Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Developing the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction

Like most scientists, I’m always looking for ways to make sense of the world around me. Back in 2012, I recognized that children’s nonfiction had gone through tremendous changes since I entered publishing as a young editor in the early 1990s. In an effort to understand those changes and the current state of nonfiction for kids, I started sketching a visual model, and I ended up with a family tree.

I wasn’t really satisfied with my tree, but I posted it on my blog to see if I’d get any feedback. A couple of months later, I had some new ideas, so I revised the tree and posted it. The comments I received broadened my thinking, and I kept on pondering.

Then, in 2013, I learned that a group of highly-respected educators who called themselves the Uncommon Corps had developed a Nonfiction Taxonomy. I was fascinated by their ideas and blogged about them too. Although this classification system never caught on, I began an ongoing dialogue with several members. Marc Aronson, Sue Bartle, Mary Ann Cappiello, and Myra Zarnowski have all influenced the way I think about nonfiction.

Over time, I slowly collected category names that appealed to me. From the beginning, I knew that narrative nonfiction would be one of the categories. Developed in the 1960s and 1970s by such celebrated adult authors as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, this style of writing first appeared in children’s titles in the mid-1990s.

In 2012, Jennifer Emmett, Senior Vice President at National Geographic for Kids, introduced me to the term “browseable books” at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators nonfiction writing retreat in Silver Bay, New York. It was the perfect label for books inspired by Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Book series.

In 2015, I wrote an article differentiating traditional nonfiction titles from a newer kind of nonfiction book with a narrowly-focused topic, innovative text structure and format, strong voice, and rich engaging figurative language for A Fuse #8 Production, a highly regarded children’s literature blog maintained by librarian Betsy Bird and hosted by School Library Journal. After reading the piece, Terrell Young, a Professor of Children’s Literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, suggested the label “expository literature.” We published an article defining and describing the new term in 2018.

I first came across the term “active nonfiction” in 2017 while reading an article in Publisher’s Weekly. It was used by Kristen McLean, Director of New Business Development at Nielsen Book/Nielsen Entertainment, while reporting on Nielsen BookScan data at the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Children’s Institute Conference. I was so excited by this new label that I immediately grabbed a piece of paper and sketched a new family tree. For the first time, I was satisfied. It seemed complete and logical and truly useful. 

When I posted the visual on my blog, the response was astonishing. Teachers loved it. So did librarians and children’s book authors and editors. People praised the clarity it brought to the range of children’s nonfiction available today. School Library Journal. Invited me to write an article about the classification system for their May 2018 issue.

Over time, I realized that a tree model wasn’t the most effective way to represent my ideas. I developed a new visual model and began referring to the classification system as the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. 

I’m excited to have co-written a book with Marlene Correia about this system and how it can improve ELA instruction. Be on the lookout for 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books later this year. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing mentor texts for each of the five categories over the next few weeks.


  1. I love this backstory, Melissa. Fascinating to see where various bits and pieces came from and how you've invited all these kinds of nonfiction to the party of great books. Can't wait for your book to come out!

  2. I enjoyed reading about the evolving of your 5 kinds of nonfiction. It gives deeper meaning to the system and categories. Thank you for sharing it, Melissa!

  3. I am so excited to see what mentor texts you will be sharing. You have guided me in sharing books with teachers and getting kids excited about nonfiction. Thank you!