Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Behind the Books: Fiction or Nonfiction?, Part 1

In the United States, the decision of whether a children’s book is fiction or nonfiction ultimately lies with the Library of Congress.

Prior to publication, publishers send books to the Library of Congress. A LOC employee reads it, writes a brief summary of the book, classifies it as either “juvenile fiction” or “juvenile literature” (which includes nonfiction and usually--but not always--poetry) and assigns a call number that librarians will eventually use to shelve it.

This sounds like a good system, but guess what? The Library of Congress isn’t always consistent. Look what happened two these two companion titles:

And look what happened to these four books written by the same author in the same style:
How would you classify these books?

Cases like these help explain why there's so much confusion in determining whether a book is fiction or nonfiction. But there’s yet another reason that the term “informational text” is sometimes misused to describe a book that presents true information but takes a few liberties. I call it the Biography Conundrum, and I’ll talk more about it next week.


  1. Great post, Melissa! It is confusing, and I guess partially this results from the wonderful explosion of creative techniques used in nonfiction today. Thirty years ago, the distinction was so clear: a book was a story or a collection of facts. Either/or. I was really disappointed when LEAF was classified as fiction and thrilled when the next two in the set were classified as literature/nonfiction.

    Interestingly, and I hesitate to say this out loud because I don't want it changed, the LOC has classified my forthcoming IF YOU WERE THE MOON as literature/nonfiction. I'm thrilled about this, because the primary purpose of the book, for me, was to show kids all the cool things the moon does. It doesn't just sit there. But there is an opening spread that sets up the whole information-filled interior, and that opening spread has a child talking to the moon, and the moon answering. In fact, the whole interior of the book then becomes the moon's answer to the child. Sooooo... It's a complicated issues. I'm glad I'm not in the LOC's shoes, but it would be good to have more consistency in classifications to aid librarians/teachers/readers.

  2. Oh, your new book sounds terrific. I think we are seeing more and more nonfiction with a first person pov. I, Fly by Bridget Heos and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Guiberson are great examples.

    Like you, I'm excited to see all the experimenting that is happening with nonfiction right now. But it can make categorization tricky. Today's post is part of a larger series about the proper use of the term "informational book," which I see being misused by many kidlit folks.

    I think the key is to make sure that all the info in a nonfiction book is true and documentable. Your books certainly do meet that criterion while also being a pleasure to read.