Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Expository vs. Narrative Nonfiction: Honeybees, Part 2

On Monday, I shared an expository passage about honeybees from my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses and talked a little bit about my process. You can scroll down to read it.

Today, we’re going to continue our discussion of the differences between narrative and expository nonfiction by looking at a passage from Candace Fleming’s fantastic new book Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis mellifera, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann. AND, as an added bonus, Candace is going to share some of the reasons she chose to use a narrative writing style for this book.

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

But it’s important to understand that very few nonfiction books are 100 percent narrative. The key element of narrative nonfiction is scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the world and people (or insects 😊) being described. The scenes are linked by expository bridges that provide necessary background while speeding through parts of the true story that don’t require close inspection.

Here’s a wonderful spread from Honeybee that presents some of the same information as the passage I shared from Ick! on Monday. 

Instead of a numbered list, Candace has written a compelling scene that’s illustrated with Eric’s stunningly gorgeous art:

Apis stands on soft honeycomb, waiting.
A forager bee approaches. Dusted with pollen and smelling of sunshine and fresh air, she is loaded with nectar.
Food for the colony!
Apis creeps toward her.
Furry heads bump.
And the forager brings up the nectar to her open mouth.
Sticking out her straw-like tongue, Apis sips up the nectar.
   She folds and unflolds,
        folds and unfolds,
           folds and unfolds her mouth.
Until the nectar grows
She stores the half-dried nectar in an empty cell. Over the
next few days it will ripen into honey.

Candace is truly a master of rich, luscious language. I love her use of strong, precise verbs; alliteration; repetition; and imagery. Notice how her text breaks force you to pause at just the right moments. Wow!

Why did Candace choose to write her book with a narrative style? Here’s what she had to say:

“For me, the narrative style … comes naturally. I’ve always preferred a story with scenes and characters and emotional weight. And let’s face it; anything that comes naturally has its advantages. 

“When I began this project the plight of bees was foremost in my mind. I wanted to write a book that would engage and enlighten kids, as well as help them recognize the importance of this extraordinary creature. Above all, though, I wanted to spur young readers to action. But action requires empathy. I wanted my readers to care, truly care, about honeybees. And I didn’t think fascinating facts and startling statistics alone would be enough to elicit that kind of emotion. So I turned to narrative.  

“I wrote a birth-to-death story—a biography—of one bee, following her every movement from the day she emerges into her hive until thirty-five days later when, tattered and exhausted, she falls to the ground. I emphasized her struggles, heightened tension and suspense, and intentionally created an emotional punch. 

“A narrative style is the best way I know of distilling a story and getting to the heart of it. I chose narrative with the goal of the writer’s profession: readers finishing the story and maybe, just maybe, caring.   

“The biggest challenge [of writing a narrative] is staying within the nonfiction fence. [Facts] have to be woven thoughtfully and artfully into the text, so they feel like a seamless part of the telling. While I want kids to cheer, gasp and cry for Apis mellifera, I cannot anthropomorphize to achieve this goal, and I cannot make up anything. Every detail in the book has to be documented. It has to come from a reliable source.” 

By comparing this response from Candace to my comments on Monday (scroll down), it’s easy to see how a writer’s natural affinity for a particular writing style as well as her purpose for writing a piece play critical roles in how she decides to present the material. That’s why it's so beneficial to share book pairings or even multi-book text sets with students. 

By reading a variety of related passages, students can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the topic as well as for all that the wonderful world of nonfiction has to offer. Children can also gain important insight into the kinds of texts they enjoy reading and writing the most.

After Memorial Day, I'll continue this discussion by sharing another set of passages on related topics but with different writing styles.


  1. I have to say that each time I read this book, I choke up when I reach the magnificent gatefold AND on reading the section where the bee's life is summed up, and we discover that she has made 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. I am now so very careful not to waste any. Love this book!

  2. It is a lovely book, and I saw somewhere that it's World Bee Day too :)!