Nonfiction vs Informational Fiction vs Narrative Nonfiction: What’s the Diff? By Wendy Hinote Lanier
Nonfiction for children is getting a LOT more attention these days. And that’s a good thing. Because even when publishers and parents didn’t realize it, nonfiction was always WAY more popular with kids—especially struggling readers. Concrete concepts are much easier for a struggling reader to grasp than the more abstract concepts often found in fiction. Now that publishers (and writers) are more aware of this, nonfiction has become a topic of interest and much discussion.
In the past nonfiction books were generally just an overview of a topic told in a straightforward style. Today, this type of nonfiction is called traditional nonfiction. Although the internet has become the go-to source for traditional nonfiction, there is still a place for it in the book market. Most books for the library market are traditional nonfiction. They are often done in a series. The series covers multiple aspects of a given topic such as dance, cars, airplanes, pets, etc.
In addition to traditional nonfiction, all the extra attention has given rise to several new categories. Among them are terms like narrative nonfiction and informational fiction. The problem is, not everyone agrees on what they are.
The nonfiction discussion is frequently led by Melissa Stewart, and rightly so, since she is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children. In a 2018 article on her website (see melissa-stewart.com: Five Kinds of Nonfiction) Melissa names five types of nonfiction: traditional, browsable (think DK Eyewitness), active (how-to), expository literature (STEM concept using rich language), and narrative.
But what about books with angry clouds or talking animals? These books fall into a category called informational fiction—a term we’re hearing more and more. (Melissa, herself, talks about it in a 2016 blog post.) In this case a large part of the information in the book is true, but it is usually presented by fictional characters or in a made-up story line. Historical fiction is one type of informational fiction since it tells a story within the context of real historical events. The Magic School Bus books are also an example of informational fiction since the characters and story line are fiction, but the science facts in the text are true.
As a former elementary teacher often tasked with explaining the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I know the importance of being able to say, “This is nonfiction because every part of it is true.” The minute animals start thinking out loud or a magic school bus arrives on the scene, we are no long in true nonfiction waters. That said, informational fiction can be a great way to explain nonfiction concepts effectively and have fun doing it.
And then there’s narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction tells a true story. No part of it is made up—even though the work may include conversation and detailed descriptions of certain events. All of the facts and quotes in a narrative nonfiction are based on careful research and can be verified through various sources. Sometime called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction uses the literary styles of fiction. Good narrative nonfiction reads like good fiction. Many of Candace Fleming’s books are great examples since they are the result of extensive research and really great writing.
And just in case you stopped short at the term expository literature mentioned earlier: this is a type of nonfiction in which a narrowly focused or STEM topic is handled in a very literary way. All of the facts are completely true, but the presentation of them may be poetic, humorous, or very lyrical in nature. Many of Melissa Stewart’s books fall into this category.
So, in a nutshell:
Traditional nonfiction is a straight forward survey of a given topic. They are written in clear, concise language in an expository style.
Informational fiction presents facts and information within a fictional story.
Narrative nonfiction tells a true story with no made up parts in the form of a narrative.
Bonus: Expository literature presents information about a given topic in a literary way, but nothing is made up. Expository literature can be humorous or lyrical, but it never strays from facts.
No, it’s not the Oscars, or the Emmys, but it IS award season for the most outstanding children’s books published in the previous year!
The Caldecott (for picture book illustration) and Newbery Award (fiction) get most of the attention and hoopla, but there are several awards devoted to outstanding nonfiction and informational books for children.
Looking for an awesome mentor text? Want to read the best of the best? Award lists are a great place to start! Current and past winners are archived on each award’s website so it’s easy to create a Must Read list of titles.
Here are some of the awards given to stellar nonfiction books for children:
ORBIS PICTUS AWARD
Established in 1989 to promote and recognize excellence nonfiction writing for children. The award commemorates Johannes Amos Cormenius and his work Orbis Pictus – the World in Pictures (1658) considered to be the first book written specifically for children.
2020 winner: A PLACE TO LAND: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation – Barry Wittensen, author
Jerry Pinkney, illustrator
ROBERT F. SIEBERT INFORMATIONAL BOOK MEDAL
Awarded annually to the author and illustrator for the most distinguished information book published in the United States in English during the preceding year. The award honors Robert F. Siebert, the long-time President of Bound to Stay Bound Books.
2019 winner: THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – written and illustrated by Joyce Sidman.
AAAS/SUBARA SB&F PRIZE
Celebrates excellence in science writing for children and young adults.
2019 category winners:
Children’s Science Picture Book – IQBAL AND HIS INGENIOUS IDEA: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet – written by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Rebecca Green.
