Friday, January 18, 2019

What Is Expository FICtion?

If you’re a regular reader of Celebrate Science, you know that I have a lot of say about expository nonfiction. But ever since I read this fascinating post by Annette Bay Pimentel, author of Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon (which I highly recommend), I’ve been thinking more and more about expository fiction.

To make sense of the terms fiction, nonfiction, expository, and narrative, take a look at this handy-dandy diagram.

Drawing on the most widely accepted definitions, narrative texts tell a story or convey an experience. They include such story elements as characters, settings, and dialog and have a conflict and resolution.
Expository texts are crafted to explain information. They can have a wide variety of text structures, such as compare and contrast, cause and effect, sequence, etc. In some cases they are concept books, but they can also be all about (survey) books that present a broad overview of a topic or how-to books (active nonfiction) that explain a process step by step.

While most educators and students are becoming increasingly adept at differentiating between narrative and expository nonfiction, we don’t hear much about expository fiction.

Perhaps the most clear cut examples are books with key stats about fictional comic book characters or the Pokémon Essential Handbook. These guides follow an expository structure, but convey fictional information.

Annette discusses some interesting examples in her blog post.

Here's a question. Should books that (1) have an expository writing style and (2) present true, verifiable information through the lens of an object or nonhuman animal narrator be considered expository fiction? Examples include Sun: One in a Billion by Stacy McAnulty, One Proud Penny by Randy Siegel or I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos.

By using first-person point of view to deliver the information in a more interesting and engaging way, do these books cross the line into fiction? I really don’t know, but it’s a question worth thinking about.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

East Baton Rouge Parish School System PD Handout 2: Innovative Ideas for Teaching Nonfiction Reading and Writing

In this session, participants will discover fun, practical ideas to help K-5 students develop information literacy skills as they read award-winning nonfiction books and produce their own informational writing. Attendees will go home with creative ways to support student learning in the library and via collaboration with classroom teachers.

Nonfiction Smackdown!

Upper elementary students read two nonfiction books on the same topic. Then they evaluate and compare the two titles, recording their thinking on a worksheet that other students can use to help them make book choices.

Sibert Smackdown!
Similar to Nonfiction Smackdown!, but books are selected from a list of picture books contenders that I compile on my website. The worksheet uses a kid-friendly version of the criteria considered by the real Sibert committee. Several librarians have also used their own creative ideas to record students’ thinking, such as Padlet, Flipgrid, posters, and voting forms where students write the rationale for their choice.

March Madness Nonfiction
Inspired by the annual March Madness basketball tournament, students participate in a month-long, whole-school activity to select their favorite nonfiction title. Can be combined with the Nonfiction Smackdown!

“March Madness has not only created an energy and excitement for read aloud; it has also exposed students to more nonfiction. [It has been] a springboard for discussions of text features and structures, vocabulary and author's purpose.” –Instructional Coach
“I like that these nonfiction books really make you think about things for a while and then sometimes your thinking changes.” –Fifth-grade student

Real Reviewers!
Upper elementary students read nonfiction book reviews on Goodreads. Then they read a nonfiction book of their choosing and write book review, using the Goodreads reviews as a guide. After a round of proofreading, student type the reviews into the school district’s library catalog (

Read aloud and briefly discuss a picture book every day of the school year. Display book covers, so it’s easy to refer back to them for comparison to new texts (theme, text structure, voice, writing style). They can also be used as mentor texts during writing workshop. You can work with teachers to get them started and make book recommendations or you could adopt a classroom.

Text Feature Posters
After reading a variety of age-appropriate books, K-2 students use the text features in those books as models in creating their own text feature posters.

Choosing a Topic
Ideas are all around us. I can get inspired by things I read, things people say to me, or things I see or experience myself. For me, the challenge is keeping track of the ideas, so I have one when it’s time to begin a new book. I have an idea board in my office, and I use it to remind myself about ideas I’ve had.

Teachers could have an idea board in their classroom or they could encourage students to write their ideas down on the last page of their writer’s notebook. ABC Brainstorming can work too. Other ideas include:
A Wonder Wall
An Idea Jar

Why Students Copy Their Research Sources and How to Break that Habit
Why do students copy rather than expressing ideas and information in their own words? Because they haven’t taken the time to analyze and synthesize the material they’ve collected so that they can make their own meaning. In other words, they haven’t found a personal connection to the content, and that’s a critical step in nonfiction writing.
Team Notetaking
Pairs or small groups participate in collaborative note taking on paper or using google docs, so that struggling students can access the thought process of more advanced students. This activity also reduces copying from sources materials.

