Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Expository vs. Narrative: What’s for Dinner?, Part 2

On Monday, I shared an expository passage about the red-spotted purple butterfly’s unusual eating habits from my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses and talked a little bit about the process of writing the book.

Today, we’ll continue discussing the differences between narrative and expository nonfiction by looking at two consecutive spreads from Loree Griffins Burns’s fabulous new book You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration, photographed by Ellen Harasimowicz. The book is perfectly suited for a narrative writing style because it conveys an experience, a thrilling event known as a moth ball. 

The first of these spreads features a group of children observing an incredible variety of moths attracted to a white sheet illuminated by a special light. What an experience!

And the second spread (which loosely connects to the topic of the Ick! spread I shared on Monday) highlights why it’s helpful to know an insect’s dietary preferences. 

Let’s take a closer look at Loree’s text:

The number of moths might be small at first. Be patient. On a warm night, moths become more active as the night gets darker and the hour gets later.

Some people never, not once in their whole lives, connect with moths this way. So take your time. Soak it all in.

And don’t forget to check the sugar bait. There might be more moths to meet.

Party on, friends! Be kind to your guests. Watch them sip homemade nectar, and marvel at how they do it. 

There are so many things to love about the way Loree has written this book. While direct address can sometimes seem heavy handed or even didactic, in this book, it contributes beautifully to the gentle, friendly, invitational voice. Even though the language is remarkably simple, each word has been carefully chosen to instill a sense of wonder and awe, which will undoubtedly inspire many young readers to begin planning a moth ball of their own. 

After reading the book, I wondered what inspired Loree to write about a moth ball rather than a more general survey book about months. I also wanted to know how and why she decided to employ a narrative writing style. 

Here’s what Loree had to say:

“I'm one of those people who is naturally drawn to narrative. I never asked myself what would be the best writing style for a book about moths? Instead, I stumbled into a subject that was new and fascinating to me—moth watching, and I saw immediately that there was a beautiful and intriguing narrative ready-made—a moth watching party, or moth ball. Those two things convinced me that I wanted to make this book.

“This is not a book that gives a reader everything they'll ever want to know about moths. Rather, it’s an invitation into the world of moths, a quick and (I hope!) intriguing look at a new subject. 

“My fondest wish is that readers finish and do two things immediately: 1) hit the library for more books about moths and 2) start watching the moths in their own neighborhoods.” 

According to Loree, one big advantage of writing a narrative is the built-in text structure. While writers of expository nonfiction have to carefully consider how they will frame their facts, narratives typically have a chronological sequence structure.

“I didn't start by pondering how to organize all the moth facts,” says Loree. “Instead, my focus was entirely on telling a compelling moth story. I had to decide where to begin that story, where to end it, and how to get from one to the other. 

“Eventually I decided I would host a moth ball and invite readers to come. That story starts with the book's title: you're invited to a moth ball. I have readers arrive early, when it's still light outside, so that they can help me set up the party; that's how they learn how to attract moths. The story ends where so many great stories (and parties) do: bedtime. 

“This very simple story structure guided the way I conveyed moth facts. I couldn't just stick those facts anywhere, because I had to consider the party narrative. [There’s a] natural break in the party after the moth attractants were set but before the moths arrived. [That’s where] I tucked extra moth facts for readers.” 

I hope that this six-part blog series, which featured three spreads from my expository book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses and passages from the narrative nonfiction titles Honeybee by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Flying Deep by Michelle Cusolito and Nicole Wong, and You’re Invited to a Moth Ball by Loree Griffins Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz has helped you gain a stronger understanding of the differences between narrative and expository writing. (Scroll down to read all the posts.)

The two writing styles present information in different ways, and as a result, appeal to different kinds of readers. While some students enjoy narrative and expository writing equally, others have a natural affinity for one or the other. 

Ultimately, we want all readers to be able to interact successfully with both writing styles, but developing the skills to do so takes time and patience and practice. That’s why it’s so important to meet emerging readers where they are by understanding, accepting, and encouraging their natural preferences.
When school and library book collections feature a rich assortment of expository nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and fiction titles, every child will be able to find books that they connect with right now as well as books that can help them stretch and grow as they develop confidence as readers.


  1. Excited to try a moth ball of my own in my new house :). It's such a great book!

    1. We're looking forward to having you back in MA.