Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Where Should We Shelve Informational Fiction?

Back in October 2016, I wrote this short post because I noticed that a growing number of picture book “biographies” were including invented dialog, imagined scenes, or events presented out of chronological order. Why add these made-up elements? To improve the storytelling.

For the most part, the authors fully realized that these books should be classified as fiction, and they liked the term “informational fiction” because it acknowledged all the research they’d done and that the books were mostly faithful to the facts. But the Library of Congress labelled these books “juvenile literature” (the term they use for nonfiction). And in most cases, publishers and reviewers called the books narrative nonfiction. 

More recently, I began noticing another kind of informational fiction. In an effort to make survey books that provide a broad overview of a subject more entertaining, authors were adding made-up narrators, such as animals or inanimate objects, who were acting like storytellers. Eventually, I discovered that, way back in 1984, researchers had developed the term “pseudo-narratives” to describe these books.

Once again, the Library of Congress calls these books “juvenile literature,” and publishers and reviewers call them nonfiction. But the term “nonfiction” doesn’t just mean a book has some documentable ideas and information, it means nothing—not a single thing—is made up. 

In this era of fake news, we’ve seen again and again that people trust what they see, hear, and read too easily. They don’t check facts. They don’t question the source of statistics. If we want that to change, we need to teach children to identify truthiness. And one of the best ways to do that is by being transparent about the books we offer them. 

Using the term “informational fiction” acknowledges that taking creative liberties with true, verifiable facts can be an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not.

To further reinforce this idea, teachers and librarians should think carefully about where they shelve informational fiction titles in their collections. Placing these books in a separate section will help children recognize that while they’re mostly faithful to the facts, they include some made-up parts. 

Ideally, this knowledge will encourage students to think critically as they read. Perhaps they’ll even skim the backmatter first to find out what’s made up and why the author and/or illustrator made these choices. These are the kinds of skills we hope all 21st-century learners will develop in school and use to evaluate texts throughout their lives.


  1. CLAPPING LOUDLY, can you tell? BRAVO.

    1. So agree with you Kathy Halsey. Does the library have enough shelves for this?

  2. Thank you for this post, Melissa. I do think we need to draw a line in the sand and let kids know what falls on either side.

  3. Thank you Melissa for this post. I need to keep reviewing what I've written. Attending a one day conference March 7 in Michigan on non-fiction and have a critique and portfolio review - hoping that I get a clearer idea of how to make my story better - or if I will need to change it up. Thanks again.

  4. Thank you, Kathy! If only your post would pop up on the computer screen...or on the desk...of every teacher!

  5. I'm so glad to have read this post. I used cartoon characters narrating a nonfiction account of invasive pythons in Florida, and it was published under juvenile literature. I wondered how the book would be shelved or labeled in a library. I didn't worry about the child being able to differentiate, but your post gave me pause. I figured if readers are over six, they're pretty aware cartoon characters aren't real, while the words in the text are. Anyway, I was banking on that.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I am new to non-fiction as a writer and am learning a lot from you. This post makes this issue really clear for me. Great thoughts!

  7. I think "pseudo-narratives" can make for an interesting (often humorous) way to share facts with kids and make learning more palatable to reluctant learners. But, nonfiction biographies should never have invented dialog! More categories are definitely needed to let readers know when something isn't pure nonfiction.