In Speeches, Melissa Sweet and Judy Cheatham Rally the Power of Nonfiction

Award-winning author/illustrator Melissa Sweet discussed her researching process, and literacy powerhouse Judy Cheatham described large-scale literacy interventions in schools during the standing-room-only ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference.
Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services for Reading Is Fundamental, and Author/Illustrator Melissa Sweet at the ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program at the ALA Annual conference. Photo by Dan Bostrom.

Judy Cheatham (left), vice president of literacy services for Reading Is Fundamental, and Melissa Sweet, award-winning author/illustrator, at the ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program at the ALA Annual Conference. Photo by Dan Bostrom

There are certain speakers in library land that one can listen to over and over again. Author/illustrator Melissa Sweet and Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) vice president of literacy services Judy Cheatham are two who leave audiences wanting more. Sweet and Cheatham melded distinctly different talks on the same topic—the art and craft of nonfiction—when they shared the stage for the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) 2015 Charlemae Rollins President’s Program during the American Library Association Annual Conference in San Francisco last month.

Melissa Sweet: “What is the essence of someone?”

Sweet spoke about her research process while illustrating this award-winning book about Peter Mark Roget.

Sweet, an artist extraordinaire with more 100 books to her credit, recently illustrated Jen Bryant's The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Eerdmans, 2014), which won a Robert F. Sibert Medal and a Caldecott Honor. During her talk, Sweet walked the audience through her childhood memories, recalling that her parents were always making her things: clothes, hats, toys, and more. Living in her very own “maker space” of activity inspired Sweet to do much of the same as a child. Some of her favorite toys? Classics that brought her young imagination to life, such as Etch A Sketch, Spirograph, and Colorforms. When Sweet was seven, her Brownie troop took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—and Sweet has been transfixed with art, nonfiction elements, and research ever since. “What is the essence of someone?” she asked. “That is the question I’m trying to find out through my research.” That research informs her detailed painting style and use of collage in visually representing her subjects. Sweet often incorporates pieces of her research on a subject matter into her collages: astute eyes can find maps, photographs, and diagrams related to the person whose life story is being told. Even the type face and the hand lettering in Sweet’s books are carefully chosen to create a sense of style or whimsy. Peter Mark Roget, the subject of The Right Word, used a lot of inventive language in his original thesaurus—something that Sweet incorporated into the many lists that appear in the book. Sweet quoted the author Tobias Wolff, who wrote in his novel Old School (Knopf, 2003) that “the beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.” That, Sweet exclaimed, was also her own definition of collage. Sweet told the audience that she began incorporating a lot of collage into her illustrations when illustrating The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (HMH, 2004). She pored over artifacts, saw firsthand examples of Audubon’s taxidermy, and started looking at collage as a way for her to include clues about someone’s life into her books. Sweet also asks herself, “What is the one word that defines this person?” For Balloons over Broadway (HMH, 2011), Sweet’s tribute to puppeteer Tony Sarg, the word "movement" came to mind. Using the vertical height of the book, Sweet was able to convey the movement of Sarg’s enormous balloons floating high above the parade route. Toward the end of her discussion, the audience let out an audible gasp when Sweet let it be known that her next book, which will be published this fall, is a picture book biography of E.B. White.

Judy Cheatham: How RIF IS FIGHTING the poverty gap

Following a revered author like Melissa Sweet could seem like a daunting experience—unless you are Judy Cheatham. A recent Literacy Volunteer of the Year award winner, Cheatham wowed the crowd with her keen sense of rhythm while storytelling, her mesmerizing Southern accent, and her generosity. Every participant in the standing-room-only audience received a free “information picture book” (as Cheatham likes to refer to nonfiction picture books) from RIF, along with the promise to make her entire PowerPoint presentation, which was filled with literacy statistics, available, “so y’all can go out and write a grant to help kids in your own neighborhoods.” Within 24 hours, I’d received an email with the link to the slide presentation. Cheatham’s data is well cited and sobering—including this chilling fact: poverty has twice the effect on reading ability as race or gender does for a child. Cheatham  described how her organization has been challenging the poverty achievement gap by creating quality lesson templates for more than 140 books, many of them informational texts that incorporate science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. They are used by school and public librarians incorporating STEAM programming. RIF_Stats_3

Data from Judy Cheatham's presentation about Reading Is Fundamental's literacy intervention in schools.

In a three-year initiative started in 2012, RIF worked with 173 schools (over half in rural, non-urban areas) in 41 states and more than 33,000 students in an attempt to close the gap in reading ability. The problem with the poverty gap, as Cheatham saw it, was this: 80 percent of children living in poverty lose up to three months of English language arts skills during the summer months by not reading or sharing books—which results in 33 percent of poor children reading below basic levels when they return to school. By 12th grade, that gap has grown from three months to a four year gap compared to their higher-income peers. RIF gave giving away over 750,000 books to students in grades two through four during the three-year time frame and collected statistics on test scores during that time. Each child received eight books per summer to keep and read at home. The hypothesis: that giving out high-quality nonfiction titles during the summer would help lessen the gap. Over the same period, RIF also handed out 40 classroom books and instructional teacher guides, or templates, to guide teachers using these informational picture books within their classes and media centers and encourage them to “offer something STEAMY” to kids, Cheatham said, noting that STEAM knowledge offers competition in a global economy as more and more jobs are trending towards a math, science, or technology foundation. As part of the initiative, RIF also gave participating schools $1,000 to encourage them to try new STEAM-based activities and offered parent engagement programs. The data that RIF collected in the first year astounded Cheatham. The summer reading loss was not only cut in half, but the lowest performing children made the highest gains. “We didn’t share the data with anyone right away, because we thought it was wrong," she told the audience. "The gains were through the roof!” The “lowest performing” students she referred to were those who had previously scored below the tenth percentile on the reading sections of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those students showed an incredible 72–81 percent gain in their scores after spending time reading and sharing the informational picture books provided by RIF. Cheatham knew then that by focusing on this approach to literacy through informational texts, teachers and librarians were changing the vocabulary of the poorest students. Basically, she said proudly, they were “leveling the playing field.” These two powerhouses handily won over their revved-up, standing-room-only crowd. Now, excuse me while I go create some more STEAM kits for the libraries in my system to use during programs, since I’ve been so inspired by both Cheatham and Sweet.
Not sure which informational texts to start with? Check the ALSC book list page for some ideas, along with RIF’s multicultural and STEAM driven book lists, complete with Common Core aligned book activity and learning resources templates.  
LisaKroppLisa G. Kropp is the youth services coordinator at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in Bellport, NY.  

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