Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Behind the Books: Thinking About Nonfiction Structure, Part 2

Before the holiday break, I began to discuss some of the challenges of trying to categorize nonfiction children’s books using the six structures espoused by CCSS—description, sequence/order, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, and problem & solution. I focused on the sequence structure, which is richly represented in children’s literature. 

This week I’m going to look at the other five categories and provide examples.

Let’s start with description. Many expository books have a description structure. According to my way of thinking, this is where most “traditional” expository nonfiction falls. But these books don’t feel old-fashioned because they feature engaging text, often with a strong voice, as well as dynamic art and design.

Description Books
A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

Creep and Flutter by Jim Arnosky

Dolphins! by Melissa Stewart

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Frogs by Nic Bishop

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown

Lightship by Brian Floca

There are two main kinds of compare & contrast books being published for children today. Publishers use the term “list book” to describe picture books in which the main idea is presented on the first spread and then each subsequent spread offers an example. As kids work their way through the book, they are comparing the various examples.

Other compare & contrast titles have what I call “dueling spreads.” The right-hand and left-hand pages offer ideas that are different but related in some key way. Readers are expected to compare the information.

Compare & Contrast Books

List books
Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge
Deadliest Animals by Melissa Stewart

Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Just One Bite by Lola Schaefer

Dueling spreads
Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy

Neo Leo by Gene Barretta

Those Rebels, Tom & John by Barbara Kerley

I can see why it would be worthwhile for students to practice writing texts that exemplify cause and effect, but examples are few and far between in children’s literature. My six A Place for . . . books fall into this category because as I was writing them, I heard teachers discussing how hard it was to teach this skill and I crafted my structure with them in mind. I can only think of one other book that clearly fits into this category. Can you think of others?

Cause & Effect Books
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart

As a reaction to Common Core, Sterling is now publishing a large series called Good Question! Each book has a clear and intentional Q & A structure. There are also a handful of books in which the questions and answers are seamlessly integrated into the text and authentically enhance the presentation.

Question & Answer Books
Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine

Hatch! by Roxie Munro

Hello Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

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

Creature Features by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
I don’t think there’s any reason at all to discuss the problem & solution structure using nonfiction books. First of all, they are rare. But more importantly, every fiction book ever written has this structure, so why not use them as mentor texts?

So here’s a bigger question. Are there any nonfiction books for children that don’t fit into any of these six categories? I can’t think of any. Can you?


  1. Thank you, Melissa, for this post on nonfiction structure. I appreciate the fine examples you have given and will be adding to my personal library.

  2. Good to know about the Q&A format- I'll definitely check out your book lists. Thanks for the great examples!

  3. Great examples, I can't wait to read them and learn more!