“It’s all about dead presidents and whales.”

While reading Reading in the Wild I came across a quote from a student about nonfiction:  “It’s all about dead presidents and whales.” (175)  It reminded me of an important conversation I had with my fourth graders last year. 

I handed my small group an article about Tiger Woods.  They read it and then they asked, “When did he die?  It doesn’t say?”

“He hasn’t died.  He is still a professional golfer.”

“But….We never read about anyone who is still alive?!?”

My bad!  (I hate this phrase, but it applies in this situation.)  In my attempt to expose them to important lives in history, I had forgotten to share important lives of the present.  They were under the impression that people only wrote biographies about people once they were dead.   And I had only added to that assumption by never sharing biographies of people making a difference today.  It was an eye opening experience for all of us!

I came to another reminder of this same idea yesterday while previewing an autobiography we may use for a read aloud. 

ImageThis was my first clue that authors were human, like the rest of us. And alive.  From time to time my publisher sends along a letter from a child inquiring how long Sid Fleischman has been dead.  There seems to be a kind of childhood folklore that all authors are dead.  Or ought to be.”  (p.1-2)

We have to show our kids that nonfiction is about more than “dead presidents and whales” and that authors are live human beings. 


7 thoughts on ““It’s all about dead presidents and whales.””

  1. Whoops! I know you will be rectifying this misconception. Have you read Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher or Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka? They are both great autobiographies that a fun to read aloud. I will have to look for Fleischman’s.

      1. I think I have Fletcher’s – or I ordered it and it’s in the library! 🙂
        Important lessons to remember JennieB!

  2. I absolutely loved your student’s quote and the title of your post. I tend to avoid non fiction myself. Will make it a point to look for something about a living person. And no whales!

  3. That’s such a great quote. All teachers should have that posted somewhere…not that you can’t read about dead presidents and whales…just that you need to incorporate some beating hearts and quails.
    Donna Smith
    The A-to-Z Challenge
    Mainely Write

  4. You gave me a lot to think about – I think we are stuck on the few biographies required by standards of learning and the ever-present animal research project. Thanks for the book recommendation, too! You were smart to listen to your students!

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