Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Behind the Books: The Nonfiction Family Tree

If you’re a longtime reader of Celebrate Science, you may remember that back in 2012 and 2013, I spent a lot of time trying to develop a Nonfiction Family Tree. This effort to categorize and understand the various kinds of nonfiction and the interplay among them was heavily influenced by the ideas of such nonfiction thought leaders as Marc Aronson, Myra Zarnowski, Sue Bartle, and Mary Ann Cappiello.

Eventually, I gave up on the family tree and started to think about other ways to classify nonfiction, but recently I decided to take a fresh look at the tree analogy, and I came up with something that I think is worth sharing:

Traditional Nonfiction
At one time, nonfiction books for children routinely included concise, straightforward expository writing—prose that explains, describes, or informs. Most books were text heavy, with just a few scattered images decorating rather than enriching the content and meaning. While nearly all nonfiction now includes captivating art and dynamic design that's integral to the presentation, some series books continue to feature traditional straightforward text.

Browse-able Nonfiction
Thanks to Dorling Kindersley’s innovative Eyewitness Books series, the 1990s brought remarkable changes to traditional expository nonfiction. These beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated books with short text blocks and extended captions revolutionized children’s nonfiction by giving fact-loving kids a fresh, engaging way to access information. Today, National Geographic, Time for Kids, and the Discovery Channel are all publishing engaging books in this category.

Narrative Nonfiction
In the mid-1990s, children’s authors began crafting narrative nonfiction—prose that tells a true story or conveys an experience. Narrative nonfiction appeals to fiction lovers because it includes real characters and settings; narrative scenes; a theme; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the events and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while speeding through parts of the true story that don’t require close inspection.

Expository Literature
When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school funding priorities changed. School library budgets were slashed, and many school librarians lost their jobs. Around the same time, the proliferation of websites made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available without cost, which meant general survey books about volcanoes or whales or the Boston Tea Party were no longer mandatory purchases for libraries.

As nonfiction book sales to schools and libraries slumped, authors and illustrators had to raise their game. The result has been a new breed of finely-crafted expository literature that delights as well as informs. Besides being meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts, expository literature features captivating art, dynamic design, and rich engaging language. It may also include strong voice, innovative point of view, carefully-chosen text structure, and purposeful text format.

Active Nonfiction
Inspired by the maker movement, publishers have recently began creating what booksellers call “active nonfiction”—browse-able books that teach skills readers can use to engage in an activity. It includes how-to guides, cookbooks, field guides, craft books, toy-book combinations that involve building a model, etc.

I’m happy with this new tree because it highlights how nonfiction has changed and improved over the last two decades. What do you think?

26 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Melissa. I like the update---and will be sharing with my content-area literacy course for preservice teachers.

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    1. Thanks for spreading these ideas, Valerie.

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  2. This is a fabulous post, Melissa. I am sharing widely. Everyone should understand how vibrant and FUN kidlit nonfiction is these days!

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    1. I agree! thanks for sharing, Jen.

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    2. Jen, You are so right. Reading the new NF books has taught me so much more than many 'adult' NF books.

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  3. And while these are the simplest way to look at nonfiction sub genres, let's not forget that authors can break these rules and mix them up! Perhaps we should put another branch for platypus titles!

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    1. As students try to understand the wide world of nonfiction, I think it helps to have general categories that are easy to understand. Then, as children gradually become more sophisticated readers and thinkers, they can learn more about the nuances and exceptions.

      As in fiction, there are certainly nonfiction books that cross boundaries. Some narrative titles include activities, for instance. And some books have roughly equal amounts of narrative and expository text. How should they be classified? Where exactly is the tipping point between traditional nonfiction books and expository literature?

      But rather than add a breaks-the-rules category, I think it's more valuable to have case-by-case discussions about the various ways a particular title might be classified.

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  4. Great post - definitely sharing with my nf colleagues. Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts, broaden our knowledge, and support other nf writers.

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  5. Love how you've made this super easy to understand. Thanks!

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  6. This is great, especially for a nonfiction addict like me. I wonder if you might consider an additional branch: Interactive. Some examples include the fantastic "Ology" series published by Candlewick and a phenomenal array of nonfiction pop-up books such as The Large Hadron Collider Pop-up Book: Voyage to the Heart of Matter, Pyramids and Mummies, and the Museum in a Book series. What do you think? I'm a middle school librarian and these interactive books are among our most popular and most requested items.

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    1. Hi Jody,
      Interactive books would generally fall in the Active category as would toy-book combinations. This would include most pop-up books. I'm going to clarify that in my post. Thanks for your question.

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  7. Examples would be useful, to help differentiate between your categories.

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    1. Ah, yes, you read my mind. Be on the lookout for lists of sample books in future posts.

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  8. I look forward to sharing this with my Writing for Children classes. Yes to examples! That would be so helpful!

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  9. Love this! Suddenly my world makes a little more sense. ;) Thanks so much!

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  10. What a great idea! I look forward to hearing more about this.

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  11. Thanks, Melissa. My Picture Book Intensive group at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children's and YA literature has been looking seriously at nonfiction and it IS hard to find the vocabulary to articulate what's going on in the fascinating picture books in our stacks. We'll be quoting from YOU at the next residency for sure.

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    1. So glad this system is helpful to you, Jane. Much of the vocabulary we need is being used by educators writing academic articles. I find it helpful to try to stay abreast of their work. It's time consuming, but worth the effort.

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  12. I'm going to share this with some librarians at an upcoming meeting and see what they think, Melissa!

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  13. I will be sharing this idea at a district wide meeting with librarians and assistants. Thank you for a wonderful resource.

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