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Seminar on Lit for Youth: Pairings & Clusters

Watch the video, then read the page. 

Whether you're interesting in working in a public library recommending great nonfiction to youth, in a school library teaming with teachers and students in addressing the standards, or in another setting working with children or young adults, you need to be able to develop groups of books that address specific user needs.

Pairs and clusters of books can provide choice for independent reading or multiple perspectives on a class research project.

Literature circles are an effective way to explore informational text through group discussions.

Read Barone, Diana & Darone, Rebecca (2016). “Really”, “no possible”, I” can’t believe it”: Exploring informational text in literature circles. The Reading Teacher, 70(1), 69-81. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Working with Pairings and Clusters

Before you jump into organizing resources, think about your audience and their needs.

smithNicki Clausen-Grace (2007, 26) suggests using text-sets that "span genres, writing styles, perspectives, and reading levels." Then, selecting a learning structure such as

Jamestown is used by Clausen-Grace to explore these seven learning structures. John Smith Escapes Again! (2006) by Rosalyn Schanzer is an example of a book that works well for a guided reading experience. After reading, youth can experience the contents of the book again by playing the On the Trail of Captain John Smith: A Jamestown Adventure from National Geographic.

readTry It!
Read Clausen-Grace, Nicki (Spring 2007). Jamestown. School Library Journal, 53, 26-27. IUPUI students can view the article online. This article provides examples in each of the seven areas using the topic of Jamestown as a theme.

Now develop your own project focusing on a topic of your choice and selecting clusters of nonfiction works in each of the seven areas.

Fiction-Nonfiction Pairings

Pairing fiction with nonfiction is a wonderful way to reach many young people. Fiction can engage students, draw out questions, and establish a context, while nonfiction can extend a reading experience, answer questions, and help readers draw conclusions about a subject.

Keep in mind that not everyone is excited about nonfiction. Pairings provides the best of both worlds. Krashen (2015) states

"There is strong pressure for American schools to de-emphasize fiction and focus more on nonfiction, because of the belief that nonfiction provides more "academic" language. But studies suggest that fiction may be the bridge between everyday conversational language and academic language. Self-selected reading, which is largely fiction, provides us with the literacy development and background knowledge that makes demanding texts more comprehensible. Studies also show that fiction exposes readers to other views of the world and increases the ability to deal with uncertainty, which is crucial for problem-solving."

Fiction can often get youth excited about reading nonfiction. For instance, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones is a charming fiction books for children. The book features a girl who learns to raise chickens. A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens (2015) by Melissa Caughey helps kids learn to become chicken farmers. The pairing is perfect for upper elementary children.

chickenskeep chickens

Let's use a recent work of fiction and an upcoming work of nonfiction by well-known authors in both categories.

Historical Fiction and Informational Reading

Laurence Yep is known for his well-researched works of historical fiction including Dragonwings. In The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island (2008), Yep tells a fictional story based on actual conversations between the author and his father along with the family immigrant history. Although a work of historical fiction, it does a wonderful job setting the stage of an exploration of Angel Island and providing documentation such as family photos, historical notes, and a bibliography.


Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain (2014) is an upcoming work by well-known nonfiction author Russell Freedman. Drawing on primary source materials, the book tells the story of the port of entry for many Asian immigrants from 1892 to 1940.

By exploring one boy's fictional experience, Yep sets the stage for reader's questions about Angel Island. Freedman's book then becomes a wonderful umbrella for understanding what happened at Angel Island. Readers can then go one step further and make comparisons to Ellis Island and other ports of entry.

The key to an effective pairing is selecting engaging fiction to pair with quality informational texts. Code Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein was a huge hit with young adults. Use the popularity of this work of historical fiction to draw readers into nonfiction works set in the United States such as Yankee Doodle Gals by Amy Nathan and Flying Higher: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. Then, recommend another work of historical fiction such as Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.


