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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Have you all noticed this: some of my students — and these are grad students, some of whom are adults returning to school while already having jobs and families — seem not to know what the word “novel” means. Novel, in their use, has come to mean “book.” So a biography may be referred to as a “novel,” indeed any nonfiction book, no matter how totally free of any fictional elements, still gets that designation. I wonder why? Is it that so much of the K-12 book reading is either fiction (novel) or textbook that “novel” comes to mean any author-driven book that stands alone and is not an assigned textbook? If that is so, the word slip is a sociological indication of how bad it is in the schools — the degree to which we have lost any sense that nonfiction is a form of literature, written by authors, in their own individual styles and voices. Or is it just a general sloppiness, a slippage in how we use words? For example, in every class someone uses the invented term “relatable” — when did that misconjugation enter the scene? I understand that it is important to know if readers will be able to relate to the stories and characters in a book, but you cannot shorten that to, “the book is ‘relatable'” How, I always ask my students, would you conjugate that? It is is relatable to? Huh?

If the problem were just word slippage I’d be less concerned — the misuse of “novel” for nonfiction would just be part of a general trend. But I think there is a Freudian as well as a sociological element here — a sense in which “novel” = good, well written, engaging, story-driven, appealing read. If that is what the misuse is revealing it shows that not only have the schools totally marginalized nonfiction books, but readers themselves have on some deep internal level come to believe that if a book is a good read it is fiction. In other words it is not that they are ignorant — assuming any genre of book can be called a “novel” — but rather in their blur they are revealing a deep belief: if it is worth reading, it is fiction.

To get a sense of how odd this all is, imagine what the world would be like if the case were reversed: if people always said “biography” when they meant “novel.” We would find it really weird — “I read a new biography by Stephanie Meyer, it was great” — you’d immediately say, what is she writing biographies now? of Vlad the Impaler? That is because going from nonfiction to fiction the distinction is clear, going the other way it has blurred.

Speaking of thought experiments, Roger objected several posts ago that we NF authors just wanted reviewers in our pockets, to see our books through our ego-aglow-eyes. But as egocentric as I may be, I don’t think he’s got that quite right. Here is what I mean: if an author writes a novel set in a historical period where the content — the knowledge of the period — is relatively standard but the form in which she tells the story is fresh, innovative, a breakthrough in use of language, art, design — reviewers will certainly notice it. Out of The Dust; Storm in the Barn, for example. But if an author writes a NF book in which the innovation is in research, in uncovering new insights into the past itself — and the form, the language, the expression is more familiar, reviewers — who are not as familiar with the history, the sources, or the innovation — are far less likely to feature and praise the innovation. They may well say — oh, this will be new to young readers and even some adults — but that is half praise. It is not crediting work in NF discovery with the same value as innovation in language use and style. I don’t think it is self-serving of NF authors to want reviewers to be as alert to their breakthroughs in content as those same critics are to fiction writers’ breakthroughs in form.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Where to begin? First, “relatable.” I have lived with this idea for a long time. My grad students have told me for years that a book for children is good IF they (children and teacher) can “relate” to it. What I imagine that to mean is that they can connect with the information or experiences being described through sympathy or empathy or just plain curiosity. I don’t think this means that they have to have experienced past events, but just that there is a way to connect and somehow personalize the information. For example, we can feel the distress of the people living in the Dust Bowl because we know “distress.” It’s helpful if the author helps young children make these connections. If not, it’s up to teachers. When readers can’t “relate,” it’s because the book hangs out there–remote, disconnected, unimportant.

    Many of my undergrads see literature this way: fictional stories are interesting and nonfiction is boring. So it’s no surprise to me that call an intriguing piece of nonfiction as a novel and use all kinds of story words to describe it like characters, setting, and plot. My undergrads simply love Andrea Warren’s ORPHAN TRAIN RIDER because the story makes them cry. They refer to it as a story. But this wonderful book also teaches them a great deal of history.

    In addition, this problem with terminology is certainly made worse by calling nonfiction graphic works “graphic novels.” The crux of the issue is thinking about how we think about discuss nonfiction.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Yes GN is a problem since it includes, for example, memoir — which is not fiction, and to say Graphic Memoir implies that it is explicit in an adult sense which may not be true at all. I do think the terms and approach of fiction dominate consideration of all literature for younger readers — often as if NF did not exist, or was not literature, or was merely a form of “information” — as if it were just data points generated by machines.

  3. Since I grew up in a family where English was not the first language, spent time in an African country where English is the official language, but the lingua franca is a patois (called Krio and based on English and a bunch of different tribal languages), and have spent a lot of time among children who have interesting ways of using language I am used to having to carefully work out just what an individual means when using a phrase or word differently from what I’m used to.

    While I too once found graphic novel annoying for the reasons Myra articulates I’ve let it go just as I’ve let go you and others writing something like “I am sorry that I haven’t done a blog today.” For me the individual entry is a post whereas the whole site is a blog, but I’m sure you aren’t interested in parsing the difference. Just so when it comes to other graphic novel and so forth. We oldsters may not like it, but we also want to be able to understand what is being said and get to the heart of it. At least I do.

