Nonfiction on Display: Melissa Stewart Dishes on the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction
One cannot help but wonder how the fervor surrounding contemporary nonfiction children’s literature compares to that of even a decade ago. For example, since an SLJ webinar she did last fall with more than 1000 attendees, people have been waiting for her next book. Those kinds of numbers don’t grow out of nothing. What is it about Melissa, author of more than 180 science books for children, and her work that taps so directly into where we are in 2021 and the current state of informational books for kids? Well, this new book of hers seems to offer some answers.
Or you could save time and just ask her some questions directly as I have done today!
But before we get to that, it’s BOOK GIVEAWAY TIME! people who live in the continental United States, if retweet this post or leave a comment, you will be automatically entered to win a copy of Melissa’s book. Heck, if you do both, you’ll be entered twice! After one week I’ll randomly choose a winner and email you for your mailing address.
And now, a question or two:
Betsy Bird: So right off the bat, I had your book 5 KINDS OF NONFICTION sitting out and my daughter happened to glance at the title. “There are only two kinds of nonfiction,” she said to me matter-of-factly. “Narrative and expository” (I’ve trained her up over the years). And indeed that’s what I always sort of thought myself. Now I see that you’ve also listed active, browseable, and traditional. I’m no expert in this field, so I assume the idea of five kinds of nonfiction has been around for a while. Could you give us an outline of where these different categories have originated and what they are?
Melissa Stewart: Your daughter is right. There are two nonfiction writing styles—expository and narrative. As this Venn diagram shows, expository nonfiction describes, explains, or informs in a clear, straightforward way, while narrative nonfiction tells a story or conveys an experience. What do both have in common? All the information is true and verifiable.
In the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system, four of the five categories have an expository writing style—active, browseable, traditional, and expository literature. So while narrative nonfiction gets most of the starred reviews and wins most of the awards, expository nonfiction has a lot to offer curious young minds—everything from cookbooks and field guides to Eyewitness Books and Guinness Book of World Records. There arealso straightforward all-about books by authors like Seymour Simon and more creative, narrowly-focused books by authors like Steve Jenkins and Robin Page.
The following visuals show the basic characteristics of each category, along with some sample books.
This is a system that I developed, building on ideas from a lot of people who have been thinking deeply about nonfiction for a long time. In fact, you could say it was crowd sourced.
Back in 2012, I was having trouble selling manuscripts to publishers. I thought that if I could get a stronger sense of the breadth of the nonfiction market, I might have better luck crafting the kind of writing publishers were looking for. So I wrote a post on my blog asking for help. I presented some initial ideas, and a variety of people—writers, teachers, librarians—offered suggestions. From that point on, I kept thinking about classifying nonfiction in the back of my mind, and I started collecting category names.
“Traditional nonfiction” describes the kind of straightforward all-about books that we all remember from childhood. And “narrative nonfiction” developed in the adult publishing world in the late 1960s, starting with novels like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It started to make it’s way into children’s books in the mid-1990s.
The term “browseable” came from Jennifer Emmett, Senior Vice President at National Geographic for Kids. “Active” originated in the bookstore world. I first heard Kristen McLean, Director of New Business at Nielsen Book/Nielsen Entertainment, use it in a presentation at the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Children’s Institute.
And Betsy, did you know that you played a role in the development of the term “expository literature?” In 2015, I wrote an article for this blog—A Fuse #8 Production—highlighting nonfiction books that focus on concepts and feature an innovative text structure and format, a strong voice, and rich engaging language. After reading the piece, Terrell Young, a professor of children’s literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, suggested the label “expository literature” for these books.
So as you can see, a lot of people contributed in different ways.
BB: You see, you shouldn’t tell me I have any kind of a hand in the development of such things. We all know what a swelled head I have to begin with! But back to this particular new creation. What is it that this particular book would like to do? And why this book now?
MS: When I wrote a piece describing these five categories on my blog in December 2017, the response was tremendous. It really resonated with people. In fact, to date, that blog post has received more than 500,000 hits.
I think Traci Kirkland, a school librarian in Prosper, Texas, sums it up best:
In February 2018, Colby Sharp, a fifth-grade teacher and co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and nErDcamp, invited me to make a short video describing the system. He asked me to share how the system can help teachers and students.
That was something I had to really think about because, remember, I created the system for myself—so I could hopefully sell more manuscripts. But then I realized that each category was best suited for different purposes in the classroom. Those uses are summarized in this table on p. 49 of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books:
So that’s one of the book’s main messages. When students are familiar with the characteristics of the five categories, they can predict the kind of information they’re likely to find in a book and how that information will be presented. And that understanding can help them identify the best books for a particular purpose as well as the kind(s) of nonfiction they enjoy reading most.
Once again, an educator summed it up perfectly. Thank you, Ruth!
BB: Let’s back up a little now and talk about you and Dr. Correia. Could you give us a sense of your interest and background in this field as well as hers?
MS: I began my career in children’s publishing as the science editor for two nonfiction imprints that were owned by Hachette and eventually sold to Scholastic. In 2000, I left my job to become a fulltime writer, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. During that time, children’s nonfiction has undergone tremendous evolution and innovation.
It’s been exciting to watch, but also frustrating at times, because children’s nonfiction doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. For example, right before Christmas last year, The Washington Post ran an article titled “Will My Grandkids Still Love Me If I Buy Them Nonfiction?” Cynthia Levinson, Jennifer Swanson, and I were grateful that Publishers Weekly allowed us to write a rebuttal, “Hey Grownups! Kids Really Do Like Nonfiction.” The good news is The Washington Post reprinted it. The bad news is that in August, they published an article about summer reading and didn’t mention nonfiction books at all. Hello? Anyone home?
