Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Why I Advocate for Expository Nonfiction


There aren’t many children’s book authors who have written close to two-hundred nonfiction books and not a single fiction title, so it’s no surprise that one of the most common questions children ask me during school visits is if I’ll ever write fiction. For years, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”

I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. You see, in my professional life, I’m surrounded by people who prize stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.

I remember praising the format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend who is a celebrated children’s book author kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden. That comment, and others like it from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an oddball, like I was all alone in a world that valued narratives.

But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked THE question, I finally decided to be honest.

I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. A half dozen other students joined him.

“Me too,” they were saying. “We agree.”

I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.

I now know that those students are what Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari call “info kids.” While many educators think of nonfiction, especially expository nonfiction, as broccoli, info kids think differently. To them, expository text on topics that interest them is like chocolate cake. 

My hope is that my advocacy will help educators gain a deeper understanding of all that today’s nonfiction has to offer, so that they can stock their bookshelves and enhance their instruction with the kinds of books that all students find delicious.  

17 comments:

  1. I love this, Melissa. Absolutely love it. Thank you for showing kids (and adults) that it's okay to embrace what you love and not aim to write what everybody else assumes you should love or aspire to.

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  2. Great essay, Melissa! Thank you for validating the preferences of soooo many kids.

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  3. Here’s to broccoli... and cauliflower... and zucchini...! I am rocking my pinkie and thumb wildly as I read this, Melissa. And here’s to you for helping teachers add expository nonfiction to their classroom library menus.

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  4. Love this post -- there is such joy in writing nonfiction. As a little girl, I always made my way to the 900s section of the library to check out books on countries. And those are the books I love to write today. Knowing what your passion is -- and isn't -- is what makes your books special and beloved by those who read them.

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  5. I agree - nf is definitely chocolate cake!

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  6. Great! I have to agree. Many say life is more interesting than fiction! and so it is :>)

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  7. Thank you so much for this validation. I was a reporter for 30 years, a job I loved because the people I met were endlessly fascinating. What a great job! Ask people every day why their lives are important to them -- and get paid for it!!

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  8. Thank you, Melissa, for all you do to help educators and kids see nonfiction as brownies instead of broccoli. (Although I personally really like broccoli!!)

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  9. Thank you! This post resonates with me so much. Nonfiction is just as valuable as fiction, and just as difficult to create. Really appreciate your thoughts on this subject.

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  10. You are not alone in your preference for nonfiction. I'm so glad you found a way to say why and were validated.

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  11. I was talking with an 11th grader the other day when he told me he didn’t really like fiction. He said liked reading things like ACT prep books and books with random facts. He seemed to think he was an oddball because if it. I assured him that was actually a type of nonfiction that lots of people like. I so appreciate the information you have presented on nonfiction and its types!

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    1. Please share this essay with him, so he'll have tangible evidence that he isn't alone.

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  12. I can't agree more, Melissa! I always run across a confusing situation. If an editor asks the person who finds a picture of an edible chestnut flower, they invariably will choose the pretty showy one with lots of blooms, which is the flower of a HORSE CHESTNUT tree, whereas the small flower of the edible chestnut tree is no where as showy, but it gets into many an article, and that's just the start of the misinformation. I am working on a non-fiction book for kids in this area. Thank you for speaking your mind.

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  13. I’m a school librarian who reads aloud all day to grades k-6 6. The expository texts are always way more fascinating and enthusiastically received.

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  14. Lovely to hear this validation. I've written many dozens of nonfiction readers and trade books too and as much as I love fiction, what really makes my heart go pitter-pat when I want to write is nonfiction topics. I notice too that nowadays I mainly read memoir and nonfiction...just can't get enough of it, apparently!

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