Guest Post – Melissa Stewart: A Look at Expository Literature
Those of you that were fans of Melissa’s previous posting on this blog Diversity in Thinking will be pleased to mark her return. Melissa’s been running a series on her blog about expository literature, including guest posts from experts in the field recommending recent examples you should know about. What exactly is expository literature? I’ll let her explain far better than I.
If you’re reading this blog post, you’re undoubtedly a lover of reading and books. In all likelihood, you’re naturally drawn to stories and storytelling and enjoy reading a wide variety of fiction. You probably also enjoy reading narrative nonfiction, including the many excellent picture book biographies being published today.
Like fiction, narrative nonfiction puts story first. It includes real characters and settings; narrative scenes; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the events and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while skipping over or condensing less critical parts of the true story. To craft engaging narrative nonfiction, authors carefully select the best possible scenes to flesh out.
In recent years, many people in the children’s literature community have fallen into the habit of calling any nonfiction book with rich, engaging prose “narrative nonfiction,” even when it doesn’t tell a story or convey an experience. This is a mistake we must work hard to correct, so we can better serve all students.
Not all children are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling. According to the newly-published study, “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text” by Lisa L. Repaskey et. al., which appeared in Reading Psychology, more than 75 percent of the students enjoyed reading expository nonfiction—books that describe, explain, or inform in a clear, accessible fashion—as much as or more than narrative titles, and 42 percent showed a moderate or strong preference for expository nonfiction.
This study joins a growing body of research with clear evidence that some children are more interested in data, facts, ideas, and patterns than in making an emotional connection with the central figure in a book. As these students read, their goal is to gather information so that they can learn about the world and how it works.
While satisfying the reading preferences of ALL students should be reason enough to add a diverse array of expository nonfiction to classroom and library collections, there’s an additional advantage. Since expository text is the style of nonfiction writing students will be required to produce most frequently in college and their future careers, one of the best ways to prepare twenty-first century learners for success is by giving them access to a broad range of high-quality expository children’s books.
Increasingly, literacy educators are using the term “expository literature” to differentiate finely-crafted expository writing from the traditional expository writing often found in series books. Besides being meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts, expository literature features captivating art, dynamic design, and rich, engaging text. It also includes some or all of the following text characteristics: strong voice, carefully-chosen point of view, innovative text structure, and purposeful text format. Let’s take a closer look at these four text traits.
At one time, children’s book editors routinely rejected nonfiction manuscripts with a strong voice. They believed that the information conveyed, not the author’s personality or perspective, should take center stage. But today, voice is recognized as an important feature of engaging nonfiction writing.
Nonfiction voice options span a continuum, from lively to lyrical, with authors selecting a voice based on their topic and purpose for writing. For example, in Bugged: How Insects Changed History, clever headings like “Crawler ID,” “The Reign of Spain Is Plainly on the Wane,” and “Larval Marvels,” epitomize how author Sarah Albee deftly employs rhyme, surprising phrasing, and puns to craft a humorous, conversational voice that matches her book’s fun, offbeat topic.
In Weeds Find a Way, Cindy Jenson-Elliott utilizes verbs, similes, and alliteration to construct seven gorgeous sentences that describe the fascinating characteristics and behaviors that help weeds survive in even the harshest habitats. The resulting wondrous, lyrical voice captivates readers and inspires them to think about weeds in a whole new way.
Point of View
In the past, nearly all expository nonfiction books for children featured a third-person point of view, and many still do. But more and more, authors are experimenting with other kinds of narration.
When you think of nonfiction with a first-person point of view, narrative memoirs like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackie Woodson and El Deafo by Cece Bell probably come to mind. But in recent years, expository books like I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson have included animal narrators that talk about themselves, sharing facts and ideas in a way that delights as well as informs.
Second-person point of view is now even more popular in expository books because it’s a powerful way to connect with children. As you read the following excerpt from Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, notice how addressing readers with “you” makes the information relevant to their lives and their world:
“Right now there are more microbes living on your skin
than there are people on Earth, and there are ten or even
a hundred times as many as that in your stomach.”
Second-person narration can be particularly effective when it’s paired with a lively voice. Here’s an example from A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano:
“A black hole is NOT a hole—
at least not the kind you can
dig in the ground
or poke your finger through.
You can’t just walk along
and fall into one.
A black hole isn’t a hole
Titles like Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating and Tooth by Tooth by Sara Levine also do an excellent job of combining second-person narration with a lively voice.