Sources Students Can't Copy
Encourage students to use a wide variety of source materials, including some that it's impossible to copy, such as personal observations, webcams, and interviews. To facilitate interviews, your school can develop a list of adults in the school community with knowledge in particular area.
Create a Visual Summary
When students take the time to represent their notes visually as infographics or other kinds of combinations of words and pictures as part of their pre-writing process, they will find their own special way of conveying the information. And using that lens, they can then write a report that is 100 percent their own.

—I was surprised to learn . . .

—This makes me think . . .

—This is important because . . . 

Struggling with Structure
While writing Can an Aardvark Bark?, I experimented with 4 different text structures over a 4 year period before the manuscript was accepted for publication. The timeline on my website shows the details of my process through a series of 8 video, which take about 11 minutes to watch. The timeline also features  downloadable version of 4 rejected manuscripts, so students can see what changed over time.

Text Structure Swap
After reading No Monkeys, No Chocolate, upper elementary students make book maps to get a stronger sense of the architecture of the main text’s cumulative sequence structure. Then each child chooses one example from the text and rewrite it with a cause and effect text structure. The third and fourth links are for worksheets that guide a similar activity based on the content in Can an Aardvark Bark?

Same Structure, New Topic
Students read a selection of my books and chose one to use as a mentor text. They created a book that emulated the structure and style of my book but presented information about a different topic.

A Feel for the Flow/ Colorful Revisions
Typing out a mentor text can help students get a fee for the flow. They can study how the text was constructed by highlighting various elements with different colors. They can use a similar technique to look for ways to improve their own works in progress.

Radical Revision!
First graders write a piece of nonfiction. When the students are in second grade, teachers share the No Monkeys, No Chocolate Revision Timeline on my website and ask the children to revise the piece they wrote in first grade. Both drafts are placed in a folder, and students revise again in third, fourth, and fifth grade.

Authentic Illustration
After K-2 students write nonfiction about a topic of their choice, children in another class at the same grade level illustrate the text. Then the original writers review the artists’ work and write a polite letter asking for any necessary changes. This activity mimics the process nonfiction picture book authors go through when they review sketches created by an illustrator.

East Baton Rouge Parish School System PD Handout 1: 5 Kinds of Nonfiction

Most children’s literature enthusiasts are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling, including fiction and narrative nonfiction But up to 42 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction. This session breaks down the five categories of nonfiction children’s books, offers tips for updating book collections, and provides strategies for integrating a variety of nonfiction texts into reading and writing lessons.

I’ve written about the 5 kinds of nonfiction on my blog:

I’ve discussed the 5 kinds of nonfiction in this video created for Colby Sharp’s vlog:

Narrative vs. Expository Sample Texts

Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop (Scholastic, 1999)

Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart (Enslow, 2011)

Citations for Articles about Student Preference for Expository Nonfiction
Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.

Doiron, Ray. “Boy Books, Girl Books: Should We Re-Organize Our School Library Collections?” Teacher Librarian. 2003, p. 14-16.

Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts, 2000, p. 485-495.

Mohr, Kathleen A. J. “Children’s Choices for Recreational Reading: A Three-Part Investigation of Selection Preferences, Rationales, and Processes.” Journal of Literacy Research. 2006, p. 81–104.

Repanskey, Lisa L., Jeanne Schumm, and Jacqueline Johnson. “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology, 2017. p. 1–40.

Characteristics of the 5 Categories and Activity for Students

Monday, January 14, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Heather Lang

Writing nonfiction is a highly personal experience for me—a journey. And the adventure always begins with a strong connection to my topic. While the connection could be rooted in passion, it might also stem from intense curiosity . . . or fear.

And what better way to explore a topic than through the experiences of brave women from history? As a child and young adult I often avoided trying new things because I feared failure.

But now I realize how important failure is to growth and success. The women I write about inspire me to take risks and embrace failure. This often involves taking on challenging and exciting hands-on research, so I can truly understand who and what I am writing about.

I grow personally with every book I write. Here are a few examples of how this has played out.

The spark for Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) was my own fear of flying and my admiration for those early aviators who risked their lives. When I read about Ruth Law and her record breaking cross-country flight from Chicago to New York City, I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to fly in a flimsy flying machine made from bamboo and cloth. And what about the huge obstacles Ruth faced as a woman in 1916? Her persistence was remarkable.

But how could I write about Ruth without knowing what it was like to fly in an open cockpit? Since I couldn’t find an early biplane, I decided to try paragliding. Up in the air, after my heart stopped racing, a different feeling overcame me: exhilaration and freedom. I was flying . . . gliding . . . swooping . . . with amazing open views in every direction.
In that moment I felt so connected to Ruth. I understood what she meant when she said, “The higher I soar, the greater freedom and liberty I feel.” This inspired me to weave the theme of freedom into the story—the freedom Ruth felt as a pilot and sought as a woman.

My journey writing Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (Albert Whitman, 2016) literally transformed me. I had been terrified of sharks and afraid to swim in the ocean ever since I saw the movie Jaws as a child.