Use a fiction-nonfiction pairing to provide the context for an historical event or time period. For instance, there are a number of great books on the Great Depression and specifically the dust bowl:


Look for combinations that will bring historical events to life. For instance, young people can relate to the orphan trains. Ask them to compare the historical fiction stories with the true experiences. Some books include:

The Holocaust and World War II is another natural for these types of pairings.

Here are a couple more suggested by Jennifer Wharton

Graphic Novels and Nonfiction

Pair graphic novels with nonfiction works. Into the Volcano (2012) by Don Wood tells an adventure story that hooks readers. Pair this book with informational texts about volcanoes. For instance, Elizabeth Rusch has two recent books about volcanoes. Both provide different perspectives on the topics. Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives (2013) by Elizabeth Rusch focuses on the experiences of a volcanologist who travels the world evaluating potential volcano eruptions. Designed for ages 10 and up, it's part of the Scientists in the Field series. Volcano Rising (2013) by Elizabeth Rusch is aimed at ages 6 to 9 and provides factual information about how volcanoes work.


marketAn increasing number of historical fiction graphic novels are combining fact with fiction. Use these works along with informational texts.

Market Day (2010) by James Sturm is a graphic novel set in the early 20th century Eastern Europe. It provides a wonderful backdrop for the discussion of the economics and industrialization. It contains mature content including obscene language, nudity, and mentions of sex commonly found in graphic novels so it should be directed at mature readers.

Deny's Wortman's New York (2010) by James Sturm explores the life and work of Denys Wortman in New York.

Fiction and Cultural Studies

Use a fiction and nonfiction pairing to bring alive a particular culture. Deborah Ellis does a wonderful job providing both fiction and nonfiction works for young people. She is best known for her Breadwinner Trilogy including The Breadwinner (2001), Parvana's Journey (2003), and Mud City (2004) designed for grades 5-8. Kids of Kabul (2012) is a nonfiction work examining contemporary life in Afghanistan. Photo-rich nonfiction works can bring locations like Afghanistan live for youth. Photo books like Tony O'Brien and Mike Sullivan's Afghan Dreams (2008) are a great place to start. According to Grabarek (2012),

"Grouping fiction, nonfiction, and multimedia resources on a particular topic offer teachers and students a broad, multilayered approach to a subject."


Fiction and Forensic Science

This approach to connecting fiction with nonfiction works across the curriculum. For instance Molly Wetta (2012) suggests that even a young adult novel about serial killers like I Hunt Killers (2012) by Barry Lyga is an opportunity to learn more about violence, serial killers, and forensic science. For instance, Forensic Identification: Putting a Name and Face on Death by Elizabeth Murray makes a great companion.


Environmental Fiction and Science

Carl Hiaasen is known for his environmental-themed mysteries for youth including Hoot, Flush, Chomp, and Scat. Each work incorporates a different theme such as endangered animals or pollution. Pair these books with informational texts that extend the experience into the sciences.

Unique Combinations

Also, seek out connections in areas that you don't normally associate with fiction. For instance, The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance by Russell D Roberts might draw the interest of some youth who enjoy romance, but didn't realize they also liked economics. Russell Roberts has written a number of finance related stories, fables, and parables.

Look for classic works of fiction for fiction-nonfiction mashups. For instance, readers can enjoy the 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions at Pair it with works of nonfiction related to mathematics.

Ready-Made Pairings

A great connection for elementary school is The Magic Tree House books. In this fiction series by Mary Pope Osborne, Jack and Annie encounter a wide range of topics associated with social studies and science themes. These books are ready-made for fiction-nonfiction pairings. As a matter of fact, many of the books in the series now have a companion work of nonfiction. A few are listed below:


Many online tools now provide opportunities to explore fiction-nonfiction pairings. For instance BookFlix from Scholastic is subscription-based service (you can get a free trial) provides 95 fiction-nonfiction pairs, 25+ Spanish pairs, and many read along options.


Read AT LEAST TWO of the following articles.

