Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Behind the Books: More Thoughts About the Nonfiction Family Tree

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m, er, obsessed with classifying nonfiction. It helps me think about all the possible ways I can write nonfiction for kids.

I started thinking about a nonfiction family tree in 2012 and have been revising it ever since, inspired by the ideas of such thought leaders as Jonathan Hunt and Marc Aronson.

Last weekend, I attended a thought-provoking session at NE-SCBWI led by the talented nonfiction authors Loree Griffin Burns and Alexandra Siy. During one segment of the 2-hour talk, Loree presented a system for organizing nonfiction based on the structure of the text. And I think she came up with some ideas that all nonfiction authors should consider.

Loree divided nonfiction structures into two broad categories—Concept structures and Narrative structures. I’m going to take a closer look at the Concept category next week, but I’ll focus on her thoughts about narrative structures today.

Loree divides narrative nonfiction into four subcategories: chronological, adjusted chronological (such as books with en media res openings), braided chronological (books with multiple strands), and circular. Here are a couple of examples in each category:

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeannette Winter

Adjusted chronological
Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery

Braided chronological
Bomb by Steve Sheinkin
The Immortal Life of Henreitta Lacks

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart (illus. Nicole Wong)
Pumpkin Circle by George Levenson and Shmuel Thaler

You’ll see a lot of overlap with the way I’ve subdivided narrative nonfiction in previous posts. Here's a recap:

Chronological narrative
Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
Buried Alive by Elaine Scott
The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton (illus. Tony Persiani)
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley (illus Brian Selznick)
Marvelous Mattie by Emily Arnold McCully
Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola
Pop: The Invention of Bubble Gum by Megan McCarthy
The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (E.B. Lewis)
Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley (illus. Edwin Fotheringham)

Episodic narrative
Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Brave Girl by Michelle Markel
When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

Mixed narrative
Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming
Bomb by Steve Sheinkin
We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson
Circle narrative
Coral Reef by Jason Chin
A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman
Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley
Redwoods by Jason Chin
Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart
When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart
Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Cumulative narrative
Here Is Antarctica by Madeleine Dunphy
Here Is the African Savanna by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Tom Leonard)
Here Is the Coral Reef by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Tom Leonard)
Here Is the Tropical Rain Forest by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Michael Rothman)
Here Is the Wetland by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Wayne McLoughlin)
Here Is the Southwestern Desert by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Ann Coe)
Here Is the Arctic Winter by Madeleine Dunphy (illus Alan James Robinson)
No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart
Older Than the Stars by Karen C. Fox

Journey narrative
If Stones Could Speak by Marc Aronson
Lost Treasure of the Inca by Peter Lourie
Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery
Saving the Ghost of the Mountain by Sy Montgomery

Here’s how the two systems compare:
--We both recognize Chronological Narratives as a distinct category.
--I think Loree would lump my Episodic Narrative titles into her Chronological category.
--Loree’s Adjusted and Braided categories are basically subdivisions of my Mixed category. But I really like her uses of the word "braided." I may end up borrowing it.
--My circle and cumulative categories are subdivisions of Loree’s circular category.
--I wonder where Loree would place the books that I think of a Journey Narratives.

Next week I’ll take a closer look at Loree’s Concept structures categories.


  1. Awesome post Melissa! Very informative and thought provoking. Wondering how I missed this workshop at the conference. (boo). Thanks for recapping the information here.

  2. Hi, Melissa,

    Thanks for pointing me to this post. I'll have to reread some of the Journey Narratives you mention, but my instinct is that I'd lump them into the Chronological category?

    One of the interesting ideas to fall out of the preparation for this talk for me was this: in the end, the category labels don't really matter all that much. As you say, the important thing is to recognize that there are different structures and to have seen them at work. That way we can make intentional choices with our own work, choices that will ultimately pair the perfect structure with a great story.

    Thanks for all you do to foster nonfiction thinking and discussing, Melissa.


  3. Thank YOU, Loree, for expanding my thinking on this topic.

  4. I was at Loree's and Alex's structure workshop and found it incredibly helpful as I am thinking about my next book. And Melissa, this post adds fascinating new angles. Thank you both!