Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nonfiction Evaluation Criteria

I've been taking time off from blogging this week because I've spent a great deal of time in the past few days reading some books nominated in the Cybils Nonfiction Middle Grade/Young Adult category. As a first-round panelist, I, along with the other fabulous panelists have to produce a short list for the judges by the end of December.

Books that win a Cybils award must be a combination of quality and kid appeal, and it seems like a daunting task to select a list of 5-7 books that meet this criteria from approximately 60. I can't even imagine how the panelists in the Young Adult Fiction and other larger categories are going to do it.

As I've been reading, I'm using the following criteria to help me evaluate a book's quality and kid appeal:

Middle graders and young adults span from approximately age 9 to 14+. That's quite a wide age range, so as I'm reading, I'm asking myself if the subject matter as well as the language, visual elements, organization, and tone seem appropriate for the book's intended age. As a middle school and high school teacher, I know that kids in this age group do not want to be treated like little children or feel as if they're being talked down to. Likewise, they don't like to read books with childish illustrations or large "baby" fonts. On the other side of the spectrum, I pay attention to whether or not the same elements may be more appropriate for older audiences.

Layout is important when it comes to evaluating a book. A pet peeve of mine in nonfiction is when a sentence or paragraph carries over onto the next page, and you have to flip back to read an interesting text box, time line, or photo caption. If I have to turn a page so that I can finish reading a sentence and then have to flip back to read something else, I get annoyed, and I can imagine that kids may NOT flip back and miss interesting information. I know that this is sometimes out of the author's control and that it has to do with printing issues, but to me, good layout and content go hand in hand. What use is good content if it's missed or forgotten because it's poorly organized?

On a similar note, I also look at how information is organized and chunked. Are section headings easy to find? Is the information organized so that it follows a logical flow and is appealing to the eye or do readers have to wade through lots of text or read tons of information and elements that are crowded onto the pages.

To me, readability is just as important as engaging text.

Writing Style/Tone
As I mentioned above, kids don't want to be talked down to, but at the same time, they don't want to read dull, dry text. As I'm reading the books, I take a close look at the writing style and tone and try to get a grasp on whether it's engaging and conversational. Does it draw readers in by asking questions or presenting problems that need to be solved? If it's a biography, does the author present the subject matter in a way that makes the person(s) appealing to readers? Can they relate to them? Are readers inspired to keep turning the page?

Appealing Story
Even though it's nonfiction, the book should still tell a story or stories that interest kids and keeps them from putting the book down. The story could be about Abraham Lincoln's assassination, a historian's quest to discover information about a legendary figure, or the story behind the formation of a new solar system. To me, excellent nonfiction doesn't just present straight facts. I can get that kind of information in an encyclopedia. Instead, excellent nonfiction draws me into a story about something or someone, inspires me to ask questions and want to discover the answers, and makes me CARE about the subject matter.

Visual Elements

I finally look at the visual elements in a book to help me distinguish the good from the great. Granted, some genres like biography or autobiography don't necessarily require a lot of photos or illustrations, but they certainly don't hurt. Or do they? Going back to age-appropriateness, visual elements CAN hurt a book's quality if they are too immature or even too mature for the intended audience. If I pick up a book about The Civil War that's written for a middle grade audience, I don't expect to see gory pictures of corpses strewn about a battle field. But I DO expect to see pictures of important people from this time period and perhaps some weapons or other relics.

I tend to prefer nonfiction where the visual elements are integral parts of the book instead of supplementary elements. By that I mean, does the book merely include a drawing of a chapter's subject matter at the beginning of the chapter or are illustrations, photographs, maps, timelines, etc. scattered throughout? Are they colorful, crisp and easy to distinguish, and eye-catching? Do they have captions if appropriate? Can a reluctant reader pick the book up and be engaged without having to read all of the text? That's important to me.

[Edited to include references. Thanks to Tricia from The Miss Rumphius Effect! ]
Does the book have a list of references at the end, an index, glossary, or a sources consulted section? Not only do references give you a place to go for more information, but it shows you where the author got his/her information. Moreover, it adds credibility to the content especially when the book has been reviewed by an expert(s) in the field of the book's subject matter.

These criteria are really helping me focus on the different elements of the nominated books I've been reading and is helping me distinguish the good from the great. Anything I'm missing here?


  1. Great post Jill. I haven't given much thought to why a non-fiction would appeal to a child so this post was enlightening.

  2. In terms of quality I would add references. In many of the nonfiction picture books, there is little back matter. I can live with this, given the age of the readers. However, I find lack of this material totally unacceptable in books for older readers. NFPB often lack an index, something I also think should be appear in books in the middle grades category.

  3. Natasha: Thanks for your feedback...The Cybils have REALLY forced me to think about it more.

    Tricia: How could I forget references? You're absolutely right, so thank you for commenting. I actually was reading a book the other day, and a "fact" that was presented was the exact opposite of what I've read and heard over the years. When I looked for a references or sources consulted section, there was none, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth about the book.

  4. Wow! That's alot of reading for Cybils. You've come up with a great set of Criteria for judging. Yes, I agree with Tricia's comment that an index is always a plus.

  5. I'm looking forward to seeing you all's final list!

  6. Thanks for sharing what appeals to you in the nominations. Readability is crucial. Can't wait to see the finalists!

  7. Thanks Kim B. and Kim B. :)

    And Charlotte, I'm so looking forward to seeing your panel's shortlist. There are so many great books on there! Good luck!

  8. THese are excellent criteria. I'm working on a list of science books for a little bit younger age group, and I think I'll bookmark your list and come back to it as I choose my recommendations.

  9. Thanks so much Sherry. Good luck with creating your list of science books!

  10. I starred this one last night so I could take my time and read it today. Great post.

  11. What a great post. This is basically what I look for when I review non-fiction. I too hate it when you have to turn the page to finish a sentence and then turn back for info boxes. What a pet peeve!