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Reality à la Mode: Why Do We Never Discuss Nonfiction Writing Styles?

While at a conference at Princeton a week or two ago (and yes, as you suspect, I am going to attempt to work in the word “Princeton” into pretty much everything I write, think, or say for the next two years or so, so gird thy loins) I was in conversation with author Marc Aronson when he brought up a rather interesting question. Why is it that when discussing Fiction, people fall over themselves to talk about different writing styles, and yet so little acknowledgement is given to authors of Nonfiction and their individual techniques? It gets a person to thinking.

Make no bones about it, Nonfiction in the realm of children’s books has increased not only its presence but also its respect in the last few years. You might credit or blame the Common Core State Standards if you like, but there’s no denying that compared to even ten years ago we’re seeing a surfeit of superior informational text offerings, many of them sublime.

Now just this last weekend I attended the Newbery/Caldecott/Legacy Banquet and it was there that I noticed, once more, that none of the major award winners featured there this year were Nonfiction titles. This was particularly noticeable on the Newbery side of the equation. Last year was a magnificent Nonfiction year (as seen here and here) but nothing moved beyond the usual Sibert Award area.

RhythmRideThis year, I’ve already seen some stellar Nonfiction, and no two authors sound quite alike. Read the John Hendrix book The Faithful Spy and in a blind audiobook test you’d never confuse his written technique with that of Rachel Poliquin’s Beavers or even a picture book like, say, Nothing Stopped Sophie. Think of your favorite authors as well. There’s Tonya Bolden, Steve Sheinkin, Deborah Heiligman, and more. Did you ever stop and read the Andrea Davis Pinkney book Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound? I mean, talk about voice. That book just explodes with character and soul and grace.

These books have respect but there’s still a kind of reluctance to discuss them on their own terms. Let’s remember that in the midst of our Newbery and other award discussions, it shouldn’t be “discuss Fiction first, Nonfiction second” but rather “Discuss the best writing for children, regardless of whether or not you’re talking about Fiction or Nonfiction works”. The cream almost always rises to the top.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.

Comments

  1. While, as Roxanne and I noted in our article in the current Horn Book, “The Year in Words”, nonfiction still isn’t as likely to get the big gold (so proud of my 2008 Newbery committee’s exception, Laura Amy Schlitz’s GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!:), there has been progress. More awards and more attention for strongly voiced words such as Larry Brimmer’s TWELVE DAYS IN MAY and Deborah Heligman’s VINCENT AND THEO. Attention is being paid more and more.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Slowly and surely. On the graphic novel side there’s also John Lewis’s MARCH trilogy. It’s getting there, but it’s not breaking any speed records in the process.

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    This is a subject near and dear to me. As a teacher and nonfiction enthusiast, I was heartened to find a chapter in Lynne Dorfman and Rose Capelli’s recent book MENTOR TEXTS called “Walk Around in the Author’s Syntax.” I think it is on the right track, but it doesn’t go far enough. We need to carefully examine nonfiction style and open up the writing possibilities to our students. I tried this myself. I told my good friend Vicki Cobb, who writes science books for children with a unique voice, that I could write like her. I studied her style, wrote a sample, and then read her my work. She was amused and surprised. Children really respond to Marc Aronson’s friendly style. Let’s think about why? Why is some nonfiction so good?

  3. Jim Whiting says:

    There’s an easy solution to the lack of recognition nonfiction receives: two Newberys, one for each genre.

  4. Thanks, Betsy, for again bringing nonfiction into the discussion. We authors/illustrators of STEM nonfiction titles would also like to bring our writing to the table. When nonfiction books are mentioned during award time, many are historical. Let’s step up the STEM discussion!

    I’m happy to refer folks over to #STEMTuesday on the Mixed Up Files blog for some great MG STEM books! Thanks again, Betsy!

