Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Behind the Books: Thinking about Nonfiction Classification

Last week, I blogged about the great presentation nonfiction authors Loree Griffin Burns and Alexandra Siy gave at this year’s NESCBWI conference. During one segment of the 2-hour session, Loree shared her way of thinking about the break down of nonfiction for kids into categories based on the structure of the text.

Loree has two broad categories—narrative, which I talked about last week, and concept, which I’m going to look at here.

Within the concept category, Loree includes the subcategories alphabet, gimmick (a hook so strong it forms the structural backbone of the book), time, and curricular (has direct ties to the curriculum). Here are a couple of examples in each category:

B is for Blue Planet: An Earth Science Alphabet by Ruth Strother (illus. Bob Marstall)
Journey Around Cape Cod & the Islands from A to Z by Martha Day Zschock

Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock (illus. Carolyn Conahan)
How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg (illus. Kevin O’Malley)

Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with a Caribou Herd by Karsten Heuer
Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time by Steve Jenkins

An Extraordinary Life. by Laurence Pringle (illus. Bob Marstall)
Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature by Sarah Campbell

I'm going to be giving this approach some serious thought going forward. Clearly, there is a lot of great nonfiction that falls outside the narrative category, but it’s hard to figure out how to classify it. Mark Aronson and his Uncommon Corps colleagues have suggested the system discussed here. Recently, I’ve tried to sort popular nonfiction titles using the structures highlighted in Common Core, with narrative = sequence.

Here’s a recap of what I’ve come up with:

Description Books
The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins
Dolphins! by Melissa Stewart
A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos
Lightship by Brian Floca
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Compare & Contrast Books
List book
Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge
Deadliest Anima’s by Melissa Stewart
Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart
Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
Just One Bite by Lola Schaefer
Time to Sleep by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Dueling spreads
Alligator or Crocodile? How Do You Know by Melissa Stewart
Butterfly or Moth? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart
Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart
Insect of Spider? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart
Neo Leo by Gene Barretta
Now & Ben by Gene Barretta
Those Rebels, Tom & John by Barbara Kerley
Timeless Thomas by Gene Baretta
Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy
Salamander or Lizard? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart
Shark or Fish? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart

Cause & Effect Books
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman
A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
A Place for Fish by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
A Place for Frogs by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
A Place for Birds by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
A Place for Bats by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)

Q & A Books
Good Question series (Sterling)
Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine (illus. T.S. Spookytooth)
Hello Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde (illus.Patricia J. Wynne )
How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

I think these categories work fairly well, but I’m not sure I’m completely satisfied with them. I think the bottom line is this: Fiction has well-established genres like science fiction, romance, fantasy, etc. But people generally sort nonficiton by topic—science, social studies/history, math, Arts, but it seems like there must be a better system. I think it’s really exciting that so many people are now beginning to think about it deeply and coming up with different ways of classifying nonfiction.  It’s all good.


  1. I have been trying to figure out how to best do this as well to help teachers I work with. Additionally, do you use nonfiction for all things or as a subcategory to informational text? Thanks for sharing this...I am going to ponder on it as well.

  2. Hi Alyson,

    I think we should all think about this. It helps us all as writers and readers. There is well-established lexicon for describing fiction. Nonfiction needs something similar.

    I'm not a fan on "informational text" because people don't use it consistently. I generally use "nonfiction." I think Marc Aronson may have come up with the best term of all--"reality books." What do you think?

  3. One more thing, Alyson, can you think of other good examples of cause and effect books? I wish I had more for my list.