Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Behind the Books: Evolution of a Genre

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the elements of nonfiction writing here and on the I.N.K. and CYNSATIONS blogs, but I’ve never looked at some of the reasons that today’s nonfiction is so much better than it was in the past and why it’s getting all the time. So that’s my topic for today.

You’ve probably heard terms like creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and narrative nonfiction. Ask ten nonfiction writers to define these terms and you’ll probably get ten different answers. But what all those answers will have in common is that they result in more vivid, more engaging writing.

You will often hear me say “It’s a great time for nonfiction!” That’s because people are experimenting with the genre in ways they never have before, and the results are amazing.

Most literary historians say that the new nonfiction, which I’ll call narrative nonfiction, developed in the adult writing world in the 1960s and 1970s. The elements it espoused began to make their way into children’s nonfiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with books like The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery (photos by Nic Bishop) and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley (illus. by Brian Selznick). These books included such storytelling techniques as narrative arcs and tension and conflict.

By the mid-2000s, the growth of the Internet made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free. So books with everything a kid ever wanted to know about giraffes or kangaroos or the Battle of Lexington and Concord were no longer required purchases for libraries. Publishers and authors looked for ways to be more creative in their offerings.

As picture books biographies gained in popularity, authors began integrating scene building into their manuscripts. The also used primary source materials to create fully-developed “characters” and find quotations that could be used as dialog. And (gasp) authors even dared to take a point of view.

Some incredibly innovative and ground-breaking books became available just last year—when three of the five National Book Award finalists in the young people’s category were nonfiction titles, including Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.

Charles and Emma was also the winner of the first-ever YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, received a Michael L. Printz Honor Award, and has been named as a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, in the Young Adult Literature category!

Deborah has been so bold as to call Charles and Emma a nonfiction novel. Indeed, the masterful writing reads like a novel. And yet, as a result of the author’s diligent, meticulous research, we can be confident that everything Heiligman writes is 100 percent true.

Another one of my favorite recent book is Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone. It won the Sibert Award and was a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Sections of Almost Astronauts are written in the first person, relating the author’s experiences with her subjects--something I rarely see in books for young readers.
I can hardly wait to see what awaits us in the future. It really is a great time for nonfiction.

I can hardly wait to see what awaits us in the future. It really is a great time for nonfiction.


  1. There was a shift in adult reading many years ago of people demanding more nonfiction books, and I think it's happening in children's books now. Whether it's because everyone is looking for more informed and better-researched writing, or teachers and parents want to enhance what has become a test-based curriculum, I don't know. But it's a great time for nonfiction writers and readers.

  2. What a difference I have seen in nonfiction for children since I was teaching in elementary school in the early 70's. The kids said NF was "boring" and many of the books were indeed boring---how I would have loved to be able to pass many of the books now available to my students, I often find myself thinking about how I would have paired specific books with specific students.

  3. I think you're right, Tracey. I think we are going to see a lot of innovative nonfiction for kids in the next few years. Authors are experimenting and pushing the limits and having a lot of fun.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Carol.

    Sometimes it just takes one perfect book recommendation to turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader. Kids will struggle to read when they are interested in the content. It's so satisfing when parents or teachers tell me that one of my books was that perfect match for a child.

  5. Great post, Melissa! It sure is different than the nonfiction I remember reading when I was a kid. I love sharing today's nonfiction with my kids, and they love reading it as much, if not more, than fiction.

    Sadly, nonfiction seemed woefully absent from the awards this year, though. I wonder why? Any thoughts?

  6. Hi Laurie,

    I think we were all a little spoiled by last year's awards. 2010 was a superbly awesome year for nonfiction. I'd say this was a typical year. As Betsy Bird said on her blog, it all depends on how nonficiton friendly the awards committees are.

    I thought the Sibert choices made a lot of sense, and I was thrilled to see Dark Emporer receive a Newbery Honor. I'm also very pleased about Dave the Potter receiving a Caldecott Honor.

    In general, I think nonfiction for kids is beginning to receive more respect. The trouble is sales numbers affect what publishers are willing and able to publish. Teachers and librarians are behind nonficiton, but most parents still would rather buy a fiction title. That's why bookstores stock less and less nonficiton all the time. Nonficiton will never be seen as an equal until its sales figures are equal. And we have a long way to go before that happens.

  7. I think you're absolutely right, Melissa, on all counts! It just seems strange to me, I guess, because as a nonfiction writer as well as the mother of a boy reader, almost ALL of the books I buy are nonfiction. :) It is worth buying them and keeping them on hand, because I know we will go back to our nonfiction again and again for years. We tend to read fiction only once and move on, however, so I usually get my fiction from the library. I guess it's not the first time I've been outside the "mass market" mentality. ;)