Awards for children’s books have a long an illustrious history, not to be recounted here. You have heard of the Newbery. You have heard of the Caldecott. Have you heard of the Sibert? Ah! That is an award for informational literature for children, otherwise known as nonfiction. Typically it goes to beautifully produced trade nonfiction like Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop. book cover image: kakapo rescue

Montgomery and Bishop can fairly be called superstars of children’s nonfiction. Montgomery has written eight well-reviewed books for children, many based on her work for adults. Bishop’s trade books are so well-conceived that they have titles like Nic Bishop Frogs (Scholastic, 2008). Two of his other trade books, one by Montgomery and one written by Bishop himself, have won Sibert honors. But Bishop has another line, in what his website calls “books for schools,” but what we librarians call series nonfiction. He’s done dozens of these books, with little fanfare.

Pause for a definition: trade nonfiction you can buy in a bookstore; series nonfiction is produced specifically for the school and library market, is often linked to curriculum standards and reading levels, and can generally only be purchased through library vendors. They have what is called “library binding,” and often have nice wipeable covers to erase the stickiness of many enthusiastic and grubby hands.

So why is it that Bishop’s trade books can win awards, but not his series books? I haven’t examined them, and I’m not saying that they should win awards. I’m not saying that a series book will never win the Sibert. I’m saying (clearing my throat and puffing up my chest) that, darn it, series nonfiction deserves an award of its own. Trade nonfiction has the Sibert. I humbly suggest an award for series nonfiction:

The SNibert. Pronounced “sny-bert” with a long I. (And keep in mind that ALA can afford professional designers, wheras I cannot.)

Snibert medal

An award whose time has come

That’s an apatasaurus, by the way. A fitting representative for the SNibert because a) dinosaur series pretty much keep us in business and b) series nonfiction keeps kids informed about the latest developments in dinosaur-ology, such as the demotion of the bronosaurus and subsequent rise of the apatosaurus in its stead.
So what’s going on in the current series nonfiction market, and who can we look for as the inaugural SNibert medalist? Well, who better to answer that question (and several related questions) than the current and former editors of School Library Journal’s semi-annual supplement, Series Made Simple! Etta Thornton-Verma edited SMS when I was a contributor back in 2010, and Chelsey Philpot is the editor of the most recent supplement.
 All librarians know that series nonfiction makes up the bulk of the children’s nonfiction section, but it often doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Aside from trade-oriented series like Scientists in the Field, what are some of your favorite NF series of recent years?
ETV: I’m a science fan. As editor of Series Made Simple I enjoyed the best

Etta Thornton-Verma

Etta Thornton-Verma

examples of the “yucky science” trend that’s been going for a few years. Many of these series featured material and presentations that would not only draw young readers in but would also provide solid material for reports or science fairs, essential in libraries that can’t buy materials that fill only one need. Series such as Enslow’s “Bizarre Science” from Spring 2011 and Capstone’s “Nasty (But Useful) Science” from fall 2010 come to mind.

chelsey philpot

Chelsey Philpot

CP: I’m particularly impressed with how publishers are taking much-covered topics and presenting them in new and exciting ways. Whether using a graphic novel format for biographies, mixing science and science fiction, or listing websites to interactive online materials, series nonfiction is responding to readers and the changing times. The series that have been pushing the envelope have by and large been my favorites in recent years.

What is the unique role of series nonfiction in the library?
ETV:  Series nonfiction is the workhorse of the nonfiction section. It provides material for reports and by including plenty of hi-lo titles as well as on-level material and usually listing further-reading suggestions, it offers something for a range of patrons. Lately there is a trend toward producing series that examine in separate titles what could be (and used to be) covered in one book. While this can become expensive for libraries, when various themed months and holidays roll around and every child is looking for material on the same subject, librarians will be glad of the varied coverage provided by series nonfiction as opposed to relying on a few longer books and expensive reference materials.CP:  Series nonfiction is great for report writers, but it’s also fantastic for browsers.  Some of the designs are so eye-catching readers can’t help, but linger over them.  Great photographs and interesting topics help as well, of course.
From a production perspective, what makes series NF different from trade?

ETV:  This is really a question for publishers, but from my perspective I would point out turn-around time—these books that are shorter and often rely on stock images and existing research can be produced quickly. And of course there is the granularity issue mentioned above—series nonfiction often covers the same material in multiple books that trade books cover in one volume. An easy answer here would be to deride the quality of this genre, but over a few years at Series Made Simple I got to see many examples of quality series nonfiction, so that generalization no longer holds true, if it ever did.

CP:  Oh boy, a lot. The bindings and designs are usually different. The formats are consistent across volumes. They are produced as a set. I could go on and on about differences, but a lot of the stronger series share editorial qualities with excellent trade books: great text and eye-catching and edifying visuals.

 How can a librarian judge a quality NF series? What makes a series stand out?

ETV:  It’s no longer necessary for them to judge, as they can pick up a copy of Series Made Simple! But, if they must decide all on their own, the qualities they should bear in mind are the same as for any nonfiction book. Does it cover a subject my library needs at the level at which my patrons need it? Is the research thorough and accessible, including, for example, a quality index? Is the presentation engaging? Are photos and other illustrations well reproduced, relevant, and accompanied by informative captions? If the publisher is touting an online complement to the print material, is it of quality and will it last? If there is a bibliography, it should show that the writer researched using more advanced materials than other series nonfiction books, though of course the further-reading list can suggest those materials. If the library or school must adhere to certain standards, it is important that the series meets those, and a publisher should be able to confirm whether their materials were written, for example, in accordance with common core standards. Many standards emphasize the importance of primary sources and the use of these is thankfully becoming more common in children’s literature.

CP:  A clear and engaging design, helpful and interesting visuals, strong back matter and/or additional resources, factual accuracy, and, of course, great writing are all important things to look for when evaluating a nonfiction series.

And now, the question that’s been on everyone’s mind (for at least ten minutes): Who would be your top contender for the SNibert medal this year?

ETV:  My favorite-ever series didn’t cover science—it was Compass Point’s

migrant mother
From series veteran Don Nardo

“Captured History” from spring 2011. All four books in this series were gorgeous and meticulously researched, but the one that I still think about is Don Nardo’s Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression. This stunning book looked at the background of two women whose very different lives became intertwined—Dorothea Lange, the famous depression-era photographer, and Florence Owens Thompson, her most famous subject. It describes the years leading up to the heartbreak depicted in Lange’s searing image and the aftermath of the photograph for both women.

Dressing a Nation
It’s like she knew she was going to win

CP:  I hate to have to choose just one, but because I am a fashion buff and a history nerd, I really enjoyed reading Twenty-First Century Books’ “Dressing a Nation: The History of U.S. Fashion” series. The Little Black Dress and Zoo Suits: Depression and Wartime Fashions from the 1930s to the 1950s is particularly fascinating and what a great cover!

 Thanks to both Etta and Chelsey for taking the time to answer these questions. Take note, current and would-be reviewers: you now have a handy guide to what to look for when you crack the spine.
Will this be it for the SNibert? All I’m going to say is if someone hijacks the podium at ALA midwinter next January, I give advance notice that I had nothing to do with it.