Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Behind the Books: Does Story Appeal to Everyone?

I've been thinking a lot about a Twitter-dialog that I had with John Schu (@MrSchuReads) and Margie Myers-Culver (@LoveofXena). And I realized I have a lot more to say that I can communicate on Twitter. 

Recently, narrative nonfiction has been getting a lot of buzz in the kidlit community. Editors look for it. Awards committees honor it. Teachers and librarians buy it. And yet, I wonder. I wonder. Does story appeal to all young readers or are some kids getting left out in the cold?

As an adult, I might read a review of a book or hear about it from a friend. It sounds good, so I buy it or check it out of my local library. I also read all kinds of blogs with thoughts straight from the author’s head and heart—no editor at all.

But that’s not how it works for young readers. There are gatekeepers between kids and the books they read. Lots of them. And as passionate and well-intentioned as those gatekeepers are, their own ideas and biases can act as filters. They affect what books are published for kids and what titles end up in a child’s hands.

I worry that the collective biases of the kidlit gatekeepers are weighted in a particular direction.

Think about it. Most editors and librarians and elementary teachers and kidlit advocates have brains that work in a particular way. They are naturally drawn to the arts and humanities and social sciences. They are right-brain thinkers.

But there is a whole different way of interacting with and experiencing the world. Left-brain thinkers are straight-line thinkers--scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers. Logic, not emotion, rules in the land of the analytical.

Look at these two visuals representing right- vs. left-brain thinkers:

Left-brain thinkers love reading and sharing The Guinness Book of World Records and other just-the-facts books because these titles are chockful of what they love best-- data. Kids can use the information they gather in these books to learn about the world and its possibilities and their place in it. And that’s what they want more than anything.

IMHO, these kids aren’t drawn to story in the same way that right-brained kids (and adults, such as most book editors and elementary teachers and librarians and kidlit advocates are). They don’t crave an emotional connection with the main character in a novel or a central figure in a biography. They want the data, and then they will interpret it for themselves.

They don’t want to read narrative nonfiction. Instead, they appreciate books with elements like patterning, analogies, metaphors, and calculations.

I strongly believe that left-brain thinkers are currently being underserved by the kidlit community.

We need to honor left-brain thinkers by:

--appreciating the value of existing books that meet the needs of these students

--purchasing more books that will appeal to them (even if they don’t appeal to us)
--creating more books that help them understand the world and its possibilities and their place in it. That's what they want more than anything.


  1. From Gail Gauthier:

    This is a fantastic post, not just about the Left Brain/Right Brain situation, but regarding gatekeepers in children's publishing, education, etc. I think a lot of people want to pretend the gatekeepers don't exist and that there is a direct line from children's writers to child readers. Not even close.

    The Left Brain/Right Brain issue and it's relation to creative nonfiction--I'd never thought of any of this, but I think you make a compelling argument.

  2. I strongly agree! I include nonfiction in all my storytimes (frequently titles by a certain Melissa Stewart (-:) but I try to make sure that it's not ALWAYS narrative nonfiction. I also use titles by Cathryn Sill, which don't have a narrative and Steve Jenkins, which are often collections of facts. I've found that kids love these just as much as nonfiction with a story, like Galbraith's Planting the Wild Garden (I am a Peachtree fan, you can tell!)

  3. This article really ties in and gives food for thought considering the push for the Common Core Standards in schools.
    Thank you for this.

  4. Thanks for this post, Melissa. The challenge for us all is that we have to make sure we provide material for all kinds of thinkers. Often this means overcoming our bias and accepting that there's more than one way to think about things. Other times, though, it probably comes down to business decisions. It's an important conversation to keep alive (says a guy who LOVES narrative non-fiction, by the way).

