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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why They Need Us — The Story Gap

I’m visiting a 5th grade class next week, and Susan C. Bartoletti tells me she is as well. We — and other non-fiction authors, have been getting more and more of these requests, especially for classes working on their first research reports. I like doing these visits, and they point to an interesting issue we should all weigh and consider. I suspect that this new emphasis on research reports starting in upper elementary school is linked to the focus on nonfiction literacy in the national standards. And schools may well be facing this problem: as Betty Carter has pointed out, up through 4th grade students have been enticed into literacy (as in skill at decoding text) through story. Thus by 5th grade most really know their way around fiction. On the one hand, they intuitively know the rule of the 3 — the three tests a hero will face; on the other hand, their own reading and Language Arts discussions have led them to have a sense of what to expect from page-turning plot, eye-catching language, and rich, engaging characters. Many will even have a sharp eye out for point-of-view. Handed a novel, they both feel at home and have a budding critical aparatus for judging this one against the last one they read. But now they are in the world of nonfiction.

How do your read — and thus how do you write — nonfiction? Here is where Language Arts teachers (and, it must be said, librarians) who say, “well nonfiction is just like fiction, the world is full of stories” fail students. Because the challenge in researching and writing nonfiction is quite different. Yes there are rules with numbers — the five W questions; the topic sentence, three supporting statements, and a conclusion format — but these are nothing like the rule of the 3. In fact the key to research is precisely the same as the scientific method — you may begin with an idea, a theory, a hypothesis, but you have to let the research take you where it goes. You may find you were wrong, or that you can’t prove your idea, or that what you thought was one simple cause and effect splays and splinters in a many different strands. A 5th grader often is either instantly overwhelmed, or equally quickly reduced to a descriptive list of facts. Nonfiction is about discovery — a thread nicely explored in Susan’s article in the new Horn Book. The quest is the actual process of thinking, researching, and learning — not a fictional quest undertaken by a character entirely in the control of a skilled author. In fact now it is the child who is the author — not in pure imagination, but in the hunt for key facts, sharp insights, clever explanations. Only after the child has been the hero herself, questing into the unknown, can the writing process begin. Adults who judge books solely on writing, on language, do not know how to help childen in that first phase of inquiry.

That is where it is a very good idea for a school or library to invite a nonfiction author to come. S/he knows both sides of the research process — the hunt, and then the literary struggle to share both the process and the result with readers. But the one actor who is missing in this party is reviewers. All too often they evaluate our books almost entirely as what they call “pleasure reading” experiences — as if the value of our writing had nothing to do with the quality of the knowledge itself. Schools and libraries looking for materials to help their neophyte researchers need to know which books serve as models, which books help young people with both sides of their challenge — finding information and writing persuasively about their discoveries.


  1. Mark Flowers says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more Marc. Many will (and did) disagree with me, but I felt that what you are talking about with reviewers is exactly what happened last year with Freedman’s “The War to End All Wars.” I felt that positive reviews were reacting to Freedman’s good prose and excellent presentation style rather than the “quality of the knowledge” which I thought was poor. It made me really think about how we librarians evaluate non-fiction, and I came to the hypothesis that since many more of us have backgrounds in literature than history or science, we are basically older versions of the 4th graders you’re talking about: very well versed in story, not so much in research.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Right now we are in the bad place that many who evaluate books for younger readers (as formal reviewers or a collection development selectors) are not even aware that they they are reading nonfiction as fiction. They have one (negative) category “good for reports” and one positive “reads like a story.” The first step would be to recognize that that grid is misguided. Until the reader herself comes to recognize what makes for excellence in nonfiction, she cannot determine whether or not a book has those qualities.

  3. I was at a conference presentation once where the presenters shared a technique they used with secondary students to examine mystery detective shows to construct a framework for doing research guided by genuine questions and responses to the evidence as it unfolds, rather than on set research questions from start to finish.

    Several layers of “need” were unpeeled today in your post. One is how to nudge a paradigm shift for reviewers, from reviewing the final product out of context to reviewing a book within the context of the content and research process as well as the language and structure. Another is the need for even more space in each book or on the author’s webpage that shares and dissects the research process, and more opportunities to address that with readers in a live format (Skype, actual visit). I would extend it a little further. We need end notes or website-book-extensions in a format that the child reader can understand. There was a great piece in the HB a number of years ago, “More to the Story,” about end notes and author’s notes and the debate about what should go in the back matter versus the actual text, and who the audience for the end note is (often, the adult teacher, parent, or librarian, it would seem). I often discuss this with my graduate students using the three picture books about Pale Male, and the differing role of the end note in those texts and the information within the texts, despite the relatively small and simple topic (a single bird). Children need author’s notes written in the same voice and for the same audience as the text if we are to use tradebook nonfiction as an exemplar not only of great nonfiction writing, but also of excellent and varied approaches to research.