  5. ‘Bout time! Some of the most exciting writing (and art) is being done in Nonfiction right now. Many librarians tell me that children come into the library and ask for books on how things work, or about a character in history, or about space or the ocean or a particular animal … they don’t want stories or fairy tales. A group of three dozen or so published NF authors (to which I belong) called iNk Think Tank (http://inkthinktank.org/) work with the multimedia Nonfiction Minute ( https://www.nonfictionminute.org/ ) – a free service for librarians (a 400-word essay on cool subjects, audio by the author, and visuals) – over 2,000,000 downloads in the last couple years (a new piece published every day for the 180-day school year). There’s a print series published. Also, check out Melissa Stewart’s recent work on describing the Nonfiction Family Tree ( http://celebratescience.blogspot.com/2017/12/behind-books-nonfiction-family-tree.html ). Some of the most creative publishing around involves nonfiction!

  6. As someone who has a nonfiction picture book (#ownvoices biography) debuting next year, I am so glad to see this topic being broached here! Not that I dare dream of winning any awards but I have a passion for nonfiction kid lit and would love to see more accolades for those who toil (albeit happily) in this field. Thank you, Betsy!

  7. Heather Montgomery says:

    Thank you for bringing this topic to the forefront. As a nonfiction author, I thrill to find and participate in critical discussions about nonfiction writing styles, moves and techniques. In children’s literature, sometimes it feels as though we are missing the language specific to NF techniques, the openness to experimentation and the dialogue about “creative” nonfiction. It is fabulous to see the growing nonfiction publications; my hope is that we as an industry can use this bounty to dig more deeply into both innovative and classic constructions which work well for young readers.

  8. Great post Betsy. I’m a writer of nonfiction and a huge fan of the work of my nonfiction colleagues. I feel like we’re in the golden age of children’s nonfiction, with title after title pulling back the curtain on overlooked stories conceived and executed with such creativity of structure, voice, and lyricism. I am honored to be a part of it and have been yearning for more discussion about voice, writing styles, and techniques in NF.

    Some of the problem may be how NF is shelved and reviewed. In libraries, my books on Maria Mozart, the history of the piano, the Mars Rovers, wave energy invention, the story behind what happened to Pluto, Nikola Tesla, and volcanoes are shelved all around the library. I did a school visit once where a librarian made a bulletin board map mapping out for kids where to find my books in the stacks. (Without the map students would be lucky to find my books unless they were doing a book report on one of topics I’ve covered.) If my titles were fiction, they would all be shelved together under my name and a reader who liked one book might reach for my other titles. Likewise, many reviewers of NF tend to be experts in a subject area (present company excluded — you seem to review everything!). So there may not be anyone (kid, librarian, teachers, reviewer) who has read my body of work (and that is true of many other nonfiction authors). Fiction authors build admirers over time, people who grow to love what a novelist is trying to do, who are eager to see what they might try next. I think this happens with a few bigger name NF authors who specialize in a subject area — but perhaps less so with authors with broader interests.

    Why does this matter? Because libraries, librarians, and reviewers help kids find books. Because these wonderful people along teachers and parents also help kids discuss books, digest books, help them figure out WHY they love the books they love. And I think, as you suggest in your post, it has everything to do with the writing.

    Another challenge is the language we use to talk about NF. The current trend is to call NF “informational books,” as if that is their purpose. This makes the work sound like a glorified encyclopedia or wikipedia entry. And while, yes, my books and the books of my colleagues are often jam packed with accurate and compelling information, relaying facts is often not their primary purpose. I guess I can’t speak for my colleagues but I want my books to inspire readers to look at the world and themselves differently; I want them to get swept up in an amazing story; I want them to feel something. And if they do feel something, I think it might mean even more when they know what they read was a true story. Some of the greatest compliments I’ve received have to do with readers finding themselves choked up when the Spirit gets stuck on Mars and the scientists loose touch with their precious rover; when readers says they got chills reading about volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, when reading about Bartolomeo Cristofori makes them want to play the piano, or my book on Nikola Tesla makes a kid want to invent something.

