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>State Birds and Foods of Many Lands

>In the most recent Booklist, Michael Cart wonders why “curriculum-related nonfiction” hasn’t “migrated more or less completely to the Internet by now.” Me, too: hardcover series books about countries of the world, mammals of Asia, rocks and minerals of the fifty states, etc. still proliferate like crazy, even though the information they contain is available all over the digital place. And with list prices averaging over twenty dollars per volume, they aren’t cheap. And, for the many series entries that devote themselves to “current events,” the information is often out of date before the book is published.

Why do schools and libraries keep buying them? Is it because book-based assignments are more manageable, or because a book feels more authoritative than the Internet? Lack of imagination? Fear? Laziness? To me, it feels like it all comes down to control, a favored emotion found in grownups dealing with the young. Series books promote the idea that they have things covered, you don’t need to look anywhere else, that the things that are essential about, say, Nebraska, are the same things essential to Delaware. India, like Denmark, is “a land of contrasts.” Everything you need to know is here, in a collection of books that look and sound the same on purpose. It’s all under control.

Luckily, kids don’t read this way!

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Control, eh? I’ve been referring kids to databases for their state/country/what have you reports for years. The usual response? “My teacher said I can’t use the computer. I can only look stuff up in books.” And so we march off together to the ol’ America the Beautiful series.

    Perhaps this phenomenon is part of some effort to teach kids about where to find reliable information? Or to teach them how to list print sources in a bibliography? (On the other hand, you’d be surprised how many parents and teachers I meet who don’t know the difference between an electronic database and a website.)

    Or . . . perhaps it’s due to the fact that it’s much easier to take notes (or, more likely, fill out a “State Facts” worksheet) with an illustrated, nicely formatted book on a table instead of peering at a screen or printout in 10 point font.

  2. Teacherninja says:

    >Mr Sutton:

    As an elementary school teacher I can tell you it’s so we can teach them to look up these types of subjects in the library and reference the book on paper (often easier than teaching them to reference a web site) and we can have batches of these subject related books in our classrooms for reading and content area work and work together rather than all go to the media center or computer lab. I just checked out a pile of books like you describe on learning how to tell time for my math group. More fun than the math book or dittos and I only have one computer in the classroom.


  3. >Many kids don’t have internet access at home. If they’re able to get to a public library with computer access, there is still limited time they can spend on a computer. In addition, many kids don’t have the skills to find reliable information online. In order to eliminate book research for school kids, public (and school) libraries would need a full time computer lab with several extra staff members to teach kids research skills. Books are still cheaper.

  4. gnomicutterance says:

    >As a reviewer I’m constantly appalled at how many of these books use free internet resources as their primary material. it’s one thing when the free internet resource is the CIA World Factbook Online, but it’s quite another when it’s The First Church of the Electron or some other such nonsense. Once when reviewing a series nonfiction book for adults, I became suspicious of how different in tone separate paragraphs were; a quick Internet search showed me that entire sections were copy and pasted from Wikipedia.

    I think it’s still important to teach kids how to use print resources, but equally important to teach kids how to distinguish what resources are valuable and what they are good for. Randomly teaching them to trust books isn’t going to serve them as much as having a collection of trustworthy print materials and explaining to them not only HOW to do research from those books but WHY to.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >It is practical at a couple of levels to use books when teaching research skills to young children.

    There are the equipment issues noted above, that is, when teaching research skills to an entire class, it is generally much easier to have a book for every child than a computer.

    There are, of course, other basic teaching issues. One wishes the kids to learn how to read and take notes, and to look at table of contents information and skim headings to find important information, and how to keep track of which source they got the information from, perhaps to look at a books index, etc. That’s a lot of skills to teach someone who has not been reading for all that long. Pile on top of all that teaching the necessary skills for locating reliable information on the computer, not to mention coordinating their reading/research with scrolling and bookmarking and using back and forward arrows…It’s a lot more variables for young students to try to manage.

    Glad you asked.


  6. >There are a lot of ways that adults try to control kids’ reading, but I don’t think this is one of them. Speaking as a public librarian, we are responding to the demand, which is created by the teachers by and large. But even if it weren’t, a third grader isn’t going to have an easy time coming up with an age-appropriate Internet source with reliable information.

