Just the Facts?

Help! I need some advice from those of you who are children’s book review experts. I sat down this morning to review two books about ants. After reading them, I was disturbed by the number of factual errors and I felt like I couldn’t give either a positive review.

Some of the errors are big, glaring ones. For example, one book defined honeydew as the feces of aphids, and then in the glossary defined feces as the solid waste of animals. If you have ever had aphids on your plants, you know that honeydew is a sticky liquid. The sentence reads “Honeydew is the feces of aphids and some caterpillars and is a much-prized feast for several species of ants.” Knowing a bit about this, the liquid “honeydew” from caterpillars is actually a glandular secretion, not a form of excrement at all.

A number of the errors are smaller. For example, the other book says there are about 8,000 species of ants, whereas the website that keeps track of actual species names now has well over 12,000 listed.

Those are just two examples. Frankly, all these errors turned me off, but I am hesitant to write negative reviews. I know how much time and effort goes into writing a book. On the other hand, these errors are perpetuated as others read these books as references, and take them at face value. I once read a reviewer that suggested the reader not buy a book because it contained a few misplaced commas! What do you do when you come across something like this? Do you ever write negative reviews based on the number of errors you found in a book?

While I’m at it, some of the Cybils judges have been discussing what constitutes a nonfiction work these days. What do you do with a book like the Magic School Bus series, which mixes fiction to create a story, with great information? It’s a hard question to answer, but I wanted to take the question even further.

I don’t have any problem with books that mix fact and fiction when the fiction is clear. We all know that buses don’t really fly. But what about an author who uses creative nonfiction techniques in a book that “feels” like straight nonfiction? Let me give you an example. I was reading a book that was a compilation of biographies of several famous individuals. One was a figure I know a lot about from my own research. In the chapter about that figure the author took two unrelated events and combined them into an event that never actually happened, using creative nonfiction techniques.

Frankly, I was distressed. The event as she described it suggested that the figure had a different personality/temperament than shown in the two separate events that actually occurred. Knowing what I did about that chapter made me doubt the information in all the chapters. What do you think of all this? Does it bother you when nonfiction authors make things up? Do you think it would help if authors revealed their use of creative nonfiction at the outset? Should nonfiction books stick to just the facts? What do you do when the facts are debatable?

I would really love to hear what you think.


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. For more information, stop by Picture Book of the Day. This week’s post is at Jean Little Library.

NaNoWriMo or Not?

As many of you may know, November is National Novel Writing Month. (Note:  the link may not work for a few days as the website is being prepared.) Thousands of people from over the globe lock themselves to their computers and write at least 50,000 words towards a novel. The excitement towards the end of October is palpable. It is like being at the start of a horse race, ready for the bell to go off. The horses are dancing and pawing, the riders are tense. Everyone is talking in excited whispers. It is a thrill!

If you are thinking about joining in, but aren’t sure, I’ll share some of my own NaNoWriMo musings.

5 great reasons to participate:

1. The feeling of being part of a huge community of writers all trying to accomplish the same goal in their own way is exhilarating. Trying to do the seemingly impossible adds to the adrenaline rush.

2. If you are lucky, you will find writing time in nooks and crannies of your day where you hadn’t considered to look. You may push yourself to new word counts at rates you never thought possible. The cool badges put your word counts out there for everyone to see.

3. You may learn more about your craft. If you have never written a novel before, you will definitely learn more about crafting a plot, developing characters, dialogue and hundreds of other writing intangibles, such as the fact your characters will develop minds of their own and fly off in unexpected ways.

4. You create your very own novel!

5. NaNoWriMo may lead to many positive outcomes, regardless of what happens with your novel. In my case, I started a personal blog to record my thoughts on the writing process as I went along (you can find a link to it on the about page of this blog). That personal blog developed into Wrapped In Foil, through which I have “met” many fine people in the kidlitosphere. It would not have happened if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo.

You never know where it will take you.

