simply speculative-with-hedges,​ as you say.

Editor Kiera: I remember in a recent Series Made Simple article, you pointed out the color of the hands in crafts and cook books. That was a small thing, but a powerful visual.

Tamara: Yes, I was annoyed the author glossed over Ada’s treatment in the book, but glad she explained why she chose the term Eskimo, instead of inuit. I lived on a reservation for 5 yrs and when I see the term American Indian in a book, I cringe.

Editor Kiera: Tamara–that’s really interesting. Can you explain more?

Allison: Inclusivity is critical in non-fiction,whether it’s history or not

Tamara: Well, on Port Madison Reseveration, they called themselves the Suquamish Nation. In most of the tribal literature, or education (both tribal and non-tribal kids were in head start), it was always First Nations, Native Americans, or the tribe name. So when I see the term American Indian, it feels old and dated to me. Like something left over from the 70’s

Editor Kiera: Allison–absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so happy seeing more diverse representations in everything from books on community helpers to crafts to science experiments.

Editor Kiera: Tamara–Ahh. I got you. I know from talking with Debbie Reese that use of the specific tribal name is always preferable over a generic term.

Editor Mahnaz: Definitely, Allison. There are so many stories that just haven’t been told because publishers and writers have come from less diverse backgrounds. And even when it comes to well-trod topics, it’s important to be inclusive. I recently saw a couple of books, on feminism and reproductive rights, that were really good about talking about ethnicity and socioeconomic class…always good to make sure we’re thinking broadly and inclusively!

Allison: Yes, finally starting to see inclusivity in all topics – FINALLY

Allison: can i add another “finally”?

Editor Kiera: Something that we also need to think about is sources and authenticity of cultural information–especially when it comes to mthyology, legends, and folklore.

Editor Mahnaz: haha, absolutely!

Editor Kiera: Heck yeah!

Tamara: Yes, it is. : ).

Carol E: we still have a long way to go.

Allison: Too true

Editor Kiera: Who’s telling this story? Where did they get the information? Are they qualified to do so? Did they do enough research? If they are retelling a tale, let’s say, from a First Nations people, did they consult a member of the tribe? Or did they appropriate aspects of the original tale?

Editor Mahnaz: And on another note…Getting back to back matter! What do we look at when we look at back matter? What makes for good back matter? How do you know the author has really done their homework? Does something like the lack of an index really make or break a book?

Minerva Alaniz: At Texas Tech, we do have a similar problem. We have many students from India, very few Native Americans. So what is the proper title to address them?

Allison: Lack of an index always makes me think less of a book. It’s just lazy.

Editor Mahnaz: If a book is otherwise really awesome, would you consider, say, not recommending it for a star because of its lack of an index, Allison?

Editor Mahnaz: I know that point has come up in the past.

Patricia: Lack of an index is bad—but some computer-made indices are only marginally an improvement.

Allison: I think it would definitely make me think twice.

Editor Kiera: For SLJ Style, if a person or character is clearly identified as an American of a particular background, we’d say Italian American, or Indian American, or Irish American or African American. For someone from India visiting America, I would think Indian is accurate.

Brenda: I mention the lack in my review. Is it a publisher decision?

Editor Mahnaz: What do you guys think about when you examine a bibliography? I recently had a reviewer mention that many biblio sources had fairly out of date sources, for instance.

Brenda: I am also a bit cringy about the tendency to use Stock photos.

Minerva Alaniz: Thanks!

Brenda: Good point about out of date sources, especially in the science or tech fields

Allison: I look at bibliographies. Often they will cite all adult books, for example. That’s not going to be very helpful to kids. I also check the websites listed and so often they don’t work.

Editor Mahnaz: Yes, often reviewers will note if the photos are stock, Brenda, or low quality. Or if they just seem to be stuck in there without enhancing the text in any way. Like if it’s a spread about bumble bee stingers and there’s no close up of the stinger, it seems a bit lazy.

Carol E: And there need to be web references— as appropriate

Editor Kiera: Re: Index: I’d say it depends on the intended audience. If it’s a book for young kids, perhaps a super strong index is not 100% required. It’s nice, but the book can survive just fine without it. But if the book is intended to be used by older kids doing rsearch assignments, the lack of a rich index is a real flaw.

