As a young reader, I was a library-only kinda girl. I browsed the mystery, fiction, and teen sections looking for distinctive spines–ones that had a pink “Classics” sticker, or an orange “Award-Winner” sticker, or a blue “Librarian’s Choice.” These little guides led me to Jane Austen, Matthew Quick, and John Grisham, whose spines were not only colorful with library stickers but also well-worn from the hands of readers.
The thing about those spines was that none of them were in the nonfiction section, which loomed large with encyclopedias, reference books, and lots of sections about science, technology, or car repair. Being a middle schooler who didn’t know about the Dewey Decimal System, I had no idea how to find interesting biographies, beautiful memoirs, or fascinating historical accounts.
Now that I’ve begun to love nonfiction and learn a lot from it, I’ve tried to simplify the search for great true stories in my classroom library. We have one Nonfiction shelf and two Memoir & Biography shelves. I try to keep collections, histories, and statistics-into-stories books all together on the Nonfiction shelf, while I move the stories of people’s lives onto the M&B shelves below it. Sometimes the titles that belong on the Nonfiction shelf wind up on the Award Winners, Unique Teens, or Death & Dying shelves–because I love to mix true and imaginary stories in our library when they share themes.
You can see that our shelf is varied–topics range from sports to how the mind works to humor. Some authors are dominant–Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink–but others are one-hit wonders whose titles are very popular–Mary Roach, Michael Lewis, Dave Cullen. Their respective Stiff, Moneyball, and Columbine are three of my library’s most popular titles.
Our nonfiction shelf is also the home of the “Best American” series, which includes topics such as science, travel, and sports writing, but also a collection of simply “essays” from each year. This series is a fabulous way to find a huge variety of good nonfiction mentor texts when students are doing informational or persuasive writing–there is always something to match any student’s interest.
This shelf is an eye-level shelf for good reason. Students who wouldn’t normally gravitate toward the nonfiction genre find their eyes caught by interesting covers, titles, or topics–such as Missoula and It’s Not About the Truth, both of which deal with college rape culture, or The Sociopath Next Door, which attracts all my Sherlock fans, or Lost in the Meritocracy, which gives both motivated and disengaged students much to consider. Once students discover this shelf, they often move toward the Memoir & Biography or Award-Winners shelves, which contain more sophisticated nonfiction structures.
I encourage all teachers of literature to build up their nonfiction shelves–their titles have much to teach our students.