Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Behind the Books: Does Story Appeal to Everyone?

In recent years, narrative nonfiction has been getting a whole lotta love in the kidlit community. Editors eagerly acquire it. Awards committees proudly honor it. Teachers and librarians enthusiastically buy it. And yet, studies clearly show that not all kids appreciate it the way we might expect them to.

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 most kids don't have access to any book they want. There are gatekeepers between them and the books they read. Lots of them. And as passionate and well-intentioned as those gatekeepers are, their own ideas and biases can prevent some children from finding the kinds of books that will help them develop into life-long readers. Gatekeepers vote with their wallets. The books they buy affects not only what titles end up in a child’s hands but also what books are published in the future.

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

Think about it. Most editors and children's librarians and literacy educators are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling. They're what I call narrative thinkers.
But there is a whole different way of interacting with and experiencing the world. Analytical thinkers are straight-line thinkers—scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer programmers, accountants, plumbers, electricians, carpenters. Logic, not emotion, rules in the land of the analytical.
Analytical thinkers love expository nonfiction—from car repair manuals and The Guinness Book of World Records to National Geographic Readers and books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page—because they're chockful of what fact-loving kids love best: ideas and information. These kids read with a purpose—to learn about the world and its possibilities and their place in it. That’s what they want more than anything.

Research shows that these kids aren’t drawn to story in the same way that narrative-thinking kids (and adults) are. They don’t crave an emotional connection with the main character in a novel or a central figure in a picture book biography. They want the data, and then they will interpret it for themselves. They appreciate books with elements like patterning, analogies, metaphors, and calculations.

I strongly believe that analytical thinkers are currently being underserved by the children's literature and literacy education communities. We need to honor them 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 will fuel their passion for reading. Isn't that what WE want more than anything?

Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.
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.

Updated in January 2016 to replace the outmoded terms left-brain and right-brain thinkers with narrative and analytical thinkers, which I now prefer.

Updated January 2018 to add references.


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

  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.


  17. 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."

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

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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

  23. 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.

  24. 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...

  25. 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.

  26. 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!