    Also,I wonder why adult NF authors do not seem to share the same problem. While you were at the conference in PRINCETON (!!!) you were in the land of my favorite adult NF author, John McPhee. (I almost named my son McPhee, and I aspire to be the John McPhee of children’s literature. I know I have a looooong way to go, but I find its good have a goal.) John McPhee’s writing style and techniques are well-recognized, discussed, and understood. He can write about an art museum, basketball, geology, the environment, and fishing and people (including me) will devour his books and articles and revel in his writing. Likewise I will read anything by Mary Roach, Tracy Kidder, and Laura Hillenbrand to name a few.

    But I feel the same way about many of today’s nonfiction authors for children, and not just the terrific writers you name above. I’m sad that other people don’t appreciate the beauty of what is being offered to young readers today. (Someone, I can’t remember who, once suggested that the only way a NF title would win the Newbery is if it were written by one of the popular adult NF authors. I wanted to scream: Have you READ the nonfiction being published in children’s literature today?! There are so many books that are worthy now.

    One final note: I apologize for any awkward writing in this comment. I put a LOT more work into polishing my books. But this topic really resonates with me, I am passionate and curious about it, and I have to go make my kids dinner. So please forgive me and do share what you think. I’ll be reading. Liz

  9. I think nonfiction gets respect from sources that are more valuable than medals–young readers, especially reluctant readers. But I get that nonfiction writers want more notice. I think nonfiction styles are rarely called out because they embody the same qualities as any good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction.

  10. Thank you for this post, Betsy. Right now leading literacy educators are having robust conversations about the craft of nonfiction and the children’s literature community can learn a lot by listening in and even participating.

    There is so much to say about the complexities of nonfiction categories and writing styles (expository vs narrative), text structures (compare and contrast, problem and solution, sequence, question and answer, cause and effect, etc.), text format and organization, voice (lively to lyrical), point of view/narration, the critical role of hooks, ways of incorporating rich, engaging language, and more. As our understanding grows, we can dig deeper and experiment and innovate.

    Nonfiction is currently one of the most vibrant and dynamic areas of children’s literature. It’s thrilling to see how it’s blossoming and evolving right before our very eyes.

    • Where can we listen in?

      • Social media, especially Twitter. Follow people like Alyson Beecher/Kidlit Frenzy; Cathy Potter and Louise Capizzo/The Nonfiction Detectives; Mary Ann Cappiello, Eric Dawes, Grace Enriquez, Katie Cuningham/The Classroom Bookshelf; Michelle Knott/Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook; Carrie Gelson/There’s a Book for That; Susannah Richards; Donalyn Miller; Teri Lesesne; Jillian Heise/#classroombookaday; Lucy Calkins/Teachers College Reading and Writing Project; Pernille Ripp; Myra Zarnowski; Sue Bartle; Marc Aronson; JoEllen McCarthy; Kristen Picone; Margie Myers; Cynthia Alaniz; Terry Young; Terrell Young; Barbara Ward; Rose Cappelli; Stacy Rattner; Stacey Shubitz/Two Writing Teachers; Cathy Mere/#nf10for10; Marry Ann Scheuer/Great Kids Books; Travis Jonker; Mr. Schu; Colby Sharp; Kurt Stroh; Frankie Sibberson; Jen Vincent; and of course Betsy Bird.

      • Awesome, thanks Melissa!

  11. God bless you for this post, Betsy. And if I may add a subcategory to the genre of Excellent but Underrated NF Writing–it would be humorous nonfiction. Writing humor is hard, as you well know. Anyone who has ever MET a middle schooler knows that it is no small feat to craft books for them about history and science that they’ll find appealing and interesting and approachable and yes, funny. I wish those of us who write this way–including Georgia Bragg, Carlyn Beccia, Kathleen Krull, Helaine Becker, Jess Keating, to name just a few–might be invited more often by reviewers and awards committees to sit at the table with those who write in a more serious narrative style.

