Monday, May 18, 2020

Expository vs. Narrative Nonfiction: Honeybees, Part 1

For several years now, I’ve been using this visual to summarize the basic difference between the two nonfiction writing styles—narrative and expository.

During conference sessions and professional development workshops, I often read aloud two books about the same topic, but with different writing styles to help solidify the concept in my audience’s mind. Fourth grade teacher and children's book author Kate Narita recently suggested that I do something similar on my blog for people who haven’t had a chance to see me present in person.

So for the next few weeks, on Mondays, I’m going to share an expository passage from my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses and talk a little bit about my process.

Then, on Wednesdays, I’m going to share a narrative nonfiction passage on the same topic from a book I love. Then the author will talk a little bit about her process.

Our first topic is honeybees. Today I’ll share a spread from my book, and on Wednesday, the uber-talented Candace Fleming will discuss her brand-new, totally amazing narrative nonfiction book Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis mellifera, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann.   

Okay, here’s the honeybee spread from my expository nonfiction book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses. 

Notice that it’s illustrated with photographs, including a truly astonishing close-up image of a bee with a drop of nectar. The spread includes a variety of text features, including captions with fascinating facts and figures, a stat stack for kids who love data, a spit-tacular sidebar, and a factoid that compares honeybees to archerfish—another animal that relies on spit for its dinner.

Here’s the main text for this spread:

What’s in Your Honey
You probably know that honeybees make sweet, sticky honey. But do you know how? The process might surprise you.

1. A field bee—a honeybee that leaves the hive to collect nectar—sucks up thin, runny liquid from dozens of flowers. She swallows some of the nectar and stores the rest in her honey sac.

2. Back at the hive, the field bee upchucks the nectar, and a house bee slurps it into her honey sac. Little by little, she regurgitates the sugary stuff. As she rolls it around in her mouth, it mixes with her spit. The nectar warms up and thickens.

3. After the house bee spreads the mixture along honeycomb cells inside the hive, her sisters fan their wings over the cells. Water evaporates, causing the liquid to thicken even more.

4. After about five days, most honey is ready to eat. It’s nutritious and delicious!

Since this book focuses on animals that use substances like pee, poop, vomit, or spit to find, make, or catch food; make their homes; or defend themselves from predators, my goal on this spread was to explain how bees make honey (using spit). 

To make the expository description engaging, I employed a casual, conversational voice and included lots of strong, precise verbs; alliteration; and a tiny bit of rhyme.

A numbered list is a great way to convey this information clearly and succinctly to curious kids who are excited to soak up ideas and information about the world. The linear progression helps young fact-loving minds digest and remember the content, so they can quickly and easily share the tantalizing tidbits with their family and friends—something many kids love to do

This way of presenting the material seems natural to me. It appeals strongly to my analytical mind. But thanks to a growing body of research, I recognize that this approach may not be right for every child. 

Some children are narrative lovers who prefer stories and storytelling. Luckily, Candace Fleming has created a wonderful book that’s perfect for these kids. And that’s why we’ll be taking an in-depth look at Honeybee on Wednesday. 

What I think you’ll ultimately realize is that, to reach the greatest number of kids, teachers should recognize the range of readers in their classroom and pair passages with different characteristics. This strategy gives all children access to text they can connect with AND text that helps them stretch and grow as readers.


  1. Thank you for this post. I'm reading it with interest as a a reader I simply enjoy the words. Thank you.

  2. This is so interesting! Is there any way you can show us how this looks on your manuscript? Do you use bullet points or illustration notes?
    I'm looking forward to Wednesday's post.

    1. Hi Claire,
      My manuscript had a numbered list, just like what you see above.

      You might be interested in this post, which includes sample manuscript pages showing the editorial process I went through with my editor for this book:

  3. Then there are learners who enjoy reading the narrative and take in its emotional impact, but tend to remember more informational details when they're provided in a list or factoids paired with visuals. The brain is an interesting processor.