    And while you’re right that the curriculum nonfiction books are very pricey these days, the nice thing about them is they don’t disappear after one year if you don’t renew a subscription like online resources do.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >As a school librarian in a very well to do part of the country, we still see the need to purchase these books, and often. They are easy for little people to take off the shelves and look at the pictures and they don’t require them to be able to read.
    Even if we did have the finances and resources to have a computer in front of each child for them to access 24/7 for all their informational needs, we’d still buy the books, as a Kindergarten aged child doesn’t have the skill set to navigate the internet and find what they need, much less be able to read it once they get there.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >Is there still federal funding for book purchases – like the old Title 2 which made such a difference for schools and libraries? If the money is still there, it will be spent

  9. >While you wont find these series books winning Sibert medals any time soon that doesn’t mean they dont have a place in classroom and school libraries. “Curriculum-related nonfiction” is not always used for teacher assigned research projects, some students just like to read about places, people or animals. While I dont pull them out of their baskets to book talk or use them as read alouds, inevitably each year a few students (usually boys) will find them and fall in love with the highly readably and predictive collections of facts and figures found in many of the series we are discussing. I have had students fill the entire book boxes (sturdy magazine file boxes they use during SSR) with these series books. When it comes to independent reading my motto is “to each his/her own” I wouldnt want someone telling me what not to read so why should I tell my students that the books he is enjoying are not of high quality? As a teacher I am first and formost a reading role model. I know that if I continue to read quality books to my students, make quality books available to my students and model silent reading with quality books, my students will eventually find value in quality books. But in the mean time they should and do read what ever pleases them.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >is Title Two still in effect? (LBJ’s gift to the juvenile publishers back in the day) If the money is still there, of course it will be spent on books – and the books will be assigned.

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >You teachers are doing an excellent job of proving me wrong. I’m learning a lot.

    The price, though–can anyone explain why these books cost more than trade books? They frequently go north of twenty-five dollars, even for a 40pp book. I don’t understand the economics.

  12. >Why do educational press nonfiction books cost more than trade books?

    Economics – don't the publishers call it the p&L calculations or something like that? In other words — if you are only printing 300 – 3,000 copies of a book, you have to charge much more for it than books the trade publishers do at 10,000 a time.

    And a lot of the teachers in our area encourage the kids to use the internet — so much so that they have no idea what those wall coverings (the books on the shelves) are for– as they go in and out of the public library with the video games and DVDs they have borrowed, after having used the library's 'free' internet.

  13. >Using Internet resources is a big part of the curriculum in the local school district. But it takes a lot of time to teach children how to do it. Recently I saw a class of third graders researching North Carolina facts online using World Book (or Culturegrams or something similar) in a school library; after 10 minutes or so, it became clear that several of the children were having trouble spelling “North Carolina” to even get to the right listing.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >And, I bet, the keyboarding skills of most of them were not so great.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >How do schools choose the series nonfiction books they purchase? This is a sincere question, from someone who has not worked in a school system. Obviously you read reviews, but is there more? As a reviewer, one thing that worries me greatly about these series is that despite their “authority” as books, approximately half the series I review have factual errors, misinformation, or misleading oversimplifications — and almost all have blatant typos. How do you avoid these? And is there really such a high demand for books detailing Mariah Carey’s life story for 2nd-graders?


  16. >Roger,

    I agree, most of the series you describe are unimaginative, boring, and poorly written.

    Why do they continue to be used in schools?

    1.) educational change (teaching internet searching skills alongside the form and features of books) = glacial speed
    2.) the disappearance of the digital divide has been exaggerated
    3.) series are an easy out – buy ’em, stick ’em on the shelf and the states research is set for the year

    there are more I am sure…


  17. >Dare i suggest that, as a parent, a book is more convenient and easier to use when helping your grade 5er write a report on Tunisia or timber wolves. I can assume (hopefully correctly so) that a non-fiction book I am borrowing from the library is vetted and authoratative. Here in Canada the amount of homework that our kids come home with can be quite overwhelming . . . for both parent and student . . . and a book can be a great solution.

  18. >Ditto Wendie O, and of course the corollary is that these publishers pay ludicrously low flat fees (like a few hundred dollars, and the writer is supposed to provide sidebars, index, etc. as well). Strangely enough, they don’t get good, experienced writers that way.

  19. >Some are work for hire, as you describe. But other educational presses do pay advance and royalties. And thereby attract the better researchers and writers.

    The Material Selectors in a good library system know which publishers are which and choose to buy the better books as a first choice, only using the other publishers when they can’t find certain subjects done by the better publishers.
    -wendie Old

  20. >When I work with kindergartners and first graders in the school library, I can help them find books about Eagles or Rocks or Knights or Horses by guiding them to the right shelf. But to put them on Google?? It is tough to help a little one figure out which web resources are reliable. THey can be more independent when looking at a shelf full of books, and they also get a chance to be drawn in to subjects surrounding the book they are looking for. Also, there is often not a computer available for every child who wants to look something up.

  21. Kelly Milner Halls says:

    >Not all schools, especially elementary, have good libraries OR robust computer labs to allow children access to Internet research on a daily or even weekly basis. Not all kids have Internet access at home. If not for good old fashioned nonfiction library collections, they would find it impossible to learn to research — or more importantly, to love the magic of what’s real but impossible to KNOW, until it can be discovered. I love the ‘Net. I use it faithfully in my own work. But my walls are lined with bookshelves for a reason. I draw a great deal from bookmarking the pages, turning back to them again and again. Kids do too. Here’s to a future rich with both options.