  12. Without a doubt, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we authors have different voices. Thanks, Betsy, for letting the world understand this.

  13. We may be missing a base-line truth: awards are haphazard marks of quality. Watching the big medals issued over years it’s obvious that they represent waves of approval for popular trends that shift with the social wind. Most authors acknowledge that gongs are given for successful schmoozing within the small children’s literature community and for successful “pushing” by publishers. We’ve all seen extraordinary books bypassed for a books buoyed up by enthusiastic publisher’s hype. Publishers push the awards process: they’re not true measures of excellence. There is no shortage of good authors but we lack wise, brave, midwifery: editors are routinely brainwashed by bean-counter caution and the fear that “no one reads!” This is, ahem, fake news. Frightened editors mangle style and fine writing and often reduce literature for young people to basic “easy read” pap. Our audience of young minds needs challenge and powerful style to expand. Skillful, passionate writers are too often diminished by the dumb-down grinder of siege-mentality editing. Our genre, nonfiction for young minds, is now pushing out into the mainstream and needs courage and daring from publishers, not fearful caution.

  14. Betsy,

    Thanks for this post. Recently I’ve started work on my first nonfiction book. Prior to this I only wrote fiction and thought I’d never write nonfiction. I was even asked at a school visit last November if I would ever write nonfiction and I said that so far it just didn’t seem my thing. But then I came across a woman I just had to write about. I was so excited about taking on this project that I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe I was writing nonfiction! It has been a great experience whether it ever gets published or not.

    Prior to this I was reading mainly fiction since that’s what I was writing. I read nonfiction here and there but I’ll admit that I didn’t read a lot. I’ve learned what I was missing! I’ve been reading every nonfiction book I can get my hands on. At first it was to help me with my writing (and of course any book I read helps me with that), but now I read them because I’ve fallen in love with nonfiction.

    Speaking directly to your post…when I read a new book there are many times when I’m only a few pages in and the storytelling/style is so amazing that I think, “This book must have gotten rave reviews!” So I head over and check out reviews. When I recognize amazing “style” just a few pages in, I’m impressed! For me, this happens just as often in nonfiction as it does in fiction! So it would make sense that nonfiction should rise to the top when it’s that great! Just yesterday I was reading a book your mentioned for the first time. Nothing Stopped Sophie drew me in immediately because of Cheryl Bardoe’s style!

    Essentially I’ve gained a new respect for style in nonfiction since I’ve been reading a lot of it and I totally get your point. I hope a change is on the horizon. Thanks again for this post!

  15. Elizabeth Bird says:

    This comes from Vicki Cobb. For some reason the site won’t let her comment as herself:

    Thank you, Betsy, for this most insightful post and a great response. As the founder of iNK Think Tank and a contributor to the Nonfiction Minute we are addressing an underlying question that most people are not aware of. Did you know that the reading passages on the standardized tests are excerpted from our work? I take a close look at such a question from one of the contracts I signed. https://www.vickicobbsblog.com/blog/a-hard-look-at-a-typical-question-on-a-standardized-text

    My question is: If our writing is the basis for assessment, why isn’t it taught in the classroom? Most of the reading in classrooms of school books and text books (that sometimes include longer excerpts from children’s nonfiction literature) comes with work sheets, study questions, tests. My first thought in founding iNK was that maybe teachers didn’t know how to find great nonfiction that fit into their curricula. So we created, with Melissa Stewart’s help, a free database that can be searched by topic and grade level producing a list of books that addressed the subject from a variety of angles. This database currently has over 8,000 users. iNK members update it as their new books come our published.

    Second, we decided to showcase authors by having them write original 400-word essays on a topic of their choice. Each post includes an audio file of the author reading his/her Minute aloud. Like fictional literature, the Minute is author driven and it is edited by the fabulous Jean Reynolds, who came out of retirement from founding and publishing Millbrook Press and Roaring Brook Press. We have offered a Nonfiction Minute free on the web since fall of 2014. Here you can meet the authors who are, in effect, professors-at-large for children; we know content and we speak “child.” We’ve had more than three million page views and 300,000 unique visitors.

