Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Behind the Books: Classifying Nonfiction Is Messy

Since October, I’ve been talking about ways to classify nonfiction in an effort to help both readers and writers understand the wide array of exciting, dynamic books currently on the market and how those titles can inform writing instruction.
After thinking deeply and reading widely, I currently see four main categories of nonfiction (survey, specialized, concept, biography/autobiography) and three styles (narrative, expository, persuasive). I have sorted lots of great books according to this system, and I think that doing so has been a useful exercise. I’ve learned a lot while doing it.

But here’s something important to consider. If someone else tried to sort the same books into the same categories, they might not get the same results. And beyond that, some other smart, knowledgeable people would probably disagree with my two-tiered, seven-category classification system.
At first, this worried me a lot. I really believed that if I could come up with the right system, anyone should be able to use it and get the same results. I know that’s the kind of system educators would like, too. Afterall, it’s easier to teach.

Luckily, I came to my senses while attending a great presentation given by author-educator Cynthia Jenson-Elliott at the SCBWI annual summer conference in Los Angeles.

At the beginning of the session, Cindy suggested a nine-category grid for classifying nonfiction. Ugh. I felt overwhelmed and anxious, but at least some of the category labels were familiar—narrative nonfiction, concept, biography/autobiography, persuasive. I trusted Cindy, so I decided to open my mind and see where she was headed.

Cindy had lugged about 100 books to the session and pre-sorted them into her nine categories. Our task was to choose a pile, examine the books, and decide if we agreed with where she had placed them. If not, we should explain why on a sticky note and move the book to the pile we thought made more sense. Afterward, a few people had a chance to defend their choices to the group.

 A LOT of books moved around during this activity. Some moved back and forth, back and forth, as people disagreed. It was fascinating, especially because some of the books we were sorting had been written by participants.

At the end of the session, Cindy gathered us all together for two final thoughts.

1.    It can be challenging to classify books because some cross or blend categories. Teachers need to get used to that messiness.

2.    Ironclad classification is less important than identifying how a particular book can be used most effectively as a mentor text. A teacher’s goal should be to build a collection with a few books that are good models for teaching similes, a few that can be used to show strong verbs, a few that make excellent use of alliteration, etc.

These ideas may seem obvious. But for me, it was the right message at the right moment. It felt liberating.

Does that mean there’s little or no value trying to classify books? Absolutely not. There’s much to be learned from the process—even if the results aren’t satisfying. It’s about the journey, not the destination.


  1. In preparing to present a workshop on this topic, I found a number of classification systems ranging from helpful to preposterous. What were Cindy's nine categories?

  2. Hi Pat,

    Thanks for your question. I don't remember Cindy's 9 categories, but you can contact her through the link above and ask.


  3. I am picturing this scene with piles of books with sticky notes and people tugging on them back and forth :)

  4. LOL, Mary. There was no tugging, but there was a little bit of covert sneaking.

  5. Melissa - I think I am finally coming to terms with messy in terms of classification of writing styles. I am finding that thinking about writing structure and examples of mentor texts is actually more helpful in classroom writing application. Thank you for continuing to think and write about this.

  6. I still believe that being aware of the different types and considering each one makes sense for professional and student writers, but you are right. The most time should probably be spend on how to structure the ideas and craft the language.