    Kelly Milner Halls
    Childen’s Nonfiction Writer


  22. >I was just thinking about this after a call from a salesperson last week. I am trying to find alternatives to these “series” books. It seems that if I can find a trade book, written by a children’s author that can write well, it is a much better source for kids. I find kids in the library browse these books because of the photos but they are difficult for kids to read. I think a set or two is still needed but think we can find some alternative titles to meet the same topics–real children’s books rather than series written specifically for school reports.

  23. >We buy many of these for the public library, for the reasons the teachers are citing above…and because then the kids who show up with their assignment are required to use a certain number of print resources (as well as electronic). Not a bad idea.

    But it does mean we’re spending sometimes to DUPLICATE electronic and print resources. How public libraries are going to survive this dilemna in the current economy I don’t know.

    And as “Anonymous-Claire” noted above, accuracy/quality is a big issue. We depend of the few series reviews that do pop up (for instance, in the semi-annual Horn Book Guide). Of course, a series review is going to catch mostly issues of presentation of the information–I don’t expect a review to be a content specialist in all the topics she’s reviewing.

  24. >Your post raises great questions about why “curriculum-related nonfiction” continues to be purchased in school libraries. As a school librarian (who has also worked in a public library)I rarely purchase non-fiction books for the curriculum. Our district uses computers to access both databases we subscribe to as well as websites. When I do buy “curriculum-related non-fiction” it is because the reading level for the topic is more accessible for some children.

    My district is fairly well-to-do and as such, we are lucky to have full-time librarians in each school and also have multiple computers in each classroom for students to access. It saddens me that this is not the case for many school libraries across the country.

    Perhaps the more pressing question is what kind of research are students asked to do with non-fiction reading? While finding hard facts has its place, asking more open-ended questions to students forces libraries not only to have a range of sources but sources that prod them to think and ponder.

  25. >Great question and interesting comments on a topic that has been on my mind of late. Just this year, I have reduced the number of nonfiction books in my library and made room for more fiction titles. Not that I don’t think information retrieval is an important skill that every child should have, but my fiction circulates SO much more than nonfiction — even those that are curricular based nonfiction titles do not always get taken out. In the middle school, school-provided laptops (including the little EEEPCs) have reached 80% of the population — soon to be at 100%, so, it is crucial for me to teach the students how to navigate and utilize electronic resources: databases, ebooks, reliable websites, google scholar and google books and google news archives, etc. It is also crucial for me to bring them really solid print resources: not just because they are “BOOKS and thus more reliable” but because the writing is great or the presentation is appealing or the thoughts are complex and provocative.

    I think the most important query will be for us and the students to search for the most “mind stretching” materials out there: be they print or digital, and not be close-minded or stuck with one kind of medium or another. And of course, each school and each library must do as their circumstances dictate.

    (But, OMG, how many of those expensive and almost useless nonfiction books are still being published and bought year in and year out…)

  26. Anonymous says:


    are you referring to the fact that the really well-done non-fiction books, russell freeman for example, are all but useless when your kid has a homework assignment? i always found that the extremely lame non-fiction series books provided the check-the-box answers that teachers were looking for.

    where was rosa parks born? when was she arrested? what for?

    who has time to read the Freeman book when they have homework to do?

  27. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yeah, it can seem like there is a death-grip between school assignments and books for school assignments, because, really, what is the point of “researching” a State Bird?

  28. Anonymous says:

    >i believe in learning how to do research, and i guess kids have to start somewhere. but you’re right, who cares what the state bird of kansas is?

    teaching– much harder than it looks.

  29. >what is the point of "researching" a State Bird? <– In itself, you might see a point, but it is a way to reach the younger kids to teach them how to dig up information. Animal facts researches, State facts researches, history researches — all ways to build up skills in finding out information. I don't see any issues with doing such researches — as long as the projects/assignments are inspiring and actually build the skills and not just giving busy work to children to "keep them in their places."

  30. Alex Flinn says:

    >Chiming in late to say that I’m glad they still have the books. Often, the first (and most extensive) hit kids will get on Google is Wikipedia. Most kids don’t look much further, and I know that a lot of my daughter’s teachers in middle school don’t require citations yet. Also, books have way more detail. Sure, you can look up the state bird on But Katie had a report due on Delaware (as a colony, not currently), and there was barely any information online. We took out a few books, and she really got a sense of what it was like to live in Delaware at that time.

