Monday, June 8, 2020

Expository vs. Narrative: What’s for Dinner?, Part 1

Last month, I began a blog strand that involves comparing two books on similar topics, but with different writing styles. (Thanks for the idea, Kate Narita!)

My hope is that these posts will help educators and other members of the children’s literature community learn to identify the two writing styles and understand the best situations for using each one. I’d also like educators to realize that, although they may have a natural affinity for stories and storytelling, some of their students definitely do not. 

As you can see in the chart above, some children prefer expository texts because they read with a purpose—to soak up facts, ideas, and information about topics they find fascinating. These “info-kids” want to understand the world and how it works and their place in it. They want to learn about the past and the present, so they can envision the future stretching out before them.

To feed these children a steady diet of the books they crave, classroom and library collections need plenty of nonfiction--both expository and narrative. Unfortunately, many schools aren’t even close to having well balanced collections. We need more nonfiction. A lot more! A well-rounded collection should have just as much nonfiction as fiction.

The shared topic for this week is a question: What’s for dinner? And our subjects are butterflies and moths.

Today I'll present a spread from my upcoming expository nonfiction book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, and on Wednesday, award-winning author Loree Griffin Burns will answer some questions about her fabulous narrative nonfiction book You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration, photographed by Ellen Harasimowicz.   

Okay, here’s the red-spotted purple butterfly spread from Ick! 

Notice that it’s illustrated with photographs, including a large close-up image of a butterfly gorging on juices from a rotting persimmon fruit. The spread includes a variety of text features, including captions with fascinating facts and figures, a stat stack for kids (and adults) who love data, a sidebar about red-spotted purple caterpillars (which look a whole lot like bird poop), and a factoid that describes even more surprising butterfly food choices, from mud and blood to sweat and urine. 

Even though there are a lot to explore on this spread, the design helps readers navigate the elements. While some narrative lovers might feel a bit overwhelmed by this layout, info-kids will be excited by the cornucopia of choices and ready to dive in.

Here’s the main text for this spread:

Slurping Up Supper
Many butterflies eat just one thing—flower nectar. They can’t get enough of the sweet stuff.

But red-spotted purple butterflies prefer a different kind of meal. And they aren’t alone. At least seven kinds of butterflies sip juices from rotting fruit, animal dung, and dead animal bodies. Blech!

Why in the world would butterflies choose such curious cuisine? Because the juices are packed with nutrients the butterflies need to stay healthy. In fact, some scientists think the females can’t produce eggs until they’ve sucked up these vile vittles

Since this book focuses on animals that rely on gross stuff like pee, poop, vomit, and rotting carcasses for food, building materials, or defense strategies, my goal on this spread was to describe the strange and surprising range of foods that butterflies, especially the red-spotted purple butterfly, eat. 

To make the expository text engaging, I employed a casual, conversational voice and included a healthy helping of strong, precise verbs and alliteration along with a dash of onomatopoeia.

Since I’m an info-kid myself, this way of presenting the material seemed natural to me. And while I sometimes struggle to find a hook or text structure or voice for the books I write, those elements quickly fell into place for Ick! Gross animal behaviors provide a built-in hook, and they simply beg for a lively, playful voice. Because I had tons of examples, I knew a list text structure would be the perfect choice for this book. 
While I sincerely hope that kids will be as excited to read Ick! as I was to write it, I recognize that it may not be a good fit for every young reader. And that’s why I’m thrilled that Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz created You’re Invited to a Moth Ball, a narrative nonfiction title that features kids joyfully observing an incredible variety of moths–an experience they won’t soon forget. I can’t wait to share a portion of the book and talk to Loree about it on Wednesday!

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