Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Categories

During a Twitter chat this summer, Cathy Potter drew my attention to this post from The Nonfiction Detectives, the blog she maintains with Louise Capizzo. Cathy served on the Sibert committee in 2013, so if anyone knows how to evaluate nonfiction books for children, it’s her.

In hindsight, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen the basic nonfiction “types” mentioned. I read this post Mary Ann Cappiello shared on The Classroom Bookshelf, the blog she maintains with Erica Thulin Dawes and Grace Enriquez, in 2012. Although Cappiello calls them “subgenres,” she’s describing the same categories as Potter and Capizzo.

Clearly, back in 2012, I wasn’t ready to fully see the value of thinking about these categories when reading and writing nonfiction. Maybe that shows that I’ve grown as a writer or at least as a thinker over the last couple of years.

In her post, Cappiello says, “Students benefit from understanding what type of nonfiction they are reading from the start, because understanding the purpose of a book is a clue to the content it contains.” In other words, writers (consciously or unconsciously) choose a particular text type based on their purpose, based on the information they want to share and how they want to share it. That’s a good lesson for writers as well as readers. It’s a good lesson for me.

In other words, before I begin writing, I can (and should) ask myself the following questions:

  1. Is my goal to provide a broad overview of a topic?

If yes, then a survey book is the best choice.

If no, go to 2.

As Cappiello says, “Survey books tend to focus on one broad topic and break it down into a variety of subtopics. They do not go very in-depth with any of these topics, but they give the reader a general introduction.”

Most of my National Geographic Readers are survey books. So are Eyewitness books. That’s the best category because these books are meant to be general introductions.

Here are ten more sample titles:

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins
Animal Grossapedia by Melissa Stewart

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee

Frogs by Nic Bishop

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown

Ice: The Amazing History of the Ice Business by Laurence Pringle

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Woman in the House (and Senate) by Ilene Cooper

  1. Is my goal to delve deeply into a highly-focused topic?

If yes, then I should write a specialized book.

If no, go to 3.

As Potter and Capizzo say, in a specialized book, “topics are delved into more deeply and may use primary or secondary resources.” They suggest Bomb by Steve Sheinkin as a mentor text because it looks closely at a very specific series of events that affect the outcome of World War II. Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 would also fit in this category, as would my own book A Place for Butterflies, which looks closely at ways people are protecting butterflies and preserving their habitats. We are seeing more and more specialized books in recent years, and my guess is that this trend will continue.

Here are ten more sample titles:

Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery

Frog Song by Brenda G. Zuiberson

Energy Island by Allan Drummond

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Plastics Ahoy! by Patricia Newman

Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

  1. Is my goal to help my readers understand an abstract idea or process?
If yes, then I should write a concept book.

If no, go to 4.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a perfect example of a concept book because its central nugget is the interdependence of living things, an idea that I think is critically important for my young audience to understand. I’m passionate about my purpose, and as this revision timeline shows, that passion is what kept me working on the project for ten long years.  Concept books work especially well for science-themed picture books that seek to elucidate life cycles, seasons, animal behavioral patterns, and other key concepts.

Here are ten more sample titles:

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Just a Second by Steve Jenkins

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals’ Lives by Lola Schaefer

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

  1. Is my goal to write about my life or the life of another person and his/her specific accomplishments?

If yes, a biography/autobiography is the obvious choice.

If no, go to reconsider 1-3.

As Cappiello points out, this is probably the most familiar category of nonfiction as well as the easiest to identify. Still some sample titles can’t hurt:

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill

Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skeleton by Meghan McCarthy

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley

How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson

The Mad Potter: George Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley

Does every book fit into one of these four categories? Maybe not. But the vast majority do, so this exercise is a good place for readers and writers to start as they think about nonfiction.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this thinking, Melissa. And I'm fascinated by the variety of ways different writers accomplish the same "type" of book. It keeps things so exciting for both readers AND writers.

