The Nonfiction Family Tree

A few weeks ago, I attended the New England SCBWI conference in beautiful Springfield, MA. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop given by  Melissa Stewart and Sarah Albee on Nonfiction. It was fascinating!  There was so much GREAT information that I felt it would be good for others to learn about it. I contacted Melissa and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.   For those of you that haven’t heard of  or been lucky enough to meet Melissa, here’s a little about her:

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Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 science books for children. She has always been fascinated by the natural world and is passionate about sharing its beauty and wonder with readers of all ages.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.

Melissa believes that nothing brings nonfiction writing to life like firsthand research. While gathering information for her books, she has explored tropical rain forests in Costa Rica, gone on safari in East Africa, and swum with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands.

When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

With the advent of Common Core, nonfiction seems to be taking off. Can you give us a little background of how nonfiction has changed over the years? Wow, it’s changed A LOT. Fifteen years ago, most nonfiction text was rather dry. If an author wrote a manuscript with a strong voice, it was edited out. Today editors want, no demand, a strong voice. In the past, authors were supposed to be unbiased, but today it’s perfectly okay for writers to express a point of view.  Art and design has also changed. Ever since desktop publishing software was invented, illustrators and designers have been experimenting. The result is dynamic designs that kids can’t resist. The upshot is that today’s nonfiction has a dual purpose. It delights as well as informs.  

 

In your talk, you broke nonfiction up into seven categories. Can you explain these categories? Sure. In my talk with uber-talented author Sarah Albee [link: http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/], we drew upon the work of a group of highly-respected academics who call themselves the Uncommon Corp [link: http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com/]. They classify nonfiction books into seven broad categories. Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.   As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author’s approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn’t. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.

Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb. I’m not sure this system is the be all and end all, but it’s a very interesting way for writers, teachers, librarians, and other book lovers to think about nonfiction. It stretches the way we think about current books and future possibilities, and I think that’s extremely valuable.

 

Do you think certain topics lend themselves to certain categories? Yes. I think narrative nonfiction works very well for biographies and books about historical events. These topics naturally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With enough research, an author can craft the alternating scenes and summary architecture that characterizes narrative nonfiction. When writing about science, math, or the Arts, narrative nonfiction may not be an option. Even if it is, it may not be the best choice. For a broad overview of any topic, expository usually works best.   Two great examples are Bugged: How Insects Changes History by Sarah Albee and 9780802734228_p0_v4_s260x420 A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano.     If writers think about these categories at the beginning of a project, I think they may have an easier time coming up with a great way to approach a topic and a solid structure for their book. It provides some options, so we aren’t just shooting in the dark.  

 

Which one do you think is most popular with kids? Why? Data books are clearly the most popular with kids. Most school librarians will tell you that titles like The Guinness Book of World Records is almost constantly checked out. Elementary-aged readers love fascinating facts, so Data books can be good for hooking beginning readers. But many educators worry that these books don’t do much to help kids build their reading skills. Right now, thought leaders like Jonathan Hunt and Marc Aronson feel that we need a new breed of book that forms a bridge between Data books and long-form nonfiction that students are expected to read in middle school and high school.

 

Which categories do teachers tend use in their classrooms? In recent years, teachers didn’t use much high-quality trade nonfiction in the classroom at all. But the hope is that Common Core is changing that. Right now, teachers are struggling to learn about nonfiction, and they are building their classroom libraries. Luckily, most school librarians have been singing the praises of the new nonfiction for several years now, so they are becoming trusted advisors in schools where they exist. We need more school librarians!

 

Any tips for readers about how to find fun, engaging nonfiction books? Here are some lists to keep an eye on. They include great nonfiction titles from all seven categories:

  • AAAS/Subaru Prizes for Excellence in Science Books
  • ALA Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
  • CRA Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award
  • Cook Prize for STEM Picture Book
  • Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List
  • Cybils Nonfiction for Middle Grade & Young Adult
  • Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books
  • NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
  • NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

 

How do you see the world of nonfiction changing for the future? That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I really know the answer. My hope is that we’ll see more nonfiction being published for children. Although I think many editors are now more open to reviewing nonfiction submission than they were in the past, what I hear is that they aren’t yet acquiring significantly more nonfiction manuscripts. This may be because many editors are still trying to get up to speed on the market. They need to familiarize themselves with what’s out there and gain an understanding of the characteristics of best-selling and award-winning nonfiction. Some editors may also be in a wait-and-see mode, wondering how long Common Core will stick around. There is a lot of controversy regarding the testing associated with CCSS, but the standards themselves are sound. Still, educators are famous for a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality. They tend to move in completely new directions every decade or so, abandoning previous ideas rather than revising them.

 

Of all the books you have written, do any stand out as having been really fun to write? Perhaps they were about a topic that you loved or in a format that you enjoyed.  I guess I’m still an elementary-aged fact-lover at heart. One of my favorite books to research and write was Animal Grossapedia because it’s so chock full of amazing examples of how animals use pee, poop, vomit, slime (mucus), and spit to catch food and stay safe. But what I also really like about this book is that as kids read example after example, they gradually come to the book’s central idea—that animals have an amazing array of adaptations and behaviors that make it possible for them to survive in the world. So I’m sharing an idea that’s a central tenet of biology, but in a package that they find irresistible. To me, that’s a successful book.

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Thanks so much for helping us to understand the wild and wonderful world of nonfiction, Melissa!!

To learn more about Melissa see her website at www.melissa-stewart.com.  Melissa also has a great blog called “Celebrate Science” where she focuses on cool nonfiction books, how she writes them, and talks more about the classification and structure of nonfiction books. Check it out here:  www.celebratescience.blogspot.com

 

**** Jennifer Swanson is the author over 20 fiction and nonfiction books. She is a science nerd at heart and loves to learn new and fun science facts which is why her shelves are filled with books!!

2 Responses to The Nonfiction Family Tree

  1. Really great interview. Wow, Melissa is amazing and SO full of wonderful information. I already bookmarked this and hope to follow her more often. Thanks again, Jen.

  2. Great interview. I like how you categorized nf stories and the wonderful list of nf awards. I’m bookmarking this for future reference.