Editor Kiera: And imo, it could prevent an otherwise great book from being starred.

Myra Zarnowski: I think a bibliography should be fairly comprehensive. One example that bothers me is books about Amelia Earhart that only use her writing as source material. She was know to embellish her history.

Jennie: I also look to see how many sources are primary vs secondary

Editor Mahnaz: very good point, myra

Editor Kiera: Perfect example, Myra. That’s why we tell reviewers to look quite critically at the sources and where they come from. Primary is great–but not always enough!

Editor Kiera: Jennie–exactly. Good to have a balance.

Jennie: I also love a good author’s note that talks about major sources used and the research process before the actual bibliography

Editor Mahnaz: As we wrap up, I just wanted to ask what you guys have been really excited about of late. Which NF titles have done it well? What has been so great about them? What has gotten your students jazzed?

Editor Kiera: Agree, Jennie. I especially love when the author explains their research process–the challenges they faced, the unexpected facts they unearthed, the varied places they went to track down sources, etc.

Carol E: Most Dangerous— it’s ancient history to the kids, but relevant.

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Editor Kiera: I LOVED Sarah Miller’s new book about Lizzie Borden. I was riveted and she did a fantastic job presenting all sides of the case and allowing readers to see how media can be biased.

Editor Mahnaz: oh good one, Carol!!!!!!! We loved that one here!

Tamara: Loved Typhoid Mary. Have the Shiekin about Daniel Atwater and Vietnam to read. There is a new series of very simple NF books w/ lots of pictures we love for baby and toddler time, but don’t recall the series name.

Editor Mahnaz: Yes, the Sarah Miller is one of my faves, too, Kiera!

Tamara: OH, and the Boys Who Challenged Hitler. Almost done w/ that one.

Jennie: I just read Symphony for the City of the Dead which was great (and now I feel OK taking Leningrad: Siege and Symphony off my TBR pile!)

Editor Kiera: Yes–we haven’t talked about nonfiction for the very teeny tiny, but it’s nice to see more nonfiction you can use in storytime.

Editor Mahnaz: Tamara, if you are interested in books on disease, another great book to look for is a Gail Jarrow one on the Bubonic Plague.

Editor Mahnaz: It’s coming this spring!

Carol E: Funny how there can be two titles on nearly the same topic all at once.

Editor Kiera: Yeah! You guys are mentioning a lot of our Best Books. So glad you loved them as much as we did.

Jennie: OOOOO. I love what Jarrow’s been doing with medical history lately

Tamara: Oh, the Bubonic Plaque was huge. Will add to my read lists.

Editor Mahnaz: Yes, Jarrow is one of my fave authors. Great researcher and she makes the history fun, too!

Tamara: What is the title of the Lizzie Borden book?

Allison: for young ones Water is Water by Miranda Paul

Editor Kiera: I think it’s called The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century. It comes out in June from Random House.

Editor Kiera: Not June–sorry. January.

Tamara: Will add to my reading list.

Editor Mahnaz: and don’t an upcoming Q&A with author sarah miller from SLJ! :)

Editor Kiera: Any last questions before we head out? This hour went so fast!!

Editor Mahnaz: don’t miss*

Carol E: Any comment on the the five finalists for Nonfic from Yalsa?

Editor Kiera: Allison: LOVE Water is Water. Jason Chin’s illustrations are exquisite.

Tamara: Thanks for having these. I learn tons and have questions answered I hadn’t even thought of.

Editor Mahnaz: It’s a pleasure to get the chance to speak to our reviewers! we can’t do it without you guys!!! :)

Minerva Alaniz: Thank you also. This will help.

Editor Kiera: I’m always surprised by the YALSA NF list. I can never guess what’s going to be on it. :)

Myra Zarnowski: Thank you KIera and Mahnaz

Allison: Thanks for the chat!

Editor Mahnaz: Thank *you*!

Patricia: Thank you!

Editor Kiera: Thanks so much for hanging out with us!

Carol E: Adding my thanks

Editor Kiera: I’ll send an email soon announcing the next chat and topic.

Minerva Alaniz: Can’t wait to see archive to refresh my memory. :)

Editor Kiera: Have a great week and a very happy holiday!

Editor Mahnaz: Bye guys!!

Minerva Alaniz: You too! Bye.

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Lisa N: Thank you. So much information.