Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Behind the Books: Nonfiction that Reads Like a Story

I’ve written about narrative nonfiction many times in the past. In this post, I compare two books about frogs to show why one is narrative and the other is expository. In this post, on the Nerdy Book Club blog, I questioned if this style of nonfiction really deserves all the attention it has received in recent years.

But today, I’m going to look at narrative nonfiction specifically through the  it’s-one-of-three-styles lens (the other two styles being expository and persuasive). Simply put, narrative nonfiction is one way of presenting information to readers. In adopting this style, the author’s purpose is to use the research he or she has gathered to craft a manuscript that reads like a story.

This style works especially well for biographies or books about historical events because the passage of time helps to define the story’s arc. Drawing upon meticulous primary-source research, the author thrusts readers into the action as he/she shows real people in real situations and settings. The carefully-chosen scenes that help us get to know the “characters” are skillfully woven together with summaries that act as transitions and provide necessary back ground information. Many readers enjoy narrative nonfiction because it gives them the opportunity to feel a strong connection to the central characters and understand their motivation.

Here are ten examples, five picture books and five long-form nonfiction:

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet

The Boy who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos written by Deborah Heiligman 

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

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

There is also a second kind of narrative nonfiction, which is most often employed in science or nature-themed picture books. These texts describe the typical daily, seasonal, or annual activities of a single animal or a host of animals living and interacting in a specific environment. The authors of these books aren’t writing about a particular real-life creature. They are creating a sort of composite that provides a realistic view into the world of the animal or the overall workings of a habitat.

Research for the book generally involves observing the animal in the wild over a period of time or spending many hours exploring a specific habitat. Parts of the narrative may also be based on reviews of the scientific literature or discussions with scientists or naturalists who have their own observational experiences.

Here are some examples:

Big Blue Whale written by Nicola Davies

Dig, Wait, Listen: A Desert Toad Tale by April Pulley Sayre

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison

The Long, Long Journey: The Godwit’s Amazing Migration by Sandra Markle

Red-eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

Students may not have much need to write narrative nonfiction in school or in their careers, but they will be reading it as part of their education and hopefully for personal enjoyment as adults, so they should be able to recognize this style of writing, understand how it is crafted, and recognize its advantages as well as its limitations.


  1. Fabulous post Melissa! Very informative and an excellent explanation of how the two writing styles differ. Well done!

  2. Melissa, thank you so much for investing of your time in helping us understand the depth of literary non-fiction. I have passed on your post to others, and although I cannot guarantee their views will broaden, I can assure you that the teachers who were part of the disussion, those who facilitate learning for our students, are cristal clear on what literary non-fiction includes. Thanks again, the support I received from the Twitter community of writers, educators, and librarians is a thing of beauty!

  3. I am really enjoying your insights and instruction in these posts, Melissa! Thanks for taking time to share. Priceless understanding for a new non-fiction writer.

  4. I'm thinking about your three types and wondering where definition fits in.

  5. Mary Ann, My thinking about styles has evolved since last November. I'll be blogging about this topic again in the fall. Stay tuned.