Five Flavors of Nonfiction

Children’s book writers are discovering that there is a smorgasbord of nonfiction flavors to choose among. Recently this menu of options has been wonderfully taste-tested in a new book. Although aimed at teachers and librarians, this book also satisfies any writer’s appetite to know.

In 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, award-winning nonfiction author Melissa Stewart teams up with educator Marlene Correia to share a new way to categorize informational books for kids. Nonfiction books pique each child’s curiosity in different ways, and choosing which type of nonfiction works best for you as the author will enhance the flavor of your book.

If you are in doubt about the staying power of nonfiction, consider this. Bookriot says about A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, And Pretty Miss Polly by Isaiah Thomas, published in 1744, that “Most consider this to be the true first children’s book in print.” It is a book to teach the alphabet book using short poems and is considered to contain the first mention of the word “baseball” In English.
What of the staying power of contemporary nonfiction? The book that is number five on the February 12, 2023 issue of the New York Times Children’s Picture Book Best Sellers list is The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin, originally published in 2015. That picture book has been on the NYT list for 338 weeks, showing some real stamina.
According to Publishers Weekly, “Among children’s books generally, people are buying fiction titles about emotions and prejudice, and nonfiction in the categories of biography and diversity. In Connor’s data, the kids’ nonfiction category “diversity and multicultural” was up 993% from 2020 to 2021, and up 861% from 2021 to 2022.”
So, to continue the food analogy, children’s nonfiction is a satisfying meal with broad, long-lasting appeal. As with a typical menu, there are subcategories and descriptions of ingredients. These are thoroughly described in 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. The book formalizes categories that had been discussed and wrangled over for some time.
The appetizer the book offers is that there are two main nonfiction writing styles: Expository Nonfiction, which “explains, describes, or informs,” and Narrative Nonfiction, which “tells a story, [or] conveys an experience” relating to an informational concept.
Now for the five flavors aspect. These are the categories defined in 5 Types of Nonfiction.
Traditional Nonfiction. These are “all-about” books that are an overview of a topic. Often they are part of a series. I remember as a kid borrowing a book that was all about snakes, another that was all about birds (cedar waxwings were my favorite), and so on through a natural science series. These have expository and descriptive text.
Browseable Nonfiction. Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness series is one example. Browseable nonfiction books have eye-catching illustrations and short blocks of text that can be read sequentially or by skipping around. These are also expository and descriptive.
Narrative nonfiction. These books tell a story or convey an experience using real characters and the familiar aspects of a story: scenes, dialogue, and a story arc. They have a strong voice, and chronological structure and are about people, events, or processes.
Expository Literature. The emphasis is on creative presentation, strong voice, carefully chosen text structure, and expository writing style. These are often about specialized ideas, “such as STEM concepts.”
Active Nonfiction. A book of this type is “Highly interactive and /or teaches skill for engaging in an activity.” This includes how-to, field guides, cookbooks, and craft books written clearly and straightforwardly in an expository writing style.
Melissa Stewart’s and Marlene Correia’s book 5 Types of Nonfiction defines these categories fully and elaborates on how to apply these when choosing what is best for your nonfiction children’s book. With chapters on exploring text patterns and structure, voice, language, and point of view, this book is a practical guide to thinking about nonfiction writing in new ways.
Melissa recently had a sweet dessert served to her. Beginning around 1970, nonfictional books began to be referred to as informational books. Since then, the Robert E. Sibert Informational Book Medal has been given annually by the American Library Association. One of Melissa’s books, Summertime Sleepers, written by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Sarah Brannen, was chosen as a Sibert Medal honor book in 2022.

For a podcast about the book, click here.

I wrote this review based on a purchased copy of the book.


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