  5. Good post! I started writing my history/travel series to help kids who like facts connect with a cute character who explains them for those readers who do like narrative. It is hard to strike the right balance, but with nonfiction being stressed in the new core curriculum this will become more and more important. To see my first attempt visit

  6. Thanks for all your comments. This is a conversation that I hope we can keep going.

  7. Very provocative article, Melissa. You wrote, “They [young readers] want the data, and then they will interpret it for themselves.” So, in other words, readers are making their own narratives from baseline facts. In the end, humans are wired for story. Facts are just lists unless we make meaning of them. I think that as kids explore the world, they need a balance of informational texts and narrative texts. They need to see a balance of ways to present pure information as well as ways to create meaning from that information. One focus of the new Common Core Curriculum, as I understand it, will be an emphasis on “informational texts,” so your wish for more of these sorts of books to be available to kids is already in the early stages of being fulfilled. But I don’t think that because a young reader has a preference for informational texts or narrative texts that we should only feed that preference. Education is about stretching into other territories we might now have otherwise explored.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Alexis. I think you may not be using the term "informational texts" as the CCSS creators intended. To them, the term includes all nonfiction plus a few fiction-nonficiton hybrids that are primarily intended to convey information. In othe rwords, Magic School Bus and Dear America are considered informational texts.

    I (and lots of other folks) break nonfiction into two categories: narrattive and browsable/direct/straightforward/traditional/just-the-facts. I wish we could come up with a good solid name for the Guinness Book type of titles that left-brain thinkers love, but that's a whole other post.

    Right now, the kidlit community is gaga over narrative nonficiton. But kids? Not so much. Fro the most part, it just sits on bookshelves collecting dust.

    1. Oh Melissa, that breaks my heart when I work so hard to bring out the best I can in narrative nonfiction. Moreover, there's a place for both kinds of brains in one book. That's why I enjoy writing both content and activities for the "For Kids" series for Chicago Review Press.

  9. This is such an interesting conversation. Melissa (and maybe Alexis), I know you saw my posts on the NF for Kids group recently. I was particularly concerned about a book labeled as a "biography" that had a fictional cat as the narrator. In my mind, biographies are non-fiction and non-fiction is factual. How can a fictional character be used in a non-fiction text? It seems the lines between fiction and no-fiction are blurring as more books fall into into a nebulous center called "informational." How does a 7 year old differentiate between fact and fiction when this happens? Certainly, when teachers read a book in a classroom, that issue can be addressed, but what about the child who reads books on his/her own?

  10. Very interesting post Melissa and one I've heard you speak about before. I find myself torn between the pull of a story and the "just the facts" approach. I do agree that there are many left-brain thinkers out there who want "just the facts" - that isn't to say that they should be boring in presentation, just leave out the narrative.

    I think science books like the type you write fit much better with this scenario. Take a look at A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn DeCristofano. The reason why this book was loved so much is because she took a very difficult science topic and chunked it down into easily understandable concepts (and did a GREAT job at it, too).

    On the other hand, I think that when you are talking about other types of nonfiction - certainly biographies, maybe animals and nature topics -- a narrative approach is okay,if done lightly.

    This is certainly an interesting debate, though. And one I will watch with great interest. Thanks for encouraging us to expand out thinking in this area.

  11. Hi Melissa, I agree that there are a lot of kids who just want the facts, and the note from the librarian above talks about story-time. But I've certainly seen it with older kids too.

    But I also wonder if we have a shelving problem. The narrative (fiction) picture books are placed in the center a well known chain bookstore, some of them facing front. The non-fiction picture books are in a corner, none of them facing out.

    In my library, the fiction picture books for all ages are in the kids' section where there are bean bag chairs and floor space for sitting, while the juvenile non-fiction (including elementary age picture books) are shelved in another part of the library in the stacks. It is non-fiction it goes in the (adult) stacks.

    So there is yet another barrier.
    (two cents worth is up)

  12. I studied the Right Brain/Left Brain issue back in the 80's when working as a corporate trainer at BkB in Boston. I found the 4MAT System by Beatrice McCarthy to be most incredible and valuable. Just as we teach to RB/LB and the learning styles we need to write to them as well, doesn't matter if kids or adults. Some can deal with the abstract, some can't, some need only concrete and so on. However, it is the gatekeepers that make me most nervous, that layer of bias can be more insidious than helpful. Excellent discussion, Melissa

  13. Very interesting conversation. I'm going to put in a plug for Sciency Fiction. These are truly and unabashedly fiction, novels in which accurate nonspeculative science is an integral part of the story. (As opposed to science fiction, in which the science is speculative.) Books like THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE and THE GREEN GLASS SEA are imbued with science, but make no pretense about being nonfiction. I've blogged about it ( and I've been giving lots of presentations to teachers and librarians showing the different ways science can be integrated into fiction and how to use sciency fiction in the classroom. But does sciency fiction count as informational text? Does every word in a book have to be factual for it to be informational? As with narrative nonfiction, it can be hard to classify.

