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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Genres of NF

Last week Monica and disagreed about some aspects of 4th grade interest in the books we now call nonfiction. As I thought about that I realized that there is something fundamentally wrong in how this whole debate was framed, and more generally, how we talk about NF. In fiction there are whole sections of libraries devoted to teasing out the characteristics and readerships for the various genres and subgenres of books: romance, fantasy — high and low, realistic fiction, magical realism, novels in verse — and I am only using categories often discussed in middle grade and YA, not even opening the door to adult. But in our neck of the woods we speak of NF — or, as I was objecting last week — informational books.

Why do we act as if there were one kind of NF, or information — again, as if there was this grand database in the sky, and all an author had to do was accurately cut and paste from it — instead of mapping out the terrain — the genres and subgenres of NF. The only 3 I can think of off hand (leaving out differences by age level and format, such as “picture book nonfiction”) are “creative nonfiction,” “hyrbid nonfiction,” “memoir.” So notice, it takes being more similar to fiction for nonfiction to being to have its subdivisions. Well, no, biography is one — but that is a division by subject, not approach.

What could divisions in NF be? Fact books — books of records, from sports, to Guiness, to arms and armaments, to nature; adventure stories; chronologies; omnisicent narrator NF; investigations — where the author is present; speculative NF (as I discussed in my HB article and subsequent exchange with Russell Freedman and Jim Murphy); NF of passion — where the author tells a NF story with a strong point of view — Howard Zinn is an example on the left, the Patriot’s History of America is the same on the right; single topic/product books — Cod, Salt, Sugar, etc. I am sure there are more — I realize there are a whole raft of Dewey numbers to split up NF by subject. But I am suggesting that different kinds of NF offer different reading experiences, have different aims, and may well appeal to different kinds of readers — and we have no map. We judge interpretive NF by the same standards as books of facts, which makes no sense. It is as if a book of poetry were judged with the same critical vocabulary as a lengthy novel.

So librarian friends — what categories would you suggest? What shall we call the different varieties of NF?


  1. I’m not sure that trying to label the various genres in nonfiction is helpful. Rather, we need to teach our students to be critical thinkers, assessing each resource in any medium on its own merit. Teach them to ask the questions to attempt to ascertain whether the resource is presented with verifiable fact only, personal speculation, a slant of opinion, etc.

    In fact why are we dividing the collection into fiction and nonfiction at all? Doing so is deceptive. Fiction can ‘teach’ in many of the same ways nonfiction can and sometimes more effectively. When reading fiction, one’s own judgement is automatically called into play since we know the work ‘comes from the author’s imagination’, whereas children are tempted to completely accept the contents of a nonfiction work as it has been presented as ‘fact’ or ‘information’.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I have heard mutterings about changing the whole Dewey system — given the ubiquity and utility of databases, we surely can come up with more useful categorization schemes. I do think there is a value in having a fiction section organized alphabetically and another section of books organized by subject — but perhaps within that, also by approach. I say that because one of the glories of libraries, from being a toddler through open stacks in university libraries, is browsing, happening upon all of the wonders and treasures near the one book you knew you wanted. So I would hesitate to have, say, a purely alphabetical library. unless some app on our universal digital gizmos would, as we walked around this wonderland, buzz everytime we passed near a set of books that suited our interests.

  3. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Rosemary Bamford and Janice Kristo’s book CHECKING OUT NONFICTION K-8: GOOD CHOICES FOR BEST LEARNING (Christopher-Gorder, 2000) does a good job of discussing the types of nonfiction. Probably so do the huge surveys of children’s literature. That would be a good place to start looking for subcategories of NF.

    I encountered the problem you mentioned of judging all nonfiction by the same standards when I was chairing the Orbis Pictus Committee. Picture books were judged alongside full-length chapter books. It never felt right.

  4. In my own reading, I divide nonfiction into the categories: Narrative nonfiction, educational (informational) nonfiction, and inspirational nonfiction (self-help books, usually). I read the three types differently.

    For kids, I’m not sure it would help to shelve them differently, but it might be nice to talk with a class about the different types of nonfiction. I wonder what categories they would come up with.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    I am not sure we need to separate the books, but we do need to be aware of distinct types of books and distinct reading interests, just as we are in fiction.