Middle Grade Science Book – IMPACT! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World by Elizabeth Rusch
Young Adult Science Book – BUILT: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal
Hands-On Science Book – ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL FOR KIDS: His Life & Inventions with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson.
THE BOSTON GLOBE—HORN BOOK AWARDS
2019 winner: THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality – written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy.
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) NONFICTION AWARD
2020 Finalists: FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle
THE GREAT NIJINSKY: God of Dance by Lynn Curlee
A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin.
A THOUSAND SISTERS: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II by Elizabeth Wein.
TORPEDOED: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship by Deborah Helligman.
GIVERNY BOOK AWARD
Annual award given to an outstanding science book for children.
2019 winner: COUNTING ON KATHERINE: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk.
More 2020 award winners will be announced in January! Read the winners and the honor books and throughout the year, take note of your favorite nonfiction books and hold your own “Award ceremony” with your writing buddies. Formal dress not required!
Outlines are often used for planning how to structure a piece before writing. However, I find outlining helpful not just for prewriting, but also for post-writing, analyzing, and revising. What do I mean?
Constructing an outline after writing a draft is helpful in the revising process. A post-draft outline enables me to see what I actually wrote on the page, not what I planned to write or think I wrote. I number the paragraphs in chronological order, then write brief descriptions of each paragraph’s main idea. The headings are the book chapters or article sections; the subheadings are the paragraph descriptions.
What gets revealed is the flow of ideas. I can see where I carried on for too many paragraphs about X, but glossed over Y with one skimpy paragraph. I see holes where I made unexplained leaps in logic from A to D—holes that will confuse readers. Hmm, there’s a tangent that belongs nowhere, an example that doesn’t explain. Ah, here I need to expand, provide a transition, increase the tension, spread out the clues, tighten the focus, or move pieces around.
Now I have a guide for revising!
Outlining helps me in preparing critiques of others’ writing. I may have vague feelings that certain spots of a manuscript aren’t working, but outlining gives me information about where and why it’s not working, and also what questions and suggestions I might offer.
Outlining mentor texts helps me figure out how they are structured, providing insights I can use to help in my own writing. For example, I wanted to write an article on honoring my ancestors at their graves in China, hoping it would lead to finally breaking into Highlights magazine. I looked through back issues and discovered an article one author wrote about her family’s Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. I outlined it paragraph by paragraph, picking up tips about structure and information that would capture the interest and understanding of young readers. “Remembering Our Ancestors” became my first publication in Highlights!
Sometimes rewriting involves radical restructuring. One editor suggested combining my drafts of two similar chapters. I tried several different ways without success until I outlined one chapter on the left side of a piece of paper, and outlined the other chapter on the right side. With their structures laid bare in parallel, finally I saw how and where the two chapters could be interwoven.
Outlining can be a simple but powerful tool for multiple stages of writing: pre-, post-, and mid-writing. Are there ways outlining has worked for you?
One of the questions I get asked most often at author presentations is how long does it take to write a picture book biography.
The simple answer is that it takes as long as it takes.
That’s the complicated answer, too.
There’s a hope and expectation that the longer we work at this craft of writing children’s books, the easier and faster it gets. Well, that’s true in some ways, but not in others. My first book, The William Hoy Story, took 13 years from the promise I made my friend, Steve Sandy, a friend of the Hoy family, that I would write this book, to the year it got published. You can chalk a lot of those years up to not knowing what I didn’t know about writing children’s books. When I finally got it through my head that I had to learn a new art form and started taking classes, doing challenges, getting critique partners and joining supportive writing groups, things accelerated.
Aha! I thought, holding my beautiful first-born book in my hands. I figured it all out! But while my second book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, was comparatively quick, at several months, it wasn’t a straight shot from my head to the page. And my upcoming book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, which is part of the NF Fest giveaway, took four years from first manuscript to publication in 2020. So what happened?
Every opportunity to learn, including from the upcoming NF Fest challenge in February from the Nonfiction Chicks, will bring light to your journey. But while light may save you some stumbles, no one can make the journey but you, step by step, into an unknown place, crafting a story that has yet to be written. No one but you can be the hero or heroine of your writing quest, charging into empty space to build a place for a story to live where there was once only an unfathomable void.
Sometimes it will be obvious where to lay the bricks and wood and glass, to see how the pieces fit together. Other times you may get stuck, fumbling with words. You’ll marvel when they spark fire – what a feeling! And you’ll sigh and try to persevere as they crash and topple in your brain while you’re working with all your might to craft the details that will give your story room to breathe.
In other words, it takes as long as it takes.
Keep going and you’ll get there. Remember: to the stubborn, belong the spoils.
We are ten authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The 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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