Blog for mom on her 99th birthday ─ why I wrote a “how-to” book for children

My fifth children’s picture book (How 7 Fish & 2 Ponds Landed in the Z House Backyard) came out a few weeks ago. Shortly after, the book landed gift-wrapped in a big box of gifts headed to mom for her ninety-ninth birthday. Yep, 99! After she read the new book, she remarked on the phone with surprise, “It’s a how-to book.” I agreed.

I’ve been mulling over her comment for the last few days. With full intention, I did write a how-to book, hoping a child would get the gist of how a pond can be built. And hoping too that a child would get ideas like ─ ‘o look, the boy really likes fish and he wants to learn how to build a pond.’ And ‘look at all that dirt they had to dig up.’ And ‘look at the different colors fish come in.’ And ‘wow, fish can grow big just like children do and what happens when they get so big that they don’t fit in their home anymore?’ In that sense, I was also writing an “informational storybook”─ a book that uses a story to convey information.[1]

And I hoped too that children would get that they can dream up an idea and then try to realize it like Noah did in the book. All of this dreaming things up – creativity, thinking and planning ─ can start early. It must start early.

Reading for information is a critically important tool in the child’s literacy development toolbox. Children need to learn early that asking questions is great ─ and learning by watching others do something is great─ and that reading is a main way they are going to acquire information vital to their lives.

21st century children are facing huge challenges in literacy – not only learning to read and how to apply reading in many formats ─but how to retrieve information from rapidly changing technology tools to access knowledge. How to question computers and pull out credible information are “survival skills” in their lives. “The amount of information available doubles every couple of years; some futurists predict that in two decades, available information will double every two to three months. It is no surprise that instructional books constitute approximately one-half of the books in most libraries’ juvenile collections. Instructional books help satisfy natural inquisitiveness and spark new curiosity.”[2]

Nonfiction informational books are central to literacy development. These types of books include the “how-to” books ─ as well as the related “how does this work” books.[3] “A child uses informational and non-fiction books to assemble what he knows, what he feels, what he sees, as well as to collect new facts.” [4]

Here’s what distinguishes information books from other types of books (or “genres”) out there.[5]

Info books for children …

  • Have a main purpose to provide in-depth explanation of fact-based material.
  • Are literature and considered trade books.
  • Are nonfiction but not textbooks or reference books.
  • Inform by attention to facts and capitalizing on children’s wonder at all that is out there.
  • When most effective, suggest a wealth of information, stimulating a wish to know more.

Info books for children …

  • Include the “how-to” books.
  • Contain interesting details and lesser-known facts.
  • Use expository language (writing that explains, describes, informs).
  • Are organized using a logical presentation of information.
  • Include photographs or illustrations to provide authenticity.
  • When the main purpose is to inform but contain entertaining elements of fiction are called informational stories ─ informational storybooks use a storyline to convey information.

Children benefit from info books in many ways …

  • Experience “authentic learning” as they investigate their own questions/topics of interest.
  • Inquire and solve problems ─ and foster critical thinking skills.
  • See connections and interrelationships among content and concepts.
  • Learn about faraway places, past times, and new ideas and concepts.
  • Begin to view the world as changing and evolving.
  • Acquire new vocabulary and broader background knowledge.

It’s not too early for young readers to know that there are many categories of books out there to provide different types of information. Trips to the library, for example, should underscore the many categories of books including story books and informational books available to them. The latter will include categories such as history; understanding peoples and cultures; nature; the arts; discovering how things work; and the how-to books.

Schools, of course, play the major role in guiding children to develop their reading and information retrieval skills using reading and critical thinking. Children begin the earliest grades now (including pre-school) using an array of technology tools because they must become familiar with them early to master their uses. They will have to know what “information retrieval” processes are and how and when to use them. Their vocabulary will need to include terms such as key word search, queries, web search engines, FAQ (frequently asked questions), tutorial, user guide, database, and apps. Without this level of literacy (reading and information literacy), they’re not going to be able to fill in words within a search box to access online applications for school, employment, and do their taxes someday.

A sample lesson plan from two teachers posted at Scholastic[6] underscores the types of lesson plans teachers are encouraged to incorporate in the early grades.[7] The lesson is aimed at pre-kindergarten through grades 1 and 2. The aim for the lesson is that “students will be able to identify nonfiction how-to books, discuss the ways how-to books are used, apply their knowledge and create a how-to book of their own.” One of the recommended activities is that the teacher will “ask parents to place focus on nonfiction procedural books that they use and will be using at home.” Scholastic offers some wonderful titles of books in the how-to category for teachers putting together these lesson plans.[8] Of course, parents can pick up these books and many other books in the nonfiction informational category too in order to help their children learn about the ways of acquiring new information.

Here’s the bottom line. Living in the 21st century is a journey increasingly in acquiring and processing new knowledge as things change around us. Reading early to develop these skills is key. So let’s help all our children develop their reading skills; teach them that there are many types of books out there and that they represent how knowledge is divided up ─ and that one of their important missions in life is to acquire knowledge. When young learners acquire the tools of reading and information retrieval ─ and understand that the knowledge they need is shaped into categories accessible through these tools – they can advance their journey as a learner, learning from autobiographies, poetry and how-to books alike. At an early age, children can and should do key word searches ─ type them in a box or speak them into a voice recognition system in their smart phone, tablet or computer; or tell the librarian at the library what the topic is they’re interested in – even if they don’t have technology tools right now ─ so they can watch the librarian start the information retrieval process and know that they soon will be doing this for themselves …

Pond.Front cover.21764715_High Resolution Front Cover_4728367_1 (2)


[1] Another Z House book that falls somewhere between informational storybook and how-to is How the Dog Came to Live at the Z House. It tells the story of a boy’s getting his first dog but also describes the many steps to adopting a dog through the local animal shelter.

[2] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[3] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[4] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[5] Drawn from: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[6] Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide.

[7] Lesson Plan How-To Books by Alexandra Savvas, Naomi Randolph

[8] Scholastic publishes several books that fit into a lesson plan where the teacher (or parent) could follow up to make these items in class as follow-up activity. Examples: Tomatoes to Ketchup by Inez Snyder; Milk to Ice Cream by Inez Snyder; Wax to Crayons by Inez Snyder; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola; Benny Bakes A Cake by Eve Rice; Building A House by Byron Barton; Bruno, The Tailor by Lars Klinting; Beans to Chocolate by Inez Snyder.