Genie’s close relationship with sharks fascinated me. Through my conversations with her, I discovered her profound curiosity and passion for them. This sense of wonder became a primary theme in the book.

When we met, Genie couldn’t stop talking about an upcoming research trip and how she hoped to scuba dive—at the age of 91! It was then that I knew I needed to experience her underwater world to successfully write about it, so I got certified to scuba dive.

By the time I plunged into the ocean, I had already learned from Genie the truth about sharks: “sharks are magnificent and misunderstood.” And when I saw my first shark underwater, I found myself following it.
My research and personal journey not only informed my writing and the themes in the book, they transformed my fear into a passion for sharks, and they reminded me to never judge based on rumors or appearance.

My newest picture book biography, Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman, 2018), grew from my childhood passion: baseball. As a young girl, I rarely left the house without my mitt and ball, and I played catch every day with my father and brother.

When my own kids started playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I had the urge to learn more about the history of women in baseball.

I was shocked to read about Kathryn’s struggle to play Little League in 1950. I had no idea girls were prohibited from playing Little League baseball until 1974. I couldn’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball. I knew I had to tell Kathryn’s story.

Reading, researching, and writing nonfiction helps me grow in so many important ways. It’s a chance to explore personal thinking, connect with our natural world, understand how people in the past have made things better for us today, find role models, overcome fears, and discover new passions. I hope the stories I share will inspire young readers to dream and grow and embrace their own journeys.

Heather Lang loves to research and write about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. Her research adventures have taken her to the skies, the treetops of the Amazon, and the depths of the ocean. Her award-winning picture book biographies include Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion and The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall. Her next book, The Leaf Detective, will share the story of biologist Margaret Lowman and her quest to explore and protect our treetops. Visit Heather at

Friday, January 11, 2019

Between the Lines: The Nonfiction Proposal by Patricia Newman

Most people imagine middle-grade and young adult fiction authors tapping on laptops, teasing sparks of creativity from their imaginations. Would it surprise you to learn that image also applies to MG and YA nonfiction authors? Not only as we write our manuscripts, but as we craft our proposals. I’ve written five nonfiction books for Millbrook Press/Lerner, and each one required a proposal.

Much like an offer of marriage, the proposal is the nonfiction author’s figurative bended knee to convince an editor that our amazing new idea would make a lasting impression in the kidlit market. And because authors are the ones doing the proposing, we’re a bundle of nerves (and doubts) as we struggle to craft the perfect pitch for our new book.

All books begin with an idea we’re passionate about that will lead us on a hunt for primary and secondary sources in places such as dusty libraries, family photo albums or diaries, zoos, scientists’ labs, obscure university departments, polluted waterways, or even abroad. Hundreds of hours of research go into each nonfiction book for kids.

But for the proposal, many of us rely on only 10-plus hours of research, the nonfiction author’s equivalent of the highlight reel. The trick is to find the right balance between time and risk. Many proposals take a long time to sell. Some never sell. We want to do enough research to find the project’s heart, but not so much that we write the entire book on spec (without a contract).

A successful proposal includes content-specific knowledge, but also the ability to envision a final product that will pass muster with the editorial and marketing departments of publishing houses.

According to Jodi Wheeler-Toppen, the hardest part of proposal writing is “narrowing down all the different ways you could do the book to present one coherent idea to an editor.”

We often start with questions.

—How will we tell the story?

—Who will buy it?

—What truth do we want this book to tell?

—What personal experiences will be woven into the fabric of the project?

—Why are we interested in the topics we choose and how do we want readers to react?

Laurie Ann Thompson says, “I start by consuming a lot of background material until I can see my own original structure taking shape.”

The proposal document includes an overview of the idea, which Kelly Milner-Halls says, “[Is] my chance to capture editorial imaginations.”

After the overview, a typical proposal includes a chapter outline with a brief synopsis of each chapter and the author’s biography (and sometimes the biographies of the experts who will be featured in the book).
Because the document is our sales pitch, we also supply market research that includes competitive titles and connections to the Common Core State Standards and/or the Next Generation Science Standards. Many editors also require sample chapters.
Most of these elements sound straight-forward, but trust me, they’re not. Embedded within all of these sections is the life of the project, the magical piece that hooks kids or ties it to the real world, the voice that makes the project leap off the page.

According to Sarah Albee, “I can have the snazziest outline ever, but figuring out the voice is always the most difficult part.”

The sample chapters keep me awake at night. My nonfiction involves living, working scientists. How do I justify taking the scientist’s time to write a winning sample chapter given I don’t yet have a contract for the project? Additionally, I don’t write in a straight line. I write the middle chapters first and the first chapter last—after I figure out my narrative thread and what I’m trying to say. See my problem?

