Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Voice, Part 1

Since October, I’ve been thinking about ways to classify nonfiction. I’ve looked at nonfiction text types and styles—two new tools in my writer’s tool box. I’ve also taken a fresh look at structure. This week I’m going to describe some of my new thoughts about voice.

In the past, nonfiction books for kids were straightforward, stodgy, and voiceless. In fact, if I had submitted a manuscript with a strong voice to an editor ten or fifteen years ago, it would have been rejected. But today, voice is an important component of engaging nonfiction titles.

Some books feature a strong lively, playful, humorous style, while others have soft, sweet lyrical voice. But these descriptions represent two extremes in a broad spectrum of voices. I created the visual below to help me think about this continuum.
Nonfiction authors choose a voice based on their topic and the approach they want to take to that topic. For example, if you are writing about a picture book biography about a person with a sassy personality, you should use a playful voice. What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley is a good example. On the other hand, when writing Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, Claire A. Nivola used a lyrical, descriptive storyteller voice because it reflects the personality and accomplishments of her subject.

A lively, conversational voice is often a good choice for long-form expository books, while a more wondrous, lyrical voice is more appropriate for a nature-themed picture book. Let your topic and your purpose for writing guide you to the best possible voice choice.

Books with a Lively Voice
Animal Grossapedia by Melissa Stewart

Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine
Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee

Deadliest Animals by Melissa Stewart

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

See How They Run by Susan E. Goodman

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos

Thank You, Sarah by Laurie Halse Anderson

Books with a Lyrical Voice
Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart

Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Lightship by Brian Floca

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

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre


  1. I love this post Melissa. I often think of titles as lyrical and how it is so lovely to be learning and surrounded by beautiful language at the same time. Like the "lively" descriptor as well. Making me think about various texts. Hurrah for nonfiction!

  2. Thanks, Melissa. This gives me a few new words to think about when I consider the tone of a new project:>)