Friday, January 5, 2018

The Five Kinds of Nonfiction, Book Lists

Updated December 1, 2019

In December 2017, I published this post with my view of the nonfiction family tree, showing how nonfiction for children has evolved and blossomed over the last couple of decades.
And I was blown away by the response! It quickly became one of the most popular posts EVER on this blog. 

In the last 2 years, an idea that I posted just to see if it might resonate with anyone has become more and more popular. Teachers and librarians really see how classifying books in this way can help students think about the wide world of nonfiction and all that it has to offer.

As I thought more deeply about the relationship among the various categories, I realized that the tree analogy didn't quite work. Now I'm using this visual:
As time has passed, I keep hearing the same questions about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system, so I've provided some answers below. If you have other questions, please let me know.

Q: Do all nonfiction books really fit neatly into one of these 5 categories?

A: Most do, but there are definitely books that cross categories, and that’s a good thing! So why have categories at all? Because as students try to make sense of the wide world of nonfiction, it helps to have general categories that are easy to understand. Then, as children become more sophisticated readers and thinkers, they can explore the exceptions. The idea of students debating the various ways a particular nonfiction title might be classified makes my heart sing.

Q: I know what traditional expository nonfiction is, but some of these other terms are new to me. Can you provide some exemplar titles?

A: Yes!

Browse-able Nonfiction
These books feature short blocks of text and they’re chock full of photos and text features. They’re a fact-loving kid’s dream come true. Readers can dip in and out or read the book cover to cover.

Little Kids First Big Book of Birds by Catherine D. Hughes  

The Discovery Channel’s Sharkopedia

Active Nonfiction
These offshoots of browse-able books are highly interactive and/or teach skills readers can use to engage in an activity. This category includes how-to guides, cookbooks, field guides, craft books, toy-book combinations that involve building a model, etc.

Minecraft: Construction Handbook by Matthew Needler  

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl

Narrative Nonfiction
This category typically dominates kidlit awards because the books feel familiar and comfortable to people who have a natural love of stories and storytelling (most editors, book reviewers, librarians, literacy educators, etc.). Narrative nonfiction tells a true story or conveys an experience. It includes real characters and settings; narrative scenes; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the events and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while speeding through parts of the true story that don’t require close inspection.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu

The Hidden Life of a Toad by Doug Wechsler

How the Cookie Crumbled: The True (and Not So True) Stories of the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie by Gilbert Ford

The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter

Expository Literature
These high-quality books explain, describe, or inform in ways that appeal to many young readers. In fact, a recent study shows that more than 75 percent of students like expository books as much as or more than narrative titles, and 42 percent have a moderate or strong preference for expository nonfiction (Repanskey, Schumm, & Johnson, 2017).

These books feature captivating art, dynamic design, rich engaging language, and some of all of the following text characteristics: strong voice, innovative point of view, carefully-chosen text structure, and purposeful text format. You can find a lengthy list of expository literature in this Nerdy Book Club post, but here are some of my recent favorites:

Anything by Steve Jenkins (I might just be his biggest fan.)

A Beetle is Shy by Dianna Hutts Aston

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg 

Lesser Spotted Animals by Martin Brown

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer


  1. Your examples are so helpful! I've been reading as many as I can. Thank you!

  2. Love this post and the examples for each category. Thank you so much.

  3. This is wonderful!! Thank you for sharing, Melissa!!

  4. Thanks for your insight and all the great titles!

    1. Lots of folks asked for sample titles. I'm glad they're helping.

  5. You might consider non-fiction poetry as a category. Check out work by Leslie Bulion.

    1. I love, love, love Leslie's books and am looking forward to her upcoming Leaf Litter Critters.

      There seem to be two schools of thought regarding poetry.
      1. It's neither fiction nor nonfiction and would have it's own family tree.
      2. It could be classified as either narrative (if it tells a story or conveys an experience) or expository literature if it explains, describes, and informs.

      A book like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome would be narrative, and books by Leslie Bulion or Joyce Sidman would be expository literature.

  6. Thank you as always Melissa! My teachers love learning from you!

    1. Thanks for spreading the word, Jenny. Happy New Year!

  7. Thanks, Melissa Off to the library !

  8. This is such a helpful post! Thanks, Melissa!

  9. Thank you Mellissa - I've ordered each of the Expository Literature ones from the library and these different definitions REALLY help.

  10. This is great! As a librarian and aspiring kid's writer, so helpful.

  11. Thank you Thank you! Being one of those story loving librarians, I've not thought (or read very much) non-fiction. I do purchase high interest and award winning titles but now I have some categories to guide my purchasing and a great new lesson to share with my students to promote reading some great titles.