Hansen, Laurie E.; Auproux, Jennifer; Brown, Stephanie; Garrett, Briana; Worthington, Arielle (Summer 2015). Using “perfect pairs” of picture books to support English learners’ academic language. The California Reader, 48(4), 20-26. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Grabarek, Daryl (August 7, 2012). Afghan Days, Afghan Dreams. School Library Journal. Available at SLJ. Notice how both fiction and nonfiction books can work together to tell the story of contemporary life.

Wetta, Molly (2012). Nonfiction picks for fans of I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga. The YALSA Hub. Available.

Fleener, Charlene E. & Bucher, Katherine R. (2003). Linking reading, science, and fiction books. Childhood Education, 80(2), 76-83. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Looking for more ideas? Go to the Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairings from the ECYA blog.

Adult-Youth Pairings

Modeling is one of the most important ways adults can help children develop a passion for reading. A great way to promote reading is by encouraging children and their parents to read books on the same topics and share their experiences and new understandings. Children need to see their teachers and librarians reading too. While students are reading books about natural disasters, teachers can be seen reading books on these topics too. Librarians can post what they're reading on the bulletin board or in their blog.

A great place to start is with books that contain young readers editions. For instance, a children's version of Mark Kurlansky's popular book titled Cod was adapted for children. It's called The Cod's Tale.


Unfortunately, you won't find young readers editions of most books. Instead, develop your own adult-child pairings.

John M. Barry's The Great Influenza is an engaging work of nonfiction for adults about the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Pair it with An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy. Then, read the historical fiction novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson together.


To explore this idea in-depth, go to the Innovative Approaches page.

Nonfiction Pairings and Clusters

Designing pairings and clusters involves much more than simply choosing your favorite books on a particular topic. You need to be able to justify those selections and share why this combination of books works best for a particular need.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty (2013) by Tonya Bolden is a new mini-history focusing on this key document in American history. The book is filled with quality information and archival images along with a timeline, glossary, and bibliography. However in her review for School Library Journal, Jackie Partch (2011) notes that

"While this narrative technique makes for riveting reading and gives readers a greater understanding of the viewpoint of these groups, they won't find much information here on the Unionist Democrats, moderate Republicans, or those who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Pair this with another title, such as Charles W. Carey Jr.'s The Emancipation Proclamation (The Child's World, 2009) to gain that perspective."


Focus on Different Perspectives

One of the keys to pairings and clusters is focus. Rather than the entire Civil War, focus on the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead of the entire American Revolution, explore a particular individual or event. Recently, three excellent books have investigated Benedict Arnold's role in the American Revolution. Think about how each of the selections provides a different perspective or additional information. Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution (2012) is a work of historical fiction. However, it provides engaging characters that make readers want to learn more about the facts regarding Benedict Arnold's betrayal. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010) by Steve Sheinkin provides the true story, but is also written in the narrative style. Finally, Jim Murphy's The Real Benedict Arnold is useful in filling in historical facts about Arnold. Each of the three selections for middle school provides a different perspective and source of information.


Focus on Varied Text Types and Formats

Seek out a variety of different types of texts. For instance, pair the graphic biography Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (2012) by Joseph Lambert with Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher by Marfe Ferguson Delano (2008).


Focus on Connections to the Youth Experience

imprisonedBecause so many children and young adults were taken to Japanese Internment Camps, it's easy to get students interested in this time period. Explore some of the following books:

Focus on Engaging Topics

Seek topics that will draw the interests of youth.

Student enjoy stories of adventure. The Shackleton expedition was an engaging real-life adventure that incorporates both history and science topics. Consider the following range of informational texts from picture books and hi-lo readers to youth biographies.

forensicsFrom understanding prehistoric skeletons to tracking wildlife poachers, forensic science is an engaging topic that combines elements across sciences.

Clustering and the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require youth to read across a variety of texts. Identifying clusters of nonfiction narrative and informational texts is a great way to address the standards as well as differentiate instruction. Differentiation involves providing a variety of content, process, and product options to accommodate individual differences.

For example, Aronson, Cappiello, and Zarnowski (2012) recommend text clusters to teach ecosystems. Joyce Sidman's Song of the Water Boatman (2005) could be read aloud. Then, youth could read Jean Craighead George's The Wolves Are Back (2008) and Thomas F. Yezerski's Meadowlands (2011).