    This year we are monetizing the archives but there will still be a different free Nonfiction Minute with its brilliant Transfer 2 Teaching by Karen Sterling every day of the school year. In addition, check out the new print books that are collections of Minutes, which Roxie mentioned, to acquaint readers with our award-wining authors’ diverse styles and impassioned rendering of content.

    Vicki Cobb

    President/Founder iNK Think Tank, Inc.
    http://www.inkthinktank.org
    http://www.vickicobb.com
    http://www.nonfictionminute.org
    https://www.vickicobbsblog.com/

  16. Thanks for this post! Liz got it exactly right in her comment above re:shelving! I’ve written more than 80 books, most of them nonfic. But go into a bookstore or library, and you won’t find my books lined up like a wall on the B shelf. Yesterday I was in a local bookstore and it took me over an hour to ferret out all my books for signing- and I couldn’t find them all even though I figure I could spot my own spines at 100 paces in a dust storm. One book on dealing with stress was shelved in teen-reference; it’s sequel in kids-your body. How does this affect readers, teachers, etc.? Both subtley and deeply. I do know it affects my sales. I’ve gone in to school libraries to present to kids, and the librarian WHO INVITED ME looks at the books I’m setting out for display and says, “I didn’t know you wrote that, and that and…”

    And humor! That too! I’ve done a series of very funny nonfic quiz books that get only the eyelid flick from gatekeepers- they are “fluffy”, you know. But they are among my topsellers. If anyone has access to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre summer mag issue, there’s a fab and persuasive main article in it by the lovely and very funny Adrienne Kress.Definitely worth a read.

    So I’d love to see a dual award stream for the Caldecott and Newbery, as also suggested above. Our own Silver Birch Children’s Choice Award, here in Canada, has two awards (and by the way, more than 250,000 kids participated in this program in 2018-BY CHOICE. )

    And imagine, for a moment if we tried reshelving nonfiction by author’s name. I’d love to see some brave soul try that and report back.

    • I just wanted you all to know that I HAVE seen nonfiction reshelved by author’s name, in more and more school libraries (long may they continue to exist!) I’ve visited many schools recently where the school librarians decided that students read nonfiction but didn’t realize that their favorite authors have written additional books because they’ve been shelved by topic, not author name. One librarian literally sought permission from the school board and divided her library into fiction and nonfiction. The books are by author and cross-referenced by curriculum topic (even most of the fiction I believe.) Though it seemed unusual, both students and teachers thought it was really useful and nonfiction readership and use of NF/F pairings went WAY up.

  17. Thanks, Betsy, for starting this interesting discussion! Nonfiction books for kids also provide a useful service to the world of literature— we often write about people and events and discoveries that have been overlooked by textbooks (definitely) but also by mainstream books for adults. As a result some of our books have become popular with adult readers too, not only because we bring these topics to people’s attention, but also because we cover these over-looked stories in accessible ways— with intriguing anecdotes, surprising sidebars, helpful timelines, and we include lots of great photos too, and our books are often based on original research too. There are two categories of awards for adult books— why not for books for young people too— one for nonfiction and one for fiction?

  18. Thanks, Betsy, for once again shining a light on nonfiction. The variety of styles and approaches is indeed worthy of examination. And while children’s librarians are well aware of the popularity of nonfiction, in general when I tell people that I write children’s books, it never, ever occurs to them that I might be talking about nonfiction.

    The omission of nonfiction from the major awards year after year is emblematic of this bias, though I must say the ALA award committees do better than the National Book Awards. Most years there’s not a single nonfiction title there, even on the 10-book longlist. And without award recognition, many excellent nonfiction books don’t earn out their advances, even when they receive multiple starred reviews. This marketplace reality discourages authors from investing the several years it might take to research and write a middle grade or YA nonfiction book. So fewer are written, fewer are published, and kids lose out.

