Nonfiction writing is all about disseminating information. The WAY we do this can be difficult to decide. Topics are easy. Those are the ideas that intrigue us and send us gleefully tracking down all the information we can find on said topic. But how we choose to organize that information can sometimes bring the writing process to a screeching halt. One solution is to tackle the subject with a layered text.
Layered text allows nonfiction writers to present information in more than one way—within the same publication. Each layer adds to the overall concept. And like the bricks in a wall, each bit widens the scope of the topic and supports the main idea. The great thing about that is a nonfiction book with multiple text layers can reach a wider audience. And that can mean more sales and larger print runs.
Here are a few ways to add layers to your nonfiction projects:
Illustrations – In a way, a picture book is the simplest form of layered text. Whether the book is a “read-to-me” or a “read-alone” book, the illustrations add another layer of information for the reader. Sometimes the illustrations just enhance the written information. And sometimes they actually add information that is not in the text. But regardless of the grade level, pictures are a great way to add information to a nonfiction topic.
Font size and reading level – In some nonfiction books there are two reading levels. Short simple text is often in a larger font. More challenging text is a bit longer and usually in a smaller font. In a 2013 guest blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s webpage, Melissa Stewart points out that these kinds of books are wonderful for Reading Buddy programs. Teachers love them because younger students can read the simple text, and their older Reading Buddy can read the more complex text. In this way both students practice reading, and they both learn new information about a given topic.
Sometimes the change in font is just for effect. In a fiction example, Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, the second font has the appearance of penciled in “improvements” by a boy named Alex. The second layer of text completely changes the original plot of the story.
Photos – Some nonfiction books are illustrated with photos. Others have both illustrations and photos. The photos show details often not discussed in the text. When used in combination with illustrations, they add yet another layer of information to the text.
Captions – Photos in nonfiction texts often include captions that explain what the reader sees in the photo. The caption can be as simple as an identifying phrase or as complex as a short paragraph.
Speech bubbles – Occasionally the illustrations in a nonfiction book have characters that talk. Their comments are added as speech bubbles. Usually, at least in nonfiction, the characters are making an observation about the concept being discussed in the main text.
One series that uses just about every type of layering mentioned in this post, including speech bubbles, is the Magic School Bus books. Although they should probably be considered “informational fiction” since the characters and events of the books are fiction, the concept of each book is pure science. To get the information across the author (Joanna Cole) and illustrator (Bruce Degen) use every tool at their disposal. The Magic School Bus books are chock full of text, sidebars, diagrams, labels, and more. It’s possible to explore the pages of a Magic School Bus book for hours even though it is technically considered a picture book. It’s all about the layers of text. Although they’ve been around for a while now, they’re still some of my favorites.
Diagrams – A diagram is a great way to explain things to a visual learner. Sometimes it’s the best way to explain something that would otherwise take a whole page of text. These days they are most often referred to as infographics.
Labels – Diagrams are usually labeled. The labels are another layer of meaningful text. However, photos and illustrations can also be labeled.
Factoids - Whether you call them Fun Facts, Factoids, or “Insert Topic Here” Facts, those little tidbits of information are another layer. Factoids are usually related to the overall topic and add something noteworthy not mentioned in the main text.
Sidebars – Sidebars are common in magazine articles and educational publications. They add additional information to something mentioned (without any elaboration) in the main text. Often sidebars offer an explanation of a concept with a bit more detail than just a definition.
Glossary – Sometimes all that is needed for some of the words in a text is a simple definition. A glossary is a mini-dictionary that defines words from the text that the author or publisher feels the reader may not know. In my experience, the definitions are generated by the author rather than copied from a dictionary.
Back matter – Most nonfiction writers enjoy the research process. They usually find way more information than they could ever hope to include in their main text. The back matter is a place to put the stuff that you find really interesting but just doesn’t go with the main text. The cool thing is, back matter can take many forms. (But maybe that’s another post.) Suffice it to say, the back matter can add another layer of information related to the topic of your book.
Author’s note - An author’s note usually offers some sort of explanation. It might be about what inspired the book, where the information for it was found, or a personal story of why that particular topic was of interest to the author. In any case, an author’s note can tie up loose ends and offer answers to those lingering questions the reader might have.
