Last December, I introduced and described a system for classifying informational books that I call the Nonfiction Family Tree. It received such a great response that I discussed it again (and provided a list of sample books) in early January. Then I suggested an activity for introducing it to students later in the month. Around this time, Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) invited me to create this video for his blog and SLJ invited me to write this article, which compiled all my thoughts on the topic in writing.
For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on Traditional Nonfiction and Expository Literature. Traditional nonfiction provides a general introduction to a broad topic. These survey (all about) books, which are often published in large series, feature clear, concise, straightforward language and usually have a description text structure.
These books can be a great place to start the research process because they provide an overview of a topic, but they aren’t the best mentor texts for producing engaging, finely-crafted informational writing. For that, expository literature, which emphasizes depth rather than breadth of coverage, is a better choice.
This has nothing to do with how talented the writers are and everything to do with the inherent differences of writing about a broad topic versus a focused one. Simply put, broad topics limit a nonfiction writer’s ability to craft rich, engaging text.
When writers take an in-depth look at a specific idea or concept, they can be more playful and innovative. They can select a format and text structure that reflects their unique approach to the content. They can experiment with voice and language devices. Because writers of traditional nonfiction must cover a huge amount of information in a limited number of words, they don’t have the same kind of opportunities to delight as well as inform.
When we ask children to write all about books, we’re giving them a handicap right off the bat. Students will be most successful when they choose a topic they’re passionate about and zoom in on a specific question or unique perspective that allows them to use the nonfiction craft moves they’ve learned to the best of their ability. Let’s give our young writers a chance to shine.