    A reviewer once wrote that one of my books “reads like fiction,” which at the time I took as a great compliment. Now, however, I wonder why it’s necessary to compare the two genres in that way, as if the most flattering thing you could say about a nonfiction book is that it reads like something it’s not. Imagine the reverse, where a reviewer said a fictional book “reads like nonfiction.” Considering the superb quality of nonfiction being published today, it’s nice to think that could happen.

    • Well said, Susanna. I get that a lot, too. I think they mean it reads like a story with characters, conflict, climax and resolution. And maybe it is a compliment in a way because it can be more difficult to execute the story form in nonfiction because we are constrained by the facts…

  19. Cindy Argentine says:

    Great post! I completely agree that recent nonfiction titles encompass an array of voices, structures, and literary techniques. Reflecting on this made me think about what makes any book great, whether fiction or nonfiction. That led me to think about why people read in the first place. People read to explore—books allow readers to travel to new countries, new landscapes, new worlds. People read to learn—books help readers who are interested in a certain subject understand it better. People read to escape—books take them to different settings and situations, ones they might never encounter otherwise. People read to laugh—books that do this are real gems! People read to experience creativity—books allow us to connect with the artistic expressions of others through the language and illustrations they create. People read to feel—a great book can create empathy, trigger deep emotions, or inspire wonder.

    I can think of nonfiction books for children that accomplish all of these goals. Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon lets me explore that magnificent wonder without leaving home. Adrian Buckley and David Jenkins’ Moonwalk helps me learn more about the intricacies of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Patricia McCormick’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero takes me back in time and around the world with a heart-warming tale of a brave horse with a big appetite. Sarah Albee’s Poop Happened! brings humor to this ever-present element of human history. Laurel Snyder’s Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova creatively engages readers with its lyrical language and poetic illustrations. And Seth Fishman’s A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars makes me feel wonder at the vastness of the world as well as comfort in knowing I have a unique place in it.

    There are dozens of nonfiction books I could have listed here—books that inspire young readers to explore and escape; to laugh, learn, and feel—and that do so with artistic excellence. I love great fiction—it’s almost all I remember reading as a child. But I have always been interested in science and travel and fun facts, too. Nonfiction for kids connects all these things, and it adds depth and variety to the literature children can experience. I’m grateful that writers and publishers are bringing more of it to our kids. I hope that discussing it on forums like this will continue to raise its profile!

  20. Joanne Matterm says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to the wide world of nonfiction. As a nonfiction author, I’m pleased at our greater presence in the market (both trade and library). And my work in our local library shows me that children and teens LOVE nonfiction. I’ve seen children check out huge stacks of nonfiction titles. It’s wonderful to see the increased presence of nonfiction in the market, but, as you say, people do not seem to realize the different styles and genres in nonfiction writing. And it certainly isn’t reflected in the Caldecott and Newbery winners! I hope we can work to change that.

  21. I love this discussion about nonfiction voice, but would love to also talk innovative story structure. Nonfiction has become so creative in recent years, and is so far from the “just the facts” nonfiction of previous generations. Aside from nonfiction graphic novels (my fave!), I, for one, am super excited about Hannah Holt’s forthcoming DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar & Bray), which tells two stories side-by-side: that of diamond formation alongside inventor Tracy Hall, who created a diamond-making machine, combing narrative and expository story structures. Talk about inventive.

  22. So true–“discuss the best writing for children whether it’s F or NF.” Awards and NF–I think it’s like getting the vote for women. A lot of worthy NF writers will go without their deserved awards, but they will advance awareness of the superior quality of NF and bring more and more attention until NF will routinely take awards and there will be a time when people are mystified that there was such a divide between F and NF at medal time.

  23. It is indeed the golden age of nonfiction, and I am thankful to you and writers like Melissa Stewart who are staunch champions of it! I love reading and writing nonfiction–there are so many engaging titles rich with voice, with interesting angles and structures and approaches sure to appeal to all kinds of readers. I love the idea of having fiction and nf categories for some of the bigger awards-surely there is room for it.