  2. Posts like this always give me more to reflect on as well as thinking about how to help teachers understand what nonfiction authors are doing with their books. When I read this #'s 1, 2, and 4 seem pretty straight-forward. However, 3 has me thinking. Would elementary teachers define concept the same a nonfiction author and would this be different if a teacher had a science background or not. Also, has NGSS's Cross-cutting Concepts influenced and/or changed how authors are looking at some of those concepts when writing a book? Definitely more to ponder.

  3. Interesting questions, Alyson. My definition of the concept category comes from the education community, so the answer to your first question should be "yes." But I'm not sure what happens in practice. Right now, I don't think authors are thinking the way I've described above at all. But I think it could help them structure their book more effectively and efficiently. I know I'm certainly planning to try it with future projects. I think this process could help student writers too, but I'd love to hear what happens when teachers try it.

    I don't think authors of trade books pay much attention to standards when they are conceptualizing or writing. We just write the best book we can about an topic that we are passionate about. There is almost always a way to connect a book's content to the standards for marketing purposes. At this point, it's not clear whether states will embrace NGSS or not, so I think publishers have a wait-and-see attitude.

    While I think NGSS has its merits, the Crosscutting Concepts seem pretty useless to me. In terms of actually teaching science "skills" (what kids can take with them and use throughout their lives), I think the practices are the most critical part of NGSS. The content is there, of course, but since anyone can look up facts anytime they want, I think having the skills to do that and to understand and integrate ideas is far more important. This is one way in which NGSS and CCSS overlap. They both place emphasis on giving twenty-first century learners the skills they will need in school and in life.

    1. I very much agree that authors should and do focus on writing the best possible books that they can write and teachers really do try to do the best possible job that they can. With that said, there is still a lot of confusion (at least from what I have observed and heard in conversations) as to what everything means and how to implement it. I just appreciate your books and the thoughts you put out there that make me ponder new ideas or how old ideas might fit in a new frame.

    2. Thanks, Alyson. My hope is that some of the confusion is due to the newness of the standards--both CCSS and NGSS. As we move forward into the age of Common Core, I think some of the confusion will sort itself out. I think good PD one way to understand the standards deeply and develop lessons that address these new learning goals AND are fun. And I also hope that resources like Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, which I co-authored with Nancy Chesley, will help.

    3. I learn every time I read one of your posts, so THANK YOU Melissa. As a writer with a focus on the concept of interdependence, I celebrated the inclusion of "Systems and Systems Models", one of the seven NGSS cross-cutting concepts. It calls for for K-2 students to:
      "... understand objects and organisms can be described in terms of their parts; and systems in the natural and designed world have parts that work together."
      Which is just what you've done so beautifully in "No Monkeys, No Chocolate"! I know a lot of teachers who will be thrilled to find your book. As part of my work, I help students of all ages to learn to create causal maps of interconnected systems. We call this "making systems visible." Using fiction and nonfiction books is a great place to start to practice that skill. . I show how to do this with picture books in my book, "When a Butterfly Sneezes." I'm about to do a second edition of the Butterfly Sneezes book so I'm on the lookout for children's concept books focused on interdependence. "No Monkeys, No Chocolate" is now at the top of the list!

    4. What books have you found on interdependence since "No Monkeys No Chocolate"? I too am interested in these creative nonfiction approaches. Thank you.

    5. Hi Virginia,
      I'm not aware of any newer books that deal with this concept. One older example is Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre.

      I'm so glad to hear that you are interested in creative nonfiction and expository literature.

  4. Thanks, Melissa. Interesting post and comments.

    I'm off to reserve these books from my library for a closer read.

  5. This post comes at the perfect time since I'm trying to select more nonfiction picture book texts to feature in my forthcoming Stenhouse book (to serve as mentor texts for small group lessons). Thanks for this extremely clear post about the four major types of nonfiction books, Melissa.

  6. I'm working on teaching non-fiction reading and writing to my second graders. It's caused me to slow down and think about why we use different kinds of non fiction. They are obsessed with this genre. I never have to prod them to think of ideas. Thank you for this post. I am excited to share these types of non-fiction with them tomorrow. I have several of the books you shared.

  7. "Survey" book and "specialized" book remind me of the way I think about some books: wide-view lens (looking at the broad picture) or using a telephoto (up-close & personal). Thanks for putting these into a neat "field guide"