Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Behind the Books: A Whole New Nonfiction Family Tree

Recently, I had the great privilege and pleasure of being a guest lecturer for an online course taught by renowned children’s book author and editor Marc Aronson for Rutgers University. The class is called Nonfiction and Common Core, and the students are working toward their master’s degree in library information science.

We had some great discussions, and I probably learned more from those bright, engaged students than they learned from me. But the absolute highlight was getting a sneak peek into the entire curriculum, which included a lesson called “Nonfiction Taxonomy.”

Taxonomy? Hmm. Sound a whole lot like one of my pet projects—developing a nonfiction family tree, doesn’t it? So I plunged into that lesson craving insight.

 It turns out that Marc and his Uncommon Corps colleagues have developed a brand new, totally amazing system for classifying children’s nonfiction. It’s basically accomplishes what I had in mind with my nonfiction family tree, but the Uncommon Corp is light years ahead of my feeble attempt to get a handle on the broad range of nonfiction currently being published for young readers.

The Uncommon Corps has come up with seven broad categories for classifying nonfiction for children and they have graciously given me permission to share it here.

Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there's nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.

As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author's approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn't. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.
Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to look more closely at each of these categories in the next few weeks. But before I go, I wanted to show you how I would place these seven categories on my brand-spanking-new nonfiction family tree.

The branching is based on commonalities I see between the various kinds of books and how they may have evolved in reaction to advances in technology and market conditions. As always, my tree is a work in progress, but I’m feeling better about it all the time.


  1. This is fascinating and definitely looks like a keeper. Thank you, Melissa, and Marc!

  2. Thanks for sharing! Hm. This is quite interesting, but I'm thinking my own writing does not fall neatly into one of these categories, but instead is a mix. I'm interested in hearing how this system will be used. Will publishers or librarians be doing the classifying?

  3. Marc's system makes a lot of sense (as does your visual organization on your non-fiction tree, Melissa) If editors, authors, librarians,and teachers understood and used these categories and "titles," we would have a simpler non-fiction world to deal with as readers, creators, and proposers of non-fiction projects. Thanks for sharing, Melissa!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Linda. I think many, many books fall into more than one category, and that's just fine. This system is a way for kids and educators to think about how the book is written and why the author made that choice--an idea very much in line with Common Core. The Uncommon Corps has received a grant and is currently creating a database that sorts many existing books into the categories. The hope is that in the future, kids will be taught to think in these terms and sort as part of their exploration of nonfiction titles.

  5. Melissa, I've been looking forward to this series for a couple of weeks now. I was wondering, where would a book like Jason Chin's REDWOODS fall? The text is 100% fact but the narrative is imaginary. Would we just classify it as fiction or does it fit into narrative somewhere?

  6. That's a good question, Kirsten. The LOC classifies REDWOODS as nonfiction. I think it's because the text is 100 percent factual. Only the art is imaginary. Based on this, I would classify it as Expository, but an argument could probably be made for Interpretation.

  7. This is a great post - thanks for explaining this new family tree. I'm sure things will evolve, as they do in the real world. But this gives good food for thought, and thank you for taking the time to pull it together in one short post.

  8. Wow! That's a lot to think about. I look forward to your delving into more details for each branch of nonfiction. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  9. Great idea, Melissa!
    It occurs to me that it's not just scientists, and teachers who like to put things in categories. Librarians, editors, bookstores, and publishers' marketing departments like to hear that writers take different approaches to presenting nonfiction. Gives them a clue about which readers would take to what books, and how they could introduce them. One more way to sell our work -- as part of a family. Or is that too obvious to mention?

  10. Fascinating to break it down in this way! Thanks for sharing, Melissa!

  11. I think you're absolutely right, Nina. This system can be used in all kinds of ways.