By Wendy Hinote Lanier
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/
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Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.