I posted this last year around this time when I was serving as a panelist on the Cybils Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction Panel. Since I'm on the panel again this year, I thought I'd post it again to serve as a reminder for what I'm looking for when evaluating the nearly 50 books that have been nominated in this genre.
Originally posted 11/13/2008
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 former 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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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?