    And many of the writers posting here have written some of my favorite titles! Thank you all for such lively and inspiring and interesting books!

  24. As a writer of only ten years, and with only magazine credits of fiction and non-fiction, I find myself attracted to writing biographies in picture books and chapter books. There are subjects who are not well known, but worthy of a biography. But are most editors wiling to publish such biographies?
    I would not have known the heroines in “Brave Girl” and “Long May She Wave” without the picture books. There are more memorable people I’d like to know.

  25. I’d like to say two things about fiction, before we quite close this conversation. I’ve written fiction, and I’ve written non-fiction, and fiction is by far the more difficult. I’m not saying that non-fiction writing is easy: it requires copious research, self-discipline, originality, breadth of vision and meticulous attention to detail. Good non-fiction writing is magnificent, and not easily achieved.

    But fiction is harder. Because if you’re writing non-fiction, you’re writing about something that exists, or existed. There really are dolphins; there really is a Panama Canal. If you want to write about them, there are other writers who came before you. You can read them—all the experts—and synthesize when you learn. The thing you’re describing has a reality, a shape, an importance. These things help to guide the writer.

    But when you’re writing a story, the thing you’re writing doesn’t exist, until you create it. You have to make everything up from scratch, and everything you make up has to work together to create some kind of meaning. Often you don’t know what the story means while you’re writing it. You just have to keep making things up from scratch and you have to keep juxtaposing them until there’s some kind of coherence. You need rigorous logic and wild intuition at the same time.

    Second point: , fiction has a longer shelf life. Non-fiction goes out of fashion quickly, because there is always new research to be assimilated—and there are always new points of view to be taken into account. What readers demand in a biography today, for example, is very different from what readers liked in a biography twenty-five years ago. There are few non-fiction books that last fifty years, let alone a hundred.

    But people still read THE ILIAD, because Homer knew about war, and he knew about the human psyche. People read A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, because it’s still funny and it still makes some crazy kind of sense. People read Dickens and Dante and Euripides and they are all as fresh as the day they were written. There’s real staying power in the truths of brilliant fiction.

  26. I love all the varieties of nonfiction brought up in the comments. It really shows how broad our field is, and how many ways we authors come at nonfiction.

    I’d just like to say, though, as a writer of both nonfiction and fiction, I don’t find it any easier to write nonfiction. Both have their unique challenges. I’m concerned if people assume it is easier for all of us to write nonfiction, it unconsciously minimizes the value of nonfiction. I’m afraid this attitude already exists, which plays into the idea that awesome, kick-ass, funny, elucidating, innovative nonfiction just can’t compete on reading lists or for awards.

  27. Ms. Partridge, I sweep off my hat and bow to you. If I find non-fiction easier, it’s probably because I’m not writing it as well as you do–(but then, so few of us do.)

  28. I’m seeing this a bit belatedly, but am grateful to you, Betsy, for catalyzing this very necessary discussion! There isn’t much more to be said after reading the many thoughtful comments above, other than, perhaps, to encourage the kid lit community to keep the bar high for new work in this genre–and to find new ways to celebrate and acknowledge its continuing evolution.

  29. WOW! Thank you Betsy for publishing this post. I will be using more sites published here. Can’t thank you enough for your direction here.

  30. Wow! It’s wonderful to see this great discussion of NF books by such stellar authors and NF lovers. Thanks everyone for sharing so much thought provoking content. It’s exciting to be part of this sharp, hard working, encouraging NF group. It’s been great in recent years to see an increase in overall interest in NF titles, especially my personal favorite–STEM! Yea!

  31. As teachers, we talk about nonfiction craft in writers’ workshop a great deal. I need to do more with nonfiction though so I appreciate this post. NCTE has an Orbis Pictus Award which recognizes quality nonfiction. I’ve discovered many great nonfiction books and authors from these award lists.