Can You Identify the Five Nonfiction Categories?

The Juvenile nonfiction designation has exploded, especially since the push for Common Core standards was supposed to increase factual reading.  Common Core seems to be quietly fading away, but nonfiction is still growing in every age category.  Expansion always leads to categories and sub-categories, as anyone can see who regularly reviews it.  A helpful article in School Library Journal defines five major categories, but these will undoubtedly sprout subsets and subgenres as the field expands.  The five are

  • Traditional Nonfiction. This is the kind we all grew up with and is still standard today.  The Landmark history series of the baby-boomer generation, the many National Geographic series of today, and countless stand-alone titles like Courage Has No Color, We’ve Got a Job, and D-Day: the Invasion of Normandy, 1944.  Traditional nonfiction often strives for drama, but the purpose is expository: getting across lots of factual information in an interesting way.  Illustrations are secondary.
  • Browseable Nonfiction.  DK (Darling Kindersley) created this category in the 1990s, beginning with their Eyewitness series books.  Many homeschooling parents rely on them to introduce a subject, to fill in knowledge gaps, or to create interest in a particular topic. The author is secondary; sometimes not even named.  Design is the distinguishing feature: lavish illustrations, some photographs, short blocks of text (including side bars), and nontraditional features like charts, graphs, and timelines.  They’re almost impossible to read straight through, but they’re perfect for picking up and putting down.  DK books set the basic pattern, but National Geographic Kids and National Geographic Awesome 8 follows the basic formula with their own design choices.
  • Narrative Nonfiction.  Biography is the classic form of this category.  I grew up devouring the “Childhood of Famous Americans” history series, which were written like novels, with scenes and dialogue spun from the barest facts.  But in the mid-1990s, more authors began using the elements of fiction to tell exciting stories about pivotal historical events or scientific discoveries.  Drama is the key here; with stories that follow something like a plot.  In the adult world, narrative nonfiction is such a popular genre; that “young reader” editions of stories like Hidden Figures and Unbroken have done well in juvenile sales.  Steve Sheinkin writes directly for young readers, with books like Bomb and Most Dangerous.
  • Expository Literature.  This one is a bit more difficult to distinguish, and there can be considerable overlap with the other nonfiction categories.  I would say that what distinguishes expository literature is the author: a writer first and foremost (as opposed to a scientist or historian who writes), with—and this is key—a passionate interest in the subject.  The author doesn’t entirely disappear.  Sometimes she’s directly involved, like Sy Montgomery in her “Scientists in the Field” series (see Amazon Adventure and The Hyena Scientist).  Sometimes the author’s personality shows through in her prose style, as in The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish by Cheryl Harness.  Jason Chinn combines his interests with outstanding artwork in Gravity and Grand Canyon.  The author may even use poetry to combine history and personal experience, as Nikki Grimes does in One Last Word.
  • Active Nonfiction.  Like the name implies, these are books to get the kids involved.  The category isn’t exactly new, but it’s expanding.  The “For Kids” books published by Chicago Review (like Michelangelo for Kids and The White House for Kids) combine history or biography with 21 activities (always 21) that correlate in some way with subject matter.  The Scholastic True or False series takes a subject and walks readers through it, challenging them to answer true/false questions along the way.  National Geographic Field Guides encourage kids to get out and discover for themselves.  Craft books (Sewing School), game books (Go Out and Play), cookbooks (The Unofficial Narnia Cookbook), and science-experiment books are increasingly popular.

That’s the list as given in the article by Melissa Stewart.  I would add one more, though:

  • Graphic Nonfiction.  This category goes as far back as educational comics handed out by GE or the US Treasury department.  (For example, here’s a cartoon version of the conservative classic The Road to Serfdom, originally published in the 1940s.)  The best graphic nonfiction combines artistry and design with sound information and often beautiful writing as well.  Nathan Hale’s Dangerous Tales are a good example (see Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood).  Nick Bertozzi (Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey), Don Brown (Drowned City), and Matt Phelan (Bluffton) are reliably excellent. Gene Yang’s Boxers and Saints is a fascinating look at the Boxer Rebellion from two different perspectives. History is a natural subject for graphic nonfiction, but Kingstone Comics’ The Book of God adds theology and Bible literacy.

Being aware of the categories of nonfiction will help you find the best examples.  But you should also be helping your kids find the best examples as well.  This can involve some inventive trips to the library.  Melissa Sweet recommends choosing a topic, finding the Dewey Decimal number, and scanning the library shelves for books on that subject.  Once you have a stack (best not to check them all out!) pile them up on a table and sort them out according to category: do any of these look browseable?  Any graphics?  Traditional? Try to spot narrative nonfiction by the use of dialogue (although these will be harder to find outside of  the history field).  Finally, allow each child to select one book to take home and read.  After reading, does the original category designation hold up?

Alternatively, you can choose a Dewey Decimal number range (rather than a pre-determined topic) and go exploring! Try the 3D Challenge this year. Is there one category of nonfiction that seems to work really well for a given Dewey Decimal range? Are there any distinctions you notice between the different general subjects? [Hint: some Dewey ranges are specifically focused on activities such as cooking or mechanics; you’re likely to find more activity-based books in those sections! Did you know there’s a Dewey number dedicated to graphic novels? See if your kids can find it.]

Fiction is indispensable for training the imaginative, compassionate mind, but quality nonfiction can serve in that capacity.  It’s certainly more than just conveying information.  Kids who say they don’t like it probably haven’t given it a fair chance.  Being aware of its possibilities is one way to introduce them to the vast and fascinating world of nonfiction.


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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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