While the list above is fairly lengthy, it isn’t necessarily exhaustive. There may be others I’ve neglected to mention. As the author of over 40 nonfiction educational books for kids, I’ve used almost all of these. Often they’re all in the same book. And now my latest book has introduced me to a new one. I’m currently working on a project that will include several types of web content. There will be an online photo, an online video, and several online activities all associated with the book’s topic. And as other types of interactive texts are introduced, I suspect there will be additional ways to layer our nonfiction writing in the future.
For more examples of layered text nonfiction books see Melissa Stewart’s 2013 guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog here: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/2013/09/guest-post-melissa-stewart-on-layer/
You’ve gathered your information. Checked your facts. You’re ready to start writing but stop and wonder, WHO is telling this story? WHO is presenting the information? WHO is my narrator?
Maybe it’s not a WHO, but a WHAT.
An inanimate object. A thing.
Let me explain.
Many wonderful books have been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you introduce him to children in a fresh and unique way? That was the task Eve Bunting gave herself -- and she succeeded with THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN.
The focus is on the simple, worn down cart that carried his coffin. Bunting was able to show MLK Jr.’s character by comparing his work ethic and struggles with that of the hard-working cart. By stepping back and creating a bit of distance, the story is still emotional – but not sorrowful.
This was just an ordinary cart – that eventually found a home in the MLK Jr. National Historic Site. “This is the humble cart that, not so long ago, carried greatness.”
Sometimes the perfect object can speak volumes.
That’s exactly what happens in Janet Nolan’s THE FIREHOUSE LIGHT.
Nolan had stumbled upon a fascinating little tidbit – a light bulb in the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department has been burning for over 100 years!
And nobody knows how.
Great fact. But is that a STORY?
It became one when she took a giant step back, looked at the bigger picture and wondered about all the events the light bulb would have witnessed through the years.
And THAT became the story!
The book follows the evolution of firefighting from volunteer bucket brigades to sophisticated equipment and new and improved techniques – always being illuminated by that single, amazing light bulb.
How do you handle an intense historical event filled with violence, hatred and prejudice in a picture book?
When Rob Sanders first entertained the idea of writing about the Stonewall riots, he thought so too.
Until he stepped back and focused on the two buildings that joined together to become Bonnie’s Stone Wall restaurant – the centerpiece of the event.
You’ve all heard the saying, “If these walls could talk”? Sanders gave them a voice. And they had a lot to say in STONE WALL – A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution.
By allowing the building to describe the events as they unfolded, it gives the reader an extra bit of space – space to take it in, understand it, but not be completely overwhelmed by it. It’s a safe space to view something so intense and powerful.
Looking for a fresh angle on your subject? Don’t stare at it too closely or you could miss an important element. Step back and look again – what else do you see? Specific objects? A place? What’s lurking in the corners?
By exploring your subject AND everything surrounding it, you might discover a unique and unusual way into your story – one that makes it stand out AND pull readers in.
Writing great nonfiction requires hard work and persistence. It may seem that luminaries in the field find the process easy, but let's take a look at what some of them have said about creating their books:
Steve Sheinkin was tempted to give up when it took nearly ten years and hundreds of rejections to get his first trade book published. Since then, his books have won multiple top awards.
In the process of developing Dangerous Jane, Suzanne Slade first wrote 82 versions in prose, 18 versions with a different theme, and then 26 versions in free verse.
Candace Fleming's first version of The Family Romanov was deemed "boring" by her editor. She then searched for a truth beyond facts and dug deep into Russian history to develop her riveting final story.
Laurie Halse Anderson hated her first few drafts of Thank You, Sarah, a picture book biography. Luckily, she drew a doodle that led to the breakthrough she needed.
Pamela S. Turner's proposal for Samurai Rising didn't sell. But after she wrote the full manuscript, she sold it to an editor who had earlier rejected the proposal.
Deborah Heiligman suffered the pain of giving up on a project after two years of research and promising leads. Fortunately, her next project became Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.
April Pulley Sayre's picture book Stars Beneath Your Bed was rejected 52 times over eight years before it was published.
Jim Murphy submitted seven ideas to his editor that she rejected before he finally came up with The Great Fire. He sometimes spends a day writing a single sentence that he later deletes and might rewrite a manuscript as many as 50 times.
Before Phillip Hoose wrote Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, he waited nearly four years before Ms. Colvin agreed to talk with him.
Melissa Stewart struggled with the structure for No Monkeys, No Chocolate, a writing journey that took "10 years, 56 revisions, and 3 fresh starts." Take a look at her Revision Timeline for a chronicle of her process.
I hope these tales of perseverance encourage you in writing your nonfiction works!
We are ten authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.
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