Most traditional expository nonfiction books have a description text structure, and nearly all narrative nonfiction has a chronological sequence structure, but expository literature can have a wide variety of text structures, ranging from the five standard structures espoused by the Common Core State Standards (description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution) to the clever, one-of-a-kind spiraling structure of Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman. In this book, the author begins with examples that are small and snug. As the text progresses, the examples slowly grow and stretch and unfurl. Then, as the end of the book approaches, the examples gradually shrink in scale and curl up tight again.
Even when using standard text structures, nonfiction authors find an amazing variety of ways to share the ideas and information they’re passionate about with young readers. For example, even though Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare by Gene Barretta and Move! by Steve Jenkins both have compare and contrast text structures, the books are quite different.
In Barretta’s book, each left-hand page presents facts about Abraham Lincoln, while the facing right-hand page offers corresponding information about John F. Kennedy. As a result, readers notice fun patterns as well as startling similarities between the two men’s lives. The book’s ending forges a connection with readers by introducing the term “legacy” and asking children to think about how they plan to exist in the world.
In Move!, Jenkins states his main idea, “Animals move in different ways,” on the first page. Then, throughout the rest of the book, he offers supporting details in an ingenious way. He describes two forms of locomotion—swing, walk, dive, leap—for each featured animal and includes two animals for each type of movement. This tag-team approach propels readers from spread to spread, thereby reinforcing the book’s central idea.
Because expository literature is chock full of ideas and information, authors must think carefully about how the text will be formatted. In a growing number of books, especially science-themed picture books, the text is separated into distinct layers, with the font and type size providing visual clues that guide young readers in navigating the pages. Layered text allows children at a broad range of reading levels to access the information. It also helps students learn to differentiate main ideas and supporting details.
The primary text of An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston features provocative personification that startles readers and ignites their sense of wonder. Statements like, “An egg is clever.” and “An eggs is artistic.” challenge the way children (and adults) think about eggs. But as readers explore the secondary text, they discover why the surprising statements are justified.
The playful, interactive primary text of Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins features alliterative statements like, “Never pet a platypus.” “Never harass a hippopotamus.” and “Never swim with a squid.” that invite a single simple question: “Why not?” And the secondary text provides answers that are sure to satisfy curious kids.
In response to the recent popularity of graphic novels, nonfiction authors are now experimenting with graphic formats. Many of the resulting titles present information within the context of a storyline, but others are entirely expository. One outstanding example is Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks in which a singing, dancing skeleton explains the fascinating details of human anatomy. Thanks to this enticing format children will eagerly read the book cover-to-cover once and then flip through over and over, savoring every tantalizing tidbit.
As Annette LeBlanc Cate created Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, she utilized innovative graphic elements and text features to break up the main text, convey ideas visually, and add humor that appeals to even the most reluctant readers. As a result, she was able to pack an astonishing amount of information into a survey book that describes the many facets of birdwatching and encourages children to give it a try.
Serving All Students
In Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms: Best Practices to Help Children Read, Write, and Learn from Nonfiction, Mariam Jean Dreher and Sharon Benge Kletzein recommend that classroom and library book collections consist of a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction, with at least two-thirds of the nonfiction titles being expository nonfiction. In other words, at least 33 percent of the entire collection should be expository nonfiction. And yet studies evaluating U.S. classroom libraries have shown that only 17 to 22 percent of all titles are nonfiction, and that only 7 to 9 percent have an expository writing style.
While similar statistics aren’t available for school libraries, according to 2016 report from the National Education Association, only 61.9 percent of elementary schools have a full-time state-certified librarian/media specialist. As a result, it’s likely that many school libraries do not have a well-balanced, up-to-date collection.
Because we want all children to become enthusiastic readers and develop a love of language, it’s critically important to give students access to a diverse assortment of high-quality fiction, narrative nonfiction, and expository nonfiction titles. Keeping the text traits described here in mind can help you identify books that will captivate fact-loving kids while exposing them to the features of finely-crafted writing.
To entice young readers, display expository literature prominently in your library or classroom. Booktalk these titles and read them aloud on a regular basis. Encourage children to read these books closely and use them as mentor texts during writing workshop.
Most importantly, spread the word. Share your knowledge of expository literature with your colleagues, so they, too, can recognize the characteristics of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and understand the benefits of adding it to their classroom and library bookshelves.
Melissa Stewart is the author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of resources for teaching nonfiction reading and writing. www.melissa-stewart.com
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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