    Finally, I think that your discussion of needs includes the necessity to understand the different subgenres of nonfiction, the ways in which an individual specialized work of nonfiction is going to be different from a survey book that is part of a series, that a lifecycle book will read differently from a biography, that a survey book will be different that a nonfiction picture storybook even if that survey book is a picture book as well. Understanding the purpose of the subgenre as a reader will further children’s understanding of what to take away from the book in terms of content knowledge and genre knowledge, and it will expand the options for demonstrating how s/he can share what s/he learns through the research process. Does my research point to a biography as being the best vehicle to show what a know? Or is it better to focus on a single event in that person’s life and reveal what I’ve learned about the event and the person with equal balance in a specialized format? If the research project minimal in scope, and we’re just touching the surface? If so, a survey book might be the right format for students to employ, but what might be the best text organization and structure for different topics within the survey book subgenre?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    this is very helpful. I like that bit about subgenres — we have all sorts of genres within fiction, but for NF we act as if there were biography and not-biography; readers — how about we here create our own list, what are the subgenres of NF? I begin with one I’ve long had my eye on: prosopography: group biography, as, for example, writing a book on The Founding Fathers as a group, rather than as seperate individuals, or The Romantic Poets, or The Beats — where even as you describe individual lives you explore the cohort, the cadre, the collectivity.

  5. I think, too, the challenge is to name them in ways that children as well as adults can understand. I’ve been working on a definition of the nonfiction picture book for awhile now, since there are so many different forms of nf that appear in pb format, and kids need to be able to do a flip through and anticipate the kind of pb reading experience they’ll have. But all of my names are dreadfully grown-up and too much of a mouthful. I’d love to join a group that would take on this challenge and create kid-friendly labels and definitions that are clear to adults re: the complexity of what happens in the book and clear to kids in their simplicity.

  6. Lenore Look says:

    Hi Marc, As a fiction writer, and as someone who has written non-fiction (if you can call journalism that), I have to disagree with your point that “researching and writing non-fiction is quite different.” All my facts and details are carefully researched and incessantly checked; I may begin with an idea — such as selective mutism — but I, too, must go where the research takes me, and when it proves me wrong (I thought these kids were CHOOSING not to talk), I must make the appropriate adjustments (they CAN’T talk). Writing fiction is not a flight of pure fantasy unless you’re pulling a Tolkien, in which case you would have figured out all the rules of physics and such for your created world. The key to good fiction, which by the way, should read like good non-fiction (think John McPhee and the essays of E.B. White), is thorough, careful research. A skilled author in control of a character (is this really possible?) fails miserably if s/he doesn’t get the facts straight. Even a writer as authoritative as Nabokov enshrined the the lowly detail as divine. “Caress the detail,” he commanded, “the divine detail.” Without it, there is no story.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    But Lenore you prove my point in reverse. You are saying that real fiction, in many/most cases, actually follows the rules of good NF. I would argue that the teachers and reviewers who do not “get” NF misread the creative process of fiction in exactly the same way. They focus on Language Arts skills not “thorough, careful research.” Their focus is on invention, story, character, not the ways in which a reality check causes a careful writer to change her story. The keynote is “self expression” or “creativity” or — as I wrote before — “story” — not precision, detail, or research.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Lenore and Marc’s last comment: While I heartily agree with the level of research good fiction requires, I would argue that most of the fiction research process is easily subsumed within the general bounds of literary criticism–character, voice, plot consistency, etc., without having to think too hard about the research that went into those things (whether that is a good or a bad thing, I leave to others to decide).

    A great counter-example is last year’s “Mockingbird.” There was much discussion (including on Betsy Bird’s blog on this site) about how realistic the book’s portrayal of aspergers/autism was, particularly with regard to the main character’s voice. Discussion centered on 1) how much information about the research process and the author’s personal experience should be in the author’s note and 2) whether it even matters to the text how “authentic” Caitlin’s voice was, with people coming down in all different places on these issues.

    My point (if I have one) is that it seems unlikely that reviewers brought up on fiction are going to change their habits of reviewing fiction, absent an issue like aspergers. It seems more reasonable to challenge journals not to assign nonfiction texts to reviewers unfamiliar with the basic principles of nonfiction research and writing.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I would be thrilled if we began with NF reviewers. In fact one of the problems with this lack of training in NF is that the reviewing community freezes up on the question of when is a novel (especially historical fiction) violating history and when not, especially as this relates to “stereotypes” and offended sensibilities. There we have partial knowledge given too much play — as in the debate over at CCBC on whether it was plausible that a black 50s mother would be upset that her child was given a Western not African name. I think lurking in our discussion, as in the debates Mark hints it, is that when we read and review fiction we expect to be able to use our adult sensibilities plus some generalized “common knowledge” — with perhaps an anxious nod to someone we respect in areas where we are concerned. In other words, any good reader should be able to do it. But that is not as clearly so in the case of NF — where it often takes knowing a subject to recognize the freshness of a given book.

