I have ideas on what books are good for kids as holiday gifts, but first, some sad news.
U.S. schools have been trying for years to encourage more reading of nonfiction, a movement heartily endorsed by us underappreciated nonfiction writers. But it’s not working. The national What Kids Are Reading report says children’s nonfiction reading is up less than 10 percent since 2009. No more than 30 percent of K-12 students read that stuff.
What to do? My only option is to give gift buyers some clues as to what nonfiction seems most attractive to children these days.
The best information comes from Renaissance, owner of the Accelerated Reader system encouraging reading of all kinds and all levels in more than 30,000 schools. The company was founded 31 years ago by Judi Paul and her husband, Terry, after she invented at her kitchen table a quizzing system to motivate their children to read.
The latest What Kids Are Reading report, based on Accelerated Reader data from nearly 10 million K-12 students during the 2015-2016 school year, shows third- through seventh-graders drawn to fiction classics such as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Because of Winn-Dixie.” They also like a 21st-century children’s fiction juggernaut, the “Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney. He is a failed comic strip artist who first thought his “Wimpy” books would be for adults, which may explain why I love reading them to my grandsons.
What about nonfiction? No such books appear on the report’s top 25 list for third-graders. Just two nonfiction works show up on the fourth-grade list: “Smile” and “Sisters,” graphic novels about the childhood of author Raina Telgemeier, a San Francisco cartoonist. Those are also the only nonfiction books on the fifth- and sixth-grade top 25 lists.
The seventh-grade list has no nonfiction. The eighth-grade list has just one such book, “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s story of his childhood in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The report includes books both assigned and unassigned by teachers, and this 1960 classic has been taught for decades.
“Night” is joined on the top 25 lists for ninth through 12th grade by just one other nonfiction book, “A Child Called ‘It’ ” — Dave Pelzer’s tale of his childhood of abuse. It has withstood denials from some members of Pelzer’s family and continues to connect with children.
While nonfiction books didn’t stand much of a chance among the top 25 overall, it’s still instructive to look at which books ranked highly in the nonfiction category compiled by Renaissance. I found several nature, sports and history titles I had not encountered before. In the third grade, “Penguin Chick,” by Betty Tatham, came just after Telgemeier’s books. Also highly ranked were “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates,” by Jonah Winter; “Yonder Mountain: A Cherokee Legend,” by Robert H. Bushyhead; “The Story of Ruby Bridges” (a black first-grader at an all-white school in 1960), by Robert Coles; and “Young Thomas Edison,” by Michael Dooling.
The third-grader I know best said he had not encountered those books but had seen a high-ranking nonfiction series: the “Fly Guy Presents,” by Tedd Arnold, about sharks, space, dinosaurs and firefighters. He sometimes reads them to his 4-year-old brother.
His favorite fiction at the moment is “Minecraft: The Island,” by Max Brooks, son of director Mel Brooks and author of the adult bestseller “World War Z.” You don’t have to play the video game to enjoy it, he said. He also endorsed these series: “Wimpy Kid,” “Stick Dog” and the classic “Freddy the Pig,” suggested by his other grandfather.
I have tried to introduce him to Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction, which I started at age 9 and still reread. I think he is also ready for later writers who have outdone Heinlein, particularly Joe Haldeman (including “The Forever War” and “Mindbridge”) and John Varley (including “ Millennium” and “Mammoth”).
But children like to do their own book searches, particularly when no one is looking. My wife remembered her thrill at age 13 finding her aunt’s marriage preparation manual. It was certainly nonfiction, though perhaps not yet suitable for the What Kids Are Reading list.