The Nonfiction Writer’s Toolbox: A Conference at the John F. Kennedy Library

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This past Wednesday, I participated in the John F. Kennedy Library’s annual conference for educators, one of my favorite professional events of the year. This year’s theme was the Nonfiction Writer’s Toolbox, and we had an opportunity to hear from four of today’s most respected writers of nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers: Tonya Bolden, Steve Sheinkin, Tanya Lee Stone, and Melissa Sweet. One of the day’s highlights was a panel discussion with the four authors and a facilitator, Mary Ann Cappiello, during which the authors discussed their subjects and their writing process.

“I’m drawn to people who have been presented to us in a simplistic way,” Bolden said, “like Frederick Douglass.” Bolden’s most recent book, Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man, is a nuanced biography of the abolitionist, speaker, and writer. Bolden explained her process by saying that, in order to write a biography, the author needs to “become” another person and immerse themselves in the daily life of the era.

Sheinkin, the author of Bomb and Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, among other award winning history books for young adult readers, echoed Bolden’s remarks. “I look for narrative and moral complexity,” he said. He talked enthusiastically about the role of libraries and actual books in his research process. “A good book with credible sources is better than Google, particularly at the beginning of the research.”  Sheinkin uses an admittedly low-tech strategy to organize his work. He takes notes on color coded index cards and puts them up on a wall, his way of “seeing the story.”  Melissa Sweet, the author of Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, agreed with Scheinkin: “The computer is the last 5% of my work,” she said. “I find out everything I can about and subject and then reduce it,” Sweet said.

Like the others, Tanya Lee Stone is the author of numerous nonfiction books, among them: Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? and Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. She began her remarks by asking the participants to think about truth. “There is no absolute truth,” she said, before adding that her books are “as true as I can make it within my human ability.”

All of the authors agreed that the process of writing nonfiction is as creative as writing fiction. “The process of putting the puzzle together is creative,” said Sheinkin.

At the end of the panel discussion, each author gave us a preview of their new books:

Melissa Sweet is illustrating a poem by Kwame Alexander called How to Read a Book. She is also working on a project with Paul Fleischman, the author of Weslandia and Seedfolks.

Tanya Lee Stone’s new picture book about the history of Monopoly, Pass Go and Collect $200, will be published this July.

Steve Sheinkin is researching a book about the Women’s Air Derby, the first women-only air race which took place over nine days in 1929.

Tonya Bolden’s new picture book, No Small Potatoes, will be published in October. It is the story of a man born into slavery who ultimately became a potato farmer in Kansas.  She is also writing a sequel to her young adult novel, Crossing Ebenezer Creek.

I compiled this year’s conference bibliography, a resource for educators that highlights not only the participating authors’ books, but books to explore on similar topics and themes.

Selected Nonfiction for Young Readers An Annotated Bibliography

Compiled and Written by

Shelley Sommer
Inly School, Scituate, Massachusetts 

Prepared for

THE NONFICTION WRITER’S TOOLBOX For Exploring History and Other Subjects

A Conference for Teachers of Grades 3-8 and School Librarians John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
May 9, 2018

High quality nonfiction for young readers is more important than ever. With the increased attention on polarizing and alternative news, teaching students to be discerning about sources of information is vital to their civic education. The books below cover a range of subjects, from biographies of civil rights activists to the person who created the puppets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. All of the authors used their own “toolbox” to shine a light on the struggles and accomplishments of people whose contributions and victories impact our lives today.

Below you will find a list of five books by each of the authors participating in today’s conference. Beyond that, we have highlighted themes drawn from two of each author’s books and provided recommendations of titles on similar topics by other authors to expand your lessons and suggest new avenues for your students to explore.

In the interest of space, I’m including only the list for Tonya Bolden in this post.


