Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Behind the Books: Is “Expository” Derogatory?

Narrative. The word has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Expository? Not so much.

Rhymes with gory, purgatory, derogatory, lavatory. Gesh, it’s no wonder authors cringe when someone uses the word to describe their work. And yet, plenty of great nonfiction for kids is expository. Its main purpose is to explain, describe, or inform.

Why are authors so sensitive? Because narrative nonfiction is the new kid on the block, and it’s getting lots of attention right now. But here’s a little ditty that’s worth remembering:

Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
and the other’s gold.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a golden moment for expository nonfiction because, in recent years, it’s gone through an exciting transformation. Once upon a time, it was boring and stodgy and matter-of-fact, but today’s nonfiction books MUST delight as well as inform young readers, and nonfiction authors have risen to the challenge. The books they’re creating feature engaging text, often with a strong voice, as well as dynamic art and design.

The problem is that not everyone is aware of these dramatic changes. And that’s why we have to work hard to get terrific expository books into the hands of as many educators as possible.

Here’s a list of ten examples (more are available on my pinterest pages):

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge

Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart

Frogs by Nic Bishop

Just One Bite by Lola Schaefer

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Neo Leo by Gene Barretta

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

There is also a second kind of expository nonfiction books. Marc Aronson and his Uncommon Corps colleagues call them data books. I prefer to call them fast-fact books to distinguish them from the facts-plus books listed above.

Facts-plus books focus on facts as well as overarching ideas. In other words, they present facts and explain them. Fast-fact books focus on sharing cool facts. Period. They inform, and that’s all. Examples include The Guinness Book of World Records, Time for Kids Big Book of Why, and Eyewitness Books. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Some people don’t have a very high opinion of fast-fact books, and to be sure, they don’t build reading stamina or critical thinking skills, but they do motivate many reluctant readers to pick up a book, and IMHO that alone makes them worthwhile.

Why do students need to be exposed to a diverse array of expository texts? Because it’s the style of nonfiction they’ll be asked to write most frequently throughout their school careers and in their future jobs. Whether they’re working on a report, a thesis, a business proposal, or even a company newsletter, they’ll need to know how to summarize information and synthesize ideas in a way that is clear, logical, and interesting to their readers. Today’s expository children’s literature makes ideal mentor texts for modeling these skills.


  1. Well said!
    So many great expository books out there...and the Fast Fact books were some of the most popular titles in the library.

  2. I'm loving this series, Melissa. It's making me think more deeply about my own writing. Thank you.

  3. I love expository texts. I also am wondering where essay fits in...

  4. Mary Ann,
    An essay could be narrative or expository. It depend son how it is written. Essay is a Category of nonfiction. I'll be blogging more about categories in the fall. Stay tuned.