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.
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