This is one more reason 5 Kinds of Nonfiction is so important. Marlene Correia and I highlight more than 150 great nonfiction books for kids. Flipping through the pages and seeing all those beautiful book covers makes my heart sing!
Speaking of Marlene, she’s an assistant professor of literacy education at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and a true nonfiction advocate. She and I met at a Massachusetts Reading Association conference, and I contributed a chapter to Informational Texts in Pre-Kindergarten through Grade-Three Classrooms, which Marlene co-authored with Dr. Elaine M. Bukowiecki.
When Stenhouse editor Terry Thompson invited me to write 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, I knew I’d need a co-author who had a strong background in K-8 education and plenty of experience in the classroom. Marlene was the perfect choice. She spent many years as an elementary teacher and district instructional specialist.
BB: Many parents today may have some difficulty warming up to children’s nonfiction since they remember the downright dull or wholly fictionalized informational texts of their own youth. The shift in what’s being produced for kids these days is amazing. How do you account for this change in even the last few decades?
MS: There are a number of factors. Browseable nonfiction became possible when desktop publishing software was invented in the late 1980s. Dorling Kindersley immediately saw the possibilities and developed the ground-breaking Eyewitness Books series, which became available in the U.S. in 1991. The success of that series revolutionized children’s nonfiction.
Here’s what one student has to say about these books:
Don’t you just love that quote?
Expository literature developed in reaction to politics, economics, and technological advances. When the U.S. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school funding priorities suddenly shifted. School library budgets were slashed, and many school libraries lost their jobs. Around the same time, a national economic recession threatened public library budgets too.
By the end of the 2000s, the proliferation of websites made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, which meant traditional all-about books were no longer mandatory purchases for libraries. As nonfiction sales to schools and libraries slumped, authors, illustrators, and publishers began searching for new ways to add value to their books. The result was a new breed of creative, finely-crafted, narrowly-focused expository literature that delights as well as informs.
Why do kids love these books? Let’s let two speak for themselves:
Active nonfiction isn’t a new category. It’s existed alongside traditional nonfiction since at least the 1980s. But it’s now more popular and more robust and diverse than ever before, thanks in large part to the maker movement. Walk into any bookstore, and you’ll see a large section of these active titles.
Here’s what two students think about these books:
We all know kids like Jack, don’t we? I’m so glad there are info-licious books available for them.
BB: To what extent has the Core Curriculum influenced your work? And how much of what we talk about when we talk about nonfiction comes from the CCSS?
MS: I know the Common Core was entrenched in controversy, but from my perspective, it was the best thing since sliced bread. And even though it’s gone the way of the dinosaurs, I’m grateful that current state ELA standards are largely based on CCSS ideology.
You see, the tools and terminology for teaching fiction are tried-and-true. They’re widely accepted because they’ve existed for many, many, many years. But nonfiction craft is developing right now, within our lifetimes, and Common Core was part of that. It gave us standard terms for discussing and evaluating and thinking about the elements of nonfiction craft. That’s powerful, because once you have a framework, once understand the rules, you can play around. You can experiment with bending them, breaking them to see what happens. That’s how innovation happens, and that’s where we are right now.
Every year we see authors and illustrators and designers trying new and exciting things. We keep hearing that this is the “golden age of nonfiction,” and there’s no denying that we’re standing on the shoulders of Common Core—financially and creatively. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
BB: Could you talk a little bit about the terms “nonfiction” vs. “informational text”? I know that this can be a hot topic amongst a number of people. What, to your mind, is the ideal phrase to use when talking about books that aren’t not “fiction”?
MS: Oh boy, I could write a whole book about that. There’s so much to say. But in a nutshell, the definition of “informational text” is a moving target. There are four very different ways the term is used, and that can lead to a lot of confusion.
To sidestep all the debate, most writers seem to prefer using “nonfiction” to describe books that are meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts. If you ask a hundred people on the street what “nonfiction” means, that’s what most of them will say.
I know what you’re thinking, Betsy. There’s a big giant BUT looming in your mind. That’s because you’re a librarian, and you know that, in addition to factual books based on documented research, the nonfiction section of every library includes folk tales, drama, and poetry. And so the term “nonfiction” is problematic too.
What we really need is a single, universally accepted term for “factual books based on documented research.” If we had that, everything else could fall into place along a continuum. There would probably still be some debate about particular books, but it would be immensely helpful (and comforting) to have an absolute at the “completely true” end of the spectrum to serve as a guidepost, a lodestar.
Every once in a while, someone proposes a term, but, unfortunately, none of them seems to stick. Still, I keep hoping.
BB: I wonder if there is a word in another language for a new term that doesn’t stick. Hm. But I digress. Finally, how do you envision 5 KINDS OF NONFICTION being used best? Is it just for teachers and educators or would parents as well benefit from what it has to say?
MS: I think the book has value for anyone who’s interested in helping kids become better readers and writers—so that’s just about everybody.
When people learn to classify books according to this system, they’re better equipped to understand themselves and the children in their lives as readers and as thinkers. Using that knowledge and the Book Match Survey Marlene developed, adults can help children find just the right book at just the right moment. And that’s powerful. It’s how we transform kids who have never finished a book into confident, passionate lifelong readers of both fiction and nonfiction.
I’d like to thank Melissa Stewart not only for answering all my questions in such depth but for providing these images that went along with our talk! 5 Kinds of Nonfiction is out now, available wherever find books are sold.
Filed under: Interviews
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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