  14. I think this is fascinating. I think you have nailed a really important issue around the differences between the ultimate customer (reader) and the immediate customer (editor, publisher, teacher). AS a mother, I struggle sometimes to understand why some books engage my (mostly) left brain son, and they are typically encyclopedic-like volumes of straight facts. As a writer of non-fiction books, I have used mixed methods - narrative non-fiction supported by fact boxes ( to appeal to the left brainers) and even used poems at times. But the end result, although appealing to kids was challenging for teacher. What is it? If its non-fiction, why does this animal have a first person narrative to tell, and where is the index and table of contents? the books sold well though despite these criticisms. Thanks to a visionary publisher (a woman with two kids also). Experience counts here.

    I am currently engaged in a type of historical fiction for kids. A picture book which is a type of autobiography, which is entirely made up, but heavily based on real events. It will be interesting to see how that works out!

  15. Fascinating discussion, Melissa. As an editor, I definitely look for both narrative and non-narrative nonficiton. But my sense is that narrative nonfiction gets more starred reviews and awards. I also think biographies and nonfiction about biology (especially animals) get more attention than nonfiction about other areas of science, perhaps because they're more accessible to adults readers/reviewers who don't have a science background. I have no data to back up these claims, but I'm interested to hear what others think.

  16. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the “kidlit” community is gaga over – what counts is how educators interpret this.

    Here’s one way that the University of Maine defines informational texts:

    You asked for a new term for what you refer to as “browsable.” How about “encyclopedic” or “reference”?

    BTW, really don’t agree with you that narrative nonfiction is "collecting dust" on bookshelves. Do you mean compared to fiction? Or to informational texts? I'm not sure what evidence you’re basing that on.

  17. Alexis,
    I think it does matter what the kidlit community is gaga over because it determines what manuscripts are acquired and which win awards. Many busy educators just buy whatever wins awards.

    I don't think the UMaine definition is relevant anymore. What educators care about is how CCSS defines informational text (nonfiction + fiction withthe primary purpose of conveying info).

    I'm not crazy about "encyclopedic" because it seems so boring. Books liek National Geographic's readers are lightyears ahead of encyclopedia entries.

    My "collecting dust" comment is based on what librarians tell me. They say narrative nonfiction is often a very hard sell. Kids just keep going back to Guinness Book and the like.

  18. Carol,

    I agree. Millbrook and Carolrhoda publish a nice balance of narrative and non-narrative nonfiction. IMHO, you guys are more in touch with what teachers want and kids love than some other publishers.

    I think as long as the best-known awards are weighted toward narrative nonfiction, the left-brained kids are going to struggle to find books they love.

  19. Jacqueline,

    I was so pleased to see a sciency fiction title win the Newbery award this year. Books like Calpurnia Tate and Endangered help to bring the world of science to right-brain thinkers. And that's great!

  20. Gillian and Michele,

    I will be curious to see how the blending of fiction and nonficiton is affected by the onset of CCSS. My hope is that it will help teachers (as well as kids) learn to differentiate the two and see the value in each kind of treatement.

  21. Very interesting, Teresa. I'm going to have to take a look at that website. Maybe we'll startto see educators thinking more abotu left vs right brain as we move forward with Common Core.

  22. That's a great point, Amy. The nonficiton shelving in the kids section of my town library is great. But I know that isn't true everywhere.

  23. You are dead on correct, Melissa. I realized long ago my books would probably never be considered for most nonfiction awards because I faithfully write for the kids, not the awards committees. Many of the winning books have very little appeal when it comes to the average young reader, especially boys. But if you tap into that population, you win faithful, enthusiastic readers who watch for your next book, gleefully. You open doors to further reading, by offering information they want in a format they feel confident about reading. I wish there was an award for THOSE books. In my case, they are just as well written as any biography -- just as carefully researched. They so often deserve celebration, but they are usually ignored -- except by the kids.


  24. This is really a great post. I have an 8 year old son who really loves non-fiction books with lots of facts. He does like stories though and he's not a reluctant reader but he still gravitates towards books which help him add to his arsenal of data. As a parent, I see it as my job to let him read the books he chooses so he can develop the skills he is naturally drawn to and then I supplement that with read alouds that he would not choose himself. He still really enjoys the fictional stories I read and I see it as helping him develop the other part of his brain so he can be more, as they say, "well-rounded."