Although participating in NaNoWriMo may be glamorous and fun, there are many solid reasons not to participate:

1. You might want to give it a miss if adult fiction is not your genre. There are a few attempts to create children’s literature-friendly versions of NaNoWriMo, but let’s face it, different genre’s require varied writing skills. The ability to write children’s picture books is more the ability to distill and weed out words rather than write prolifically. In my case, I am committed to children’s nonfiction, rather than adult fiction.

2. Your family members need those essentials, such as a roof over their head, nutrition and hygiene. If participating in NaNoWriMo is going to compromise your ability to provide those, well, enough said.

3. You have other projects that will take you further if you were to complete them. Go for those instead. Finishing that PhD thesis? Yes, that might be more important.

4. Your novel requires a lot of research to provide historical or scientific accuracy. One month is not enough time to do hordes of research and write too, even with Google. Go for the quality, not the quantity.

5. This isn’t the “write” year. Give yourself a break. or find challenges that are more in step with what is going on in your life. Another writing activity to consider is National Blog Posting Month, or maybe you want to do a reading challenge instead. Sometimes knowing your limits is more important than testing them.

NaNoWriMo or not? What do you think?

Anything But Typical


A middle-grade fiction book about a 12-year-old boy with autism doesn’t necessarily sound like a must read, but Anything But Typical is never what you expect. If you know someone with autism, you have to read this book. If you are interested in the craft of writing, you have to read this book. If you are a teacher with quirky students, you have to read this book. And, oh yes, if you are a middle-grade aged kid who likes a superbly written book, you have to read this book.

Nora Raleigh Baskin has taken on a tough assignment by telling the story from the point of view of the main character, Jason. It would be easy to fall into stereotypes or even worse, to create an unrealistic voice. Baskin has avoided the traps and created a character you can identify with and root for, a boy with an alphabet of labels who turns those letters into wonderful stories.

People with autistic spectrum disorders often have narrowly focused talents and/or interests. Some writers are going to say that Baskin copped out by having Jason an aptitude for writing. What’s easier than writing about a character with an ability in your own craft? Rather than taking the easy route, however, Baskin has defied the stereotypes. Too often people with autism spectrum disorders are pigeonholed as computer geeks, engineers or scientists. An autistic boy who is a gifted writer is a refreshing change.

Because Jason’s writing is such an important part, this book is a gem for teaching language arts. All the elements for crafting a fiction story, such as foreshadowing and conflict, are laid out for all to see. Reading this book would allow many opportunities for discussions about writing, and for tie-in writing activities as well as for ample material for sensitive discussions about autism.

Anything But Typical is a special book. My friend Lisa recommended to me (Thank you, Lisa!). Now it is my turn to recommend it to you. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing (March 24, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1416963782
ISBN-13: 978-1416963783

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

all-cats-have-aspergerLife takes turns sometimes, and although All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome by Kathy Hoopmann has been out for a few years, it is worth taking a look at again. With cute pictures and a gentle, but highly informative text, this is one of those children’s books that is really for everyone. It is helpful for children with Asperger Syndrome, their families, relatives, classmates, teachers, and anyone else who works with children.

Hoopmann has done a wonderful job explaining not only the challenges of raising a child with Asperger Syndrome, but also the potential, giving a sense that through the differences are positives. For example, a child may be a picky eater and be highly sensitive, but he or she can also focus on a topic for long periods of time and may see the world with amazing insight.

Her choice of cats as subjects works not only because people with Asperger Syndrome may seem aloof like cats and only want contact on their terms, but also because the highly posed cats and kittens convey messages to children who might not understand the facial expressions and postures of human models. The soft and playful cats add a touch of warmth and humor to a subject that in other circumstances may be emotionally-charged or difficult to talk about.

After reading this book, you may find there’s a little cat in all of us.

Hardcover: 72 pages
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Pub; 1 edition (October 26, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1843104814
ISBN-13: 978-1843104810
Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 8.4 x 0.7 inches

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

by Kathy Hoopmann


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. For more information, stop by Picture Book of the Day. This week’s post is at Moms Inspire Learning.