In a perfect world, a proposal receives the go-ahead from an editor. Veteran nonfiction authors know that the proposal provides a working outline for the book. Then we dig in to the research in earnest and are sometimes surprised by changes to our original idea.

Heather Montgomery says, “Often new important themes come out of in-depth research,” that requires the weaving together of unexpected threads as we write the manuscript.

The next time you read a MG or YA nonfiction book, try to read between the lines to discover how that idea came to be. Teachers, consider asking students to write the proposal for a current nonfiction title or an original idea. Do fellow students think the proposal would make a good book? If not, it’s back to square one.
Patricia Newman’s books inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as Sea Otter Heroes; Eavesdropping on Elephants; and Zoo Scientists to the Rescue empower readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Educators describe her author visits as "phenomenal,” "fantastic," "mesmerizing," "passionate," and "inspirational." Visit her at

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Classifying Nonfiction: What Students Have to Say

About a year ago, I introduced the Nonfiction Family Tree. It was so popular that I developed an activity to help students understand the classification system by sorting books into the five different categories.

Some teachers and librarians have now tried this activity with the students, and I’m beginning to get feedback from kids. Here's what they're saying:
It’s so important for educators to keep comments like these in mind as they add books to their classroom and library book collections and select titles for instruction.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Laurie Ann Thompson

I’ve always enjoyed reading nonfiction. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of lazy afternoons spent sprawled on the floor in front of my family’s set of encyclopedias, letting fate decide which random topic I would learn about next. Perhaps it seems only natural, then, that I would be drawn to writing nonfiction, too.
Photo courtesy of Ziko/Wikimedia Commons
But there was another, more shameful, reason for my choice. As a beginning writer, I thought writing nonfiction would be safer. I knew that writing good fiction requires the author to be vulnerable, to bare a part of the soul. To share our imaginations with readers, after all, invites them to take a peek at the inner workings of our minds—and allows them to judge us for it! Terrifying, right?

I was, at least initially, not nearly so bold. I thought nonfiction would be the easy way out. After all, nonfiction is just facts, right? Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

For years, I worked on draft after draft of the manuscript that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream, a true story about an inspiring man from Ghana who was born with a deformed leg. I’d done all the research and written a competent biography, but I kept getting feedback that there was just “something missing.”

At one point, my well-meaning and incredibly supportive husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you [an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin] writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to move on to something you know more about.” I had to wonder if maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why was I writing this story in the first place?

It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask to come up with an approach that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts lined up in a satisfying order, but what was missing was… me.
I’d been so focused on writing the facts that I’d carefully removed all of my own feelings about it. But isn’t authentic human emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth we can share with one another?
When I finally sat down and got clear about my “why” for telling that story, the “how” to best tell it revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it isn’t really a story about having a disability or even Emmanuel himself. It’s about being left out and overlooked, feeling frustrated by injustice and inequality, and wanting to make the world a better place.
Those are all things I felt deeply as a child, and things I can still relate to as an adult. The book reveals as much about me, I think, as it does about Emmanuel. So much for being the easy way out!
Since then, I’ve grown much more comfortable sharing myself with readers, and I use the same approach for every book I write. Curiosity about a subject isn’t enough: I need to know why I’m curious about it.

In my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, for example, my “why” was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing how to begin. That “why” helped me shape both the structure and content of the book.

In my middle-grade series, Two Truths and a Lie (co-authored with Ammi-Joan Paquette), my “why” is the pleasant memory of exploring encyclopedias and discovering new and surprising things. I want readers to revel in their curiosity and delight in newfound knowledge, just like me.

These days, the first question I ask myself when considering a new project is, “Why?” The answers help me choose which ideas to pursue and then guide me through the entire process from initial research to publication and beyond.

Writing books like this allows readers to get a glimpse of who I really am while also learning about the topic at hand. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to realize that revealing myself to readers in this way, while daunting, is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of being an author.

My favorite fan letters say things like: “It was the first time I ever saw myself in a book,” and “Thank you for showing me it’s okay to be like this,” and “It feels like you wrote this just for me!”

What could possibly be better than that?

When I began my writing career I had never dreamed a nonfiction author could connect with readers in this way. But don’t we all write—and read, for that matter—to connect with someone else? I believe we do, which means that the best books have to do just that: allow for connection. But connection requires authenticity and vulnerability. So all authors, whether of fiction or nonfiction, owe it to our readers to dig deep… terrifying or not.

Laurie Ann Thompson writes for young people to help them understand the world we live in so they can make it a better place for all, as seen in her award-winning nonfiction books including Emmanuel’s Dream, a picture book biography of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, which was the recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award and was named an ALA Notable Book and a CCBC Choice, among other accolades. She lives near Seattle with her family and their elderly pets. Learn more at or @lauriethompson.