  25. Erica,
    I think you're taking exactly the right approach. You ar letting him read what he loves, but exposing him to other possibilities.

  26. Thanks, Kelly. Your books do offer kids the weird, wild, cool stuff that fascinates them. Keep on doing what you're doing.

  27. I am a 100% behind Melissa on this. Teachers: why don't you poll your students and see what they want? Let's make a list of types of nonfiction books and have the students rank them in order of their preference. The list would include: just facts (not encyclopedic), narrative nonfiction, fusion of fiction with facts (including clarification of what is fiction what is fact in the book), other? Each category should include current book examples.

    At least we would have the readers' input and while the gatekeepers mentioned at the beginning of this discussion still have their job, hopefully they (we all) will have a better idea, a more complete picture, of who lives behind the gates and what might hook them into reading and hopefully grow into a life-long habit.
    My youngest son (now 18) was not very much interested in reading when he was younger. I tried to get him interested with nonfiction first (of course, :-)), but he did not bite. We talked and I discovered his passion for dragons and that was it. We bought books about dragons and he began developing a reading habit that is now very strong. Each kid needs a different type of book that will draw him/her into books. I was (still am in part) a reader of fact and "how things happens" type of books. I devoured them and that led to trying to understand how things happen. Soon I was reading all types of books. What do you all think? I think we should ask the kids.

  28. I've been mulling around the ideas in this conversation all night/day. I'd like to add more.
    1. I'm concerned my first comment makes it seem as if I don't like narrative non-fiction. Quite the contrary, actually. I'm more right-brained, or since I prefer to use Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences- I'll say I'm more visual, linguistic, naturalist oriented. I definitely prefer narrative to "just the facts." My 11 y o son, however, who definitely leans toward the logical/mathematical intelligence, LOVES Guinness and similar books.
    2. Despite my son's love of all things factual, he also enjoys narrative non-fiction. Case in point: I recently checked out the PB bio "Jimi Hendrix: Sounds Like a Rainbow." He picked it up and read it on his own and we had an interesting conversation afterward about how Jimi heard sound and translated that into music. We also discussed drug abuse/drug addiction.
    3. Librarians, parents, and teachers play a vital role in opening student's eyes to other kinds of books. My son didn't check out the book on his own, but he read it because it was sitting on our coffee table. Someone else mentioned this before- if we want well-rounded kids we need to expose them to all kinds of books and ideas. Of course, this includes "just the facts."
    4. I agree with Alexis, Melissa. I'm sure librarians have told you the books are languishing on shelves, but I'm not sure that's a fair representation of our country. Even if you were told by 50 librarians this year, that's not a significant enough sample to extrapolate to our whole country. And, if most of those librarians work in Massachusetts, that small sample is further skewed. I'm not saying it can't be the truth, I'm saying it may not be.
    5. I went to the CCSS to double check the definitions. I could not readily find a glossary of terms in that document but the "Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for ELA, Incorporating the CCSS" has a glossary. Taken from page 98 of that document, "Informational/Expository text: Nonfiction writing in narrative or non-narrative form that is intended to inform." This clearly uses the word non-fiction in the definition, which goes back to my original concern about the blurry lines between non-fiction and fiction. The word narrative alone does not imply "fiction." It means story. (from
    "a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious"). Non-fiction can be written in story form and only include facts. (The example that opened my eyes to this years ago was the adult title DARK TIDE: THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD OF 1919 by Stephen Puleo).

  29. Michele,
    Like Erica, you're doing just the right thing with your son. Letting him choose what to read, but making books you think he should read readily available. While some kids may be pure right-brained or pure left-brained, plenty are somewhere in the middle. They may lean toward just-the-facts or novels, but they like to read around, too.

    I'm glad you questioned the source of my info--that narrative nonfiction is a "hard sell." I've heard this message again and again throughout my 18 year career in this industry. When I was an editor, we frequently met with focus groups of educators and we worked with a wide array of educational advisors. As an author, I speak at a dozen or so conferences for teachers and librarians annually. This year I'll be in Maine, Maryland, Texas, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. When I talk about the struggles of getting kids excited about award-winning nonfiction, I always see an audience full of nodding heads--50, 100, 200 of them at a time. And of course, I often have more personal contact with educators when I do school visits.