  31. Monica Edinger says:

    >fairrosa, yes!!! I was going to stay quiet, but people are always so scathing about state reports. Such reports and the research involved tap into kids’ enjoyment of collecting. According to Kieran Egan (an educational theorist I admire who does great work on imagination), kids the age I teach (9 and 10 year olds) are very into collecting (facts, baseball cards, etc) and so I think state research projects are perfect for this. At the end of our fourth grade year our kids do some sort of state research activity (guide book, fantasy trip, etc) and have a blast looking up facts like the state bird. They love learning and collecting all this seemingly insignificant data. It is also frankly a bit of a relief for them as they finish out their year after a bunch of heavy research projects (also fun, but much more intellectually demanding). This one, in the midst of spring fever, is just fun. So don’t underestimate the value of fact collecting be it state facts or something else.

  32. Roger Sutton says:

    >But, Fairrosa and Monica, that’s my point about the death-grip. Rather than sending kids on a treasure hunt for some fascinating tidbit of detail, “do a report about the state bird of the colony of Delaware” is now answered by State Birds of the Colonies, a series of thirteen 32 pp books priced at $25.65 each. There’s no research involved, and shouldn’t kids know that this kind of question is just the kind of thing that the Internet is good for?

  33. Monica Edinger says:

    >Roger, I would agree that they could find that info on the Internet rather in than in these books. I just wanted to put in a plug for the much-maligned state report.

    Before the Web I often had my students write Chamber of Congresses and the appropriate state offices for this info. They loved getting letters stuffed with brochures!

  34. Anonymous says:

    >Looking up things on the internet is very automatic for us grownups, but it involves a whole lot of skills that 8 and 9 year olds really have to think about and work on. Know that looking up the state bird in a book about a state is not a mindless activity for kids this age, just beginning to do research. They can learn a lot about the organization of information looking for simple state fact tidbits in the pages of a book.

    Many posts here neglect the perspective the kids have in this scenario. The posts, instead, come from the perspective of people who have long been so accomplished at these skills that it is hard to separate them out into their constituent parts. They can’t see the trees for the forest. Teachers have to identify the constituent skills and figure out how to get the kids to learn them.

    When one starts with too complicated an assignment the kids fail, the librarian or the parents do the work, and the kids learn nothing. Learning to do “simple” research in books is a big deal for kids, and one good place to start. Once the student has established competence and is ready for a new challenge, one moves on.

    We should all remember who these books are for and why they are, therefore, useful, which has been well explained earlier in this space. Learn from the teachers!


  35. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes-but, Teacher/librarian: with the state bird project, are we teaching kids how to find information or are we teaching them how to look stuff up in books? If the latter, how useful is that skill going to continue to be? Before I duck, let me add that I definitely see a future for the printed book; I just don’t think books will be the first place people go to find information. I’m not sure they are now.

  36. Anonymous says:


    Sure, there are many transferable skills. For example, they learn to look for organizational clues, like Table of Contents, chapter and section headers, indexes (indices?), graphs, tables, etc. These skills transfer, even if not always directly, for example, the Table of Contents vs. the article outline one frequently finds online. Kids need to be aware that they should look for these sorts of things for clues. They aren’t born knowing that, and many need help figuring it out. They also need to learn to take notes and keep track of what information comes from which source. That transfers, too.

    Keep in mind that young kids keyboarding and spelling skills are not yet good enough to make them transparent in the research process. That is, they need to think about them. That can get in the way of their higher level research thinking.

    And there remains the practical fact that most teachers still do not have easy access to computers on a one to one ratio for their kids. I am at an affluent school, but we don’t have that yet. One cannot always wait for one’s turn at the computer lab or with the laptop carts.

    Now, all that said, our kids do internet research for some projects. It just doesn’t completely render the books obsolete. Certainly not yet.

    (Writing rapidly from the reference desk amidst the after school crowd, and hoping this is coherent!)

  37. >Just a quick note on the spelling/online searching front: most 4th and 5th graders have trouble even using online catalog to look for books by title or subject because oftentimes they don’t know exactly how to spell certain words: like renaissance or atoms. (I saw it spelled ADAMS just today.) All these skills can be built either in print or online and I totally agree with Roger that certain quick facts should no longer be the sole subject of printed books any more. Printed books will be reserved for longer, more in depth, and more thought-provoking treatment of greater topics. And they will be read the same way as most people read fiction: following long narratives and complex thought processes. And I say hurray to that.

    But, yes, a 48-page book, illustrated with 60 or so photographs with fewer than 1000 words for the entire book just on a “list” of CLOUD PATTERNS and the basic definitions of this topic, and costs more than $28.00 should not exist any more.

  38. >I am waiting hopefully for the evolution of the web– more content written specifically for students, and custom search engines that will locate it, so that students can type in search terms and get age appropriate responses back. A kid-wikipedia, perhaps, for grades 1-6.

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