Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Behind the Books: My New, Improved Nonfiction Family Tree

Back in September, I blogged about my view of the nonfiction family tree. I said other authors might disagree with it, and that I might even want to revise it in a year or two.

Well, a year or two has turned into a month or two. That’s how quickly the wonderful world of nonfiction for kids is changing right now.  And I’m very excited.

Here’s my new version:
What has changed? A lot. For starters, I became aware of an article by Marc Aronson in the July 24, 2012, issue of School Library Journal.It recounts Aronson’s experience on a panel at ALA in which Jonathan Hunt (of the Heavy Medal blog) introduced the term “gateway nonfiction”—nonfiction that forms a bridge between the fact-filled record books and gross-out titles that captivate 7 to 10 year olds and middle-grade narrative nonfiction.

According to Aronson, Hunt, and their fellow panelists, gateway nonfiction is a critical stepping stone for young readers, especially boys, and few such trade books currently exist. I completely agree with this idea. So even though these books are currently few and far between, I’ve added it to my tree in the hope that the category will bud and blossom.

I’ve also added some twigs to the straightforward branch. I thought it was a good idea to highlight some of the features that can make straightforward nonfiction outstanding.

And I’ve added a branch called “Experimental” to contrast with “Straightforward." The more I thought about it, the twigs “Strong voice” and “Innovative structure and design” are really two examples of a new, experimental kind of nonfiction.

So what do you think? I’m planning to take a closer look at the twigs and branches over the next few weeks.


  1. this looks really interesting, please go on, might want to add some thoughts of my own

  2. Great Tree. Great subject.

    As a book reviewer I'm going to use your concept to help moms/dads/others to understand better what sort of science book they're choosing.

  3. I'm intrigued by the concept of gateway nonfiction. I see what the panel was getting at, and I agree we need more books like that, but I'm not sure what some good examples of it might be. Maybe the Basher Science books? Sarah Albee's Poop Happened? Georgia Bragg's How They Croaked? Americapedia? Can anyone think of others that might go in this category?

  4. I discussed the gateway question with my MLIS students today and one made the good point that different readers will need different gateways. The reader who likes the books of records may be drawn to the forensic/detective story aspect of Bone Hunters or Sally Walker's books, while the fiction reader who wants a fast paced story might be drawn to Steve Sheinkin. This is just one example of how little attention we have paid to NF -- we know a great deal about how to match readers and books in fiction, but much less about NF, which has too often been seen as a school assignment, not a reader's pleasure.

  5. I do think different kinds of elementary readers will be drawn to different kinds of MG NF. I hope to see more writers doing Sheinkin-like books in the future. I also think HMH's Scientists in the Field books and Marc's Stonehenge book (probably Skull too, but I haven't read it yet), are right for another group of readers, but librarians tell me they have to "sell" those books to kids. What kinds of MG NF will kids pick up on their own? As my question marks indicate, I think there are other kinds of NF that will emerge as the kidlit community embraces NF and takes it in exciting directions we can't even imagine yet. I can't wait.

  6. The possibilities in the story arc of a narrative nonfiction book tend to draw me in as an adult reader.

    Is it the same for younger readers, who love trains, textiles, topography, pets, planets, photography, crafts, cooking, calligraphy, and appreciate how an author would, too?

  7. IMHO, Book Kvetch, that's the million dollar question. And I think the answer is "no."

    The audience I target with many of my books are the gr. 2-5 analytical thinkers. Teh future scientists. These are the kids that love collecting facts and pour over the Guiness BWR. I honestly don't think they value rich story per se. They are hunters, explorers. They want to understand the world and learn more about the thinsg that interest them. They want lively, engaging text, to be sure, and dynamic design and art, but compelling narrative isn't necessarily a top priority. I think it's award committees (made up of adults) that value the more literary aspects of narrative nonficiton.

    But I do think there is a place--an important place--for gateway books, books that bridge the gap between browsable, just-the-fact book and the more substantive MG NF titles, especially those that emphasize what is now being called "literature of inquiry."

  8. Does narrative nonfiction help "sell" books about field science to only the fiction reader? Would a good story, as the teacher-librarian hopes, get the hunter-explorer to search wider?

  9. Those are good questions. I'm not sure that anyone has data one way or the other, but I'd love to hear anecdotal reports from media specialists.