    But I'm not basing this just on my experiences. I'm also basing it on sales figures. This week there is a Guinness-like book on the Indie Bestseller's List, but there isn't a single narrative nonficiton title. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw a narative nonfiction title on any besteseller's list. But just-the-fact books do appear from time to time.

    I can't claim that narative nonfiction is a hard sell for every educator in every school in every town in every state, but it certainly is a major trend across the country.

    You're right, Massachusetts does have a narrower view of informational text than the CCSS drafters intended. It's interesting that they use "expository" as a catch-all for narrative and non-narrative texts. In most circles, expository nonfiction is considered the anthesis of narrative nonfiction.

    I agree with you that these differing definitions make things messy. But at least for the ideas I'm espousing in this blog post, I'm not concerned about the blurring of lines. What I am concerned about is the idea that young analytical minds are underserved by children's literature because gatekeepers tend to be right-brain thinkers. It's dfinitely an idea that I hope we can all keep in mind as we move forward.

    1. Melissa,
      You're right... I did get a bit off point. Thanks for calling me to task. That's my random brain for you... I can't help but connect everything. In my mind these things are so linked. BUT, that's how my brain works!

      I wonder what the library figures are for these kinds of books being checked out. My son tends to want to buy the Guinness types of books and read them over and over again while we tend to get narrative non-fiction from our library. I wonder if other families/kids are the same?

      I think one reason I love the trend in non-fiction these days is because of what used to be out there. Quite frankly, when I started teaching in the early 90's, much of the non-fiction was plain old boring and kids didn't want to read it (neither did I). The books that are being written now are so much more engaging. I'm not in the classroom now, but I still work in schools. I watch the excitement as kids read books by you, Loree Burns, and so many others. My son LOVES the whole "Scientists in the Field" series and so do I. They blend his desire for facts and my desire for story.

  30. This is an important topic. Thank you for bringing it forward. Many of my students prefer nonfiction. I posted about one such student last Saturday. Alex had autism and he was definitely a “just the facts” person. His comprehension improved dramatically when he read non-narrative, informational text.

  31. Thanks for a great post. I have been thinking along similar lines for the past 6 months or so actually and it concerns me that kids (of whatever brain type or reading inclination) are so far from the creative and production process in kid lit. I have been looking into this further in terms of ways to build better links and to remove "gatekeepers" (whether creative or technological) and your post has given me lots of good ideas and ammunition to support where I have got to so far. Thanks again

  32. I'm delighted that so many people are connecting with this post. It's an issue that I hope we can continue to shine more light on going forward. Thanks for the great discussion.

  33. This is the one I think so vital: "creating more books that help them understand the world and its possibilities and their place in it." I agree with you totally about this being what they want more than anything...

  34. Thanks, Sue. Propmted by Michele's commets, I'm re-reading the entire CCSS document. And what I discovered is a different definition of informational text than the one I heard their representatives discuss in a webinar I attended a few months ago. Very interesting. I also looked up sub-guides created by various states, and found even more nuanced approaches to the definition. It appears that the definition is still moreof a moving target than I realized. It will be very interesting to see how things evolve as we move more and more into the CCSS world.

    1. I, too, have gone back and started rereading the CCSS. Your comments, and others, made me realize I may not have as clear an understanding as I thought. Thanks for the prompting.

  35. This is a great discussion! As for the definition of informational text, I like Nell Duke's take:

    As a teacher who has taught almost every grade level in K-5, my experience is that informational text is more popular among students than narrative nonfiction. Even before Common Core, authors like Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey, and Linda Hoyt were prompting teachers to spend more time teaching text features, so the use of informational text in classrooms was on the rise before Common Core came to the forefront. I hope that rise continues and we find a happy medium.
    As a budding nonfiction author (first book in the fall, shameless plug), I'm trying mix informational and narrative in the same book. I'll find out how successful that is soon enough.

  36. Thanks for your thoughts. I have been thinking this myself as a second grade teacher. Currently I am reorganizing my classroom library for our big non- fiction unit. As I look through the non-fiction books I have read this last year, I notice I am drawn to the narrative style recently. But I know that many of my students prefer the expository non-fiction and most second graders need that type of non-fiction because of the additional features that are usually included. And it's rather funny that as a reader I think I prefer fiction, but as a writer I prefer non-fiction! But maybe that's because I started out with a science degree!