  10. Interesting. There was a somewhat related discussion going on at Cynsations last week, in response to a short guest post I did there on nonfiction genres. I agree with Mary Ann that formally identifying and defining the various genres of nonfiction will be helpful, both in presenting books to readers and for the purpose of reviewing the books appropriately. Here’s a link:

    Loree Burns

  11. Marc Aronson says:


  12. As someone who spent years working on something as nonfiction and then ending up taking it across the line into fiction, I think you are compartmentalizing too much. I see this more as a continuum with certain kinds of nonfiction at one kind and certain kinds of fiction at another. See this post of mine, complete with a graphic:

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    this is a larger topic that I’d love to discuss with you and others on a panel somewhere. But my piece was not about the nature of NF as it was about the difficulty schools are having in weaving a NF mindset into a program that has taught literacy through fiction. That is a pedagoical issue not a categorical one.

  14. As a teacher…not a reviewer or a writer….I’m thrilled to see and listen in on this conversation. What is appalling to me is how my kids have fallen out of love with nonfiction books. Heck that’s probably painting the picture too rosy. They don’t even know nonfiction exists any more. I might be showing my age but kids used to love nonfiction so my job as a social studies and science teacher wasn’t as hard as it is now. I had to find great resources, but once I did…my students couldn’t read enough.

    Since elementary school students don’t get this exposure, it falls to us to do this work. Which I happily do except I know little about teaching reading nonfiction strategies. I’ve always concentrated on the subject matters not the reading techniques….and it’s especially tough for the kids who haven’t learned to enjoy this kind of writing. They need action. They need adventure. And I’m sad to say, they haven’t learned how to find enjoyment in the simple act of wondering why and then reading a page or two to find out the answer to their question.

    I work with a difficult age group because picture books are great, but not lengthy enough to keep students reading unless you have a huge collection. Many more serious nonfiction books are too hard and better suited for 8th-12th graders not only because of the specialized vocabulary but because of the attention span the reader has to have. So I stand in a place where there is very little available….. It’s been a huge strain on our school’s library systems because we don’t have collections large enough for everyone to have a book. Budget cuts have seen fewer and fewer dollars allocated to nonfiction. We no longer subscribe the terrific older elementary/younger middle school magazines like Cobblestone or Popular Science….which used to be a terrific way to grab a 6th grader’s interest and lead them into longer pieces.

    And before you start naming off book after book that I could access….I have long lists. And I could always use more suggestions, but it’s not really about that for me. It’s that somehow there isn’t enough stuff out there for my age group. There is some good stuff to be sure and those copies are dog-earred…they fight to see who will get the next copy….they’ve even developed a technique for getting the book….walk slowly behind the person who has the book you want as they go to the bookdrop. Wait for the librarian to check it in and then immediately ask if you can check it out. So they’re becoming more sophisticated library users…they also can keyword search better and better each month as well as tease out of the Advanced Search functions new titles that fit. We’ve even figured out a way to open multiple windows so we’re searching on Amazon & BN which cross-reference back to our district’s library system. It’s just that there isn’t enough for them to read at their reading abilities. They don’t have the background knowledge or the skills but they aren’t little kids anymore.

    Earth science, engineering, and physics are not the favorite topics for writers….if I was a life science teacher I’d be all set. What I can offer your group is this….we have been reading and reading all year. Writing our own book reviews each month, presenting what students thought were the best and worst titles of that month…they’ve developed their own 1-5 star rating. Students do know what needs to be done to help this genre of work. Would you be interested in hearing what kids have to say? My 4th quarter goal for them is to create some set of conclusions/recommendations/book lists based on their year long reading experimentation. I am hoping they’ll be able to discuss and argue their way to designing “specs” for the “perfect 6th grade nonfiction book”.


  15. Marc Aronson says:

    first — thanks for posting. second — yes I would be interested. I am thinking of having an ongoing feature here with reviews — but really comments and discussions as well — of NF by young readers, and your group could certainly be part of that. I’m sure some of the visitors to this site will jump in to suggest reading strategies. But what you point to is precisely the problem — if you equate reading with story you delay kids getting to know reading as discovery until, in middle school, there is this clash between the depth of material they need to know and the kind of reading they are accustomed to doing.