Author: Tonya Bolden


Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2013. 128 pages
A combination of narrative and visual storytelling, Emancipation Proclamation is an account of the landmark document told through quotations from central participants, archival photos, engravings, letters, posters, maps, and newspaper articles. Grades 6-9

Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of Our Nation’s Capital

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2015. 96 pages
Michael Shiner was born into slavery in Maryland and spent most of his life in Washington D.C., where he was a laborer at the Washington Navy Yard for over 50 years, learned to read and write, and gained his freedom two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. Shiner’s journal offers a fascinating look at the everyday experience of an African-American working man who was an eyewitness to historic events from the War of 1812 through the Civil War and into the 1870s. Grades 4-6

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
New York: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2016. 64 pages
The plans to build a museum honoring African Americans’ contribution to our country can be traced back to 1915, but the Smithsonian’s 19th museum opened over one hundred years later in 2016. Bolden’s book details the story of its creation, including the nation-wide effort to gather artifacts, pictures and documents for the NMAAHC’s collections. Grades 5-8

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2017. 128 pages
This book presents brief biographies of a diverse group of African Americans, from the 1700s to the present day, and their impact on American history. They include magicians, a race car driver, and a female Civil War spy. One of Bolden’s profiles is of Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose calculations were integral to the success of many NASA space missions. Generously illustrated with period photographs, prints, posters and cartoons. Grades 5-8

Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2018. 208 pages
A middle school biography of the escaped slave who became a well-known abolitionist. But here Bolden tells a richer story about a man whose image is more familiar than his accomplishments. (He was in fact the most photographed American of the 19th century.) Opening with the story of Douglass starting his own newspaper, The North Star, Bolden follows his trajectory as a supporter of women’s suffrage, a diplomat, bank president, public servant, and world traveler. Grades 6-8

For Further Exploration

African-American Biographies

Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney
New York: Hyperion Books, 2012. 243 pages
The ten historical figures in this collective biography lived in different eras and each had an impact on American society. Although many of the subjects’ names may be familiar to students, Pinkney extends her portraits to include details on each man’s childhood before highlighting his achievements.

For Younger Readers:
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2009. 40 pages
Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas, but escaped into Indian Territory where he lived until slavery was abolished in 1865. Reeves ultimately became the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal. He made over 3,000 arrests and was respected for his excellent marksmanship.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Park Ridge, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015. 32 pages
Born in Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks was the youngest of 15 children. Inspired by a magazine he saw while working as a waiter on a railroad dining car, he bought a camera for $7.50 and became a prominent chronicler of the everyday lives of African Americans. In 1948, he become the first African-American photographer to be hired by LIFE magazine.

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick
New York: Scholastic, 2002. 40 pages
After being denied the use of Constitution Hall because of her race, singer Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people on Easter Sunday, 1939. It was one of the defining cultural events of the 20th century and a milestone in civil rights history. She later became the first African-American soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.

Frederick Douglass/Freedom and Social Justice

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman
New York: Clarion Books, 2012. 128 pages
Both Lincoln and Douglass rose to prominence against enormous odds and they were equally committed to education as a path toward success. Freedman’s dual biography traces how the ideals of both men impacted the nation.

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
New York: Harper Collins, 2017. 40 pages
A solid and moving introduction to the well-known abolitionist and writer. Born into slavery in 1818, Douglass learned to read and used his education to build a new life for himself. “Once you learn to read,” he said, “you will be forever free.”

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson
Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 2012. 176 pages
An account of the nearly 4,000 young people who marched in Birmingham to protest segregation. The youngest marcher was Audrey Hendricks, the subject of a picture book for younger students.

For Younger Readers:
Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by London Ladd
New York: Disney Publishing: Jump at the Sun, 2015. 48 pages
The life—and voice—of Frederick Douglass in Rappaport’s signature “Big Words” style.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
New York: Atheneum Books, 2017. 40 pages
After participating in a 1963 march in Birmingham, nine-year-old Audrey Hendricks spent seven days in jail with other student activists. This book provides an accessible way for even the youngest reader or listener to understand the importance of young people in the Civil Rights Movement.

If you would like a copy of the entire list, please leave a comment and I would be happy to email it to you.  Happy Reading!