  4. I’m just glad to hear someone else hearing the word relatable (it’s not just me!) and wondering what to do about it, as I’ve spent years trying to fight the use of it and have begun to just give up on those “teachable moments” about language, about something being relatable if it can “be conveyed in story.” It’s essential for children (and teachers) to have connections to books, to relate to books, for the books to have true meaning and resonate for all the reasons we would want it to resonate. And language changes. When does it become a new and acceptable use versus grammatical error?

    Narrative nonfiction is often referred to as a story by my students as well, and I do continue to ask students to use the word narrative, because story is so often associated with fiction and I think it confuses children (my students’ students).

    Graphic books is the term that I try to use as frequently as possible, to then distinguish within that graphic novels, graphic biographies and memoirs, and graphic nonfiction. Again, because it otherwise confuses children. They need to see all the ways in which the genres are blurring in marvelous ways. But to understand the richness of that, they also need to understand what the “separate” genres mean as stand-alones.

  5. Horrors! My post has incorrect pronoun use: “books” and “it.” I’m preaching about grammar and language use and I then I commit an error that will last for posterity……..

  6. I think we may be stuck with relatable. It was even featured in an “On Language” column by Ben Zimmer last August. When talking about books and stories we just have to be clear that it has two possible meanings: I am able to (emotionally) relate to this story; or I am able to retell this story.

    Of much greater concern is students and even teachers who are not able to describe what they read without using the language of story. For some people it seems that if a book is “good” it has to be a novel. After all, “literature” is often equated with fiction!

    In the early grades it seems that much more time is spent on “story mapping” than on reading non-fiction books and describing their structure. In my elementary school we are realizing that students must be exposed to much more non-fiction than they have been. This means that teachers will have to include non-fiction in all aspects of their teaching – read-alouds, shared reading, accountable talk (book discussion and analysis), and even encourage students to select non-fiction books for their independent reading.

    However, as the school librarian I see that non-fiction can still be a hard sell. Students can be hung up on “reading level” and unfortunately they tend to equate book size and shape with difficulty. An information book that a student can read may be viewed as too easy. Many times I have been asked where I keep the “non-fiction chapter books.”

    This problem is compounded by students who may have been given messages by their parents and teachers that they are “too big for picture books” or that “picture books don’t count as reading.” I have even heard parents instruct their children never to look at the pictures when they are reading! I spend a lot of time during book-talks and reading conferences modeling ways to read non-fiction. Students need to be prompted to look at the pictures, re-read, think, and go back to what they read before. The reward can be exclamations of “no way!” or “OMG!”

  7. Marc Aronson says:


    Thank you this is very helpful. I notice that my 6 year old toggles between the Magic School Bus novels (which, often as not, we read to him) and the accompanying NF books that give more background about some of the real people in the novels, which he reads on his own. These are chapter books so might help for some of those who refuse PBs. The irony is how often we hear that PBs are used even into middle school b/c of declining reading levels — so you have elementary kids who decline PBs (or whose parents tell them to do that), and then middle school kids seeking out PBs — it is as if this whole age/reading level issue has gotten both so determining and so tangled it does not serve actual kids — a good subject for another post.

  8. Yes, the Magic Tree House books do fit an important niche.
    The age/reading level problem has a lot of people (children and adults) tangled up. I could go on about that, but I will save it for my own ramblings.
    What worries me is that students miss a lot of content if they aren’t attending to the pictures. With much non-fiction if one reads it like a novel (straight through, paying little mind to the pictures but attending mostly to the gist, the emotions, and the “plot”) the reader will probably miss a lot of the important information. There is often a lot to synthesize during a reading of a good non-fiction book. I specifically show students that I read, study the picture, read the caption and then often re-read the text before I “get” a page. Non-fiction may often be shorter than novels, but the reader might have to think more.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree that images — how they are found, selected, captioned, and placed are a key element of NF for K-12, and if you judge NF through a lens designed for pure text you miss the skill and craft that goes into the visual, narrative side of NF. In fact I think reviewers should use some of the tools they employ with picture books — the interlaced visual and text narratives, the page turn, the spread — for NF — with the additional awareness that in NF you cannot invent the art — you have to find it.

  10. But can’t illustrated nonfiction work well with invented art? I thought Matt Tavares’s piece in the March/April HB (“A Reason for the Picture”) was a great articulation of what can happen with illustrated nonfiction, and how the new visual can go beyond the photograph to capture something essential or powerful about a subject.

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    I was there on a panel at TLA when Matt first presented his views and totally agree with him. When I say we can’t have invented art I mean in middle grade and YA books where we use only archival materials — I was not disagreeing with him, just talking about a different age grou[.

  12. Mark Flowers says:

    I don’t know – I kind of think that this really is just a matter of “word slippage” as you put it. I mean, many (most?) of my (adult) patrons can’t reliably make a distinction between the words “fiction” and “nonfiction,” and it seems to me that “novel” is far less transparent in meaning than those terms.

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    First, rather shocking to think that adults cannot make a distinction that is covered from first grade on. And second, novel is a word in common use with a clear and defining meaning — so, again, no sure why anyone would be likely to confuse it with its polar opposite.