According to Aronson and Bartle (2012),

"Your knowledge of and access to a wide variety of resources makes you the perfect keeper of the Common Core. And “clustering” can be an important ally in this key role. Clustering is the art of exploring a topic with a number of related resources, and it typically involves arranging those materials in attractive, student-friendly displays... Clustering is one way to make that evident to anyone who walks through your door—from a student who’s casually browsing your collection to a class that’s working on an assignment."

Think about innovative ways to promote your clusters and pairings.


Read-Aloud Connections

In his Reid-Aloud Alerts for Booklist, Rob Reid (April 2013) suggests using read-aloud passages to draw student interest to topics and genre. Rather than reading an entire book or even a chapter, Reid recommends "10-Minute Selections" that represent short, stand-alone passages. These five to fifteen minute experiences give students a flavor for a book and topic that may generate interest in extending the experience. For example, he uses read-aloud historical fiction passages to ignite interest in history.

While these "10-Minute Selections" are often fiction, they can also be engaging narrative nonfiction. Rob Reid suggests using Biographies as a good place to start. He recommends passages from works such as Claudette Colvin by Phillip Hoose, Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery, Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone, Counting Coup by Joseph Medicine Crow, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Lost Boy, Lost Girl by John Bul Dau, or The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle.

try itTry It!
Begin by exploring the Biographies "10-Minute Selections" to see how nonfiction read-aloud segments could jumpstart reading. Also, explore examples of historical fiction passages that could be read aloud and connected with nonfiction works related to the Middle Ages. Then, think about nonfiction works that could be paired with either of these experiences.

Examine some other Reid-Aloud Alerts for other fiction and nonfiction read-aloud examples and ideas including: Dreams, Memorable Characters, Inquiring Minds, Unusual Creatures and Fantastic Worlds, Sense of Place, Silly Stories, Winners and Losers, Faerie Tales, Classics, Sequels, Primary Grade Chapter Books, and Journey Through America's Past. To view all the examples, you'll need to sign up for a free trial, or find them through the IUPUI Citation Linker.

Select one of Reid's "10-Minute Selections" and create a cluster of nonfiction works that would connect to the passage.

Then, identify a topic of interest and seek out fiction or nonfiction book passages that would generate questions or interest. Use the Reid article as a model for sharing the book and the "10-Minute Selection". Then, identify nonfiction works that could be paired with this fiction experience.


Aronson, Marc, Bartle, Susan M. (November 8, 2012). Wondering how to put Common Core into practice? It's easier than you think. School Library Journal. Available at SLJ

Aronson, Marc, Cappiello, Mary Ann, & Zarnowski, Myra (December 2, 2012). Clustering and the Common Core. School Library Journal. Available at SLJ.

Barone, Diana & Darone, Rebecca (2016). “Really”, “no possible”, I” can’t believe it”: Exploring informational text in literature circles. The Reading Teacher, 70(1), 69-81. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Clausen-Grace, Nicki (Spring 2007). Jamestown. School Library Journal, 53, 26-27. Available

Grabarek, Daryl (August 7, 2012). Afghan Days, Afghan Dreams. School Library Journal. Available at SLJ

Grabarek, Daryl (November 5, 2012). Forensic scientists at work: noteworthy nonfiction for older readers. School Library Journal. Available at SLJ

Hansen, Laurie E.; Auproux, Jennifer; Brown, Stephanie; Garrett, Briana; Worthington, Arielle (Summer 2015). Using “perfect pairs” of picture books to support English learners’ academic language. The California Reader, 48(4), 20-26. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Krashen, S. 2015. The Great Fiction/Nonfiction Debate. Language Magazine, 15(3), 22-27.  Available.

Reid, Rob (April 2013). Reid-Aloud Alert: The Middle Ages. Booklist Online. Available at Booklist

Wetta, Molly (2012). Nonfiction picks for fans of I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga. The YALSA Hub. Available.

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