Sue Heavenrich with Melissa Stewart
When I look at contemporary children’s nonfiction, I am drawn to the enticing covers and interior artwork and photos. I love the way writers use sidebars and textboxes to highlight fun facts. And I’m a huge fan of back matter and the use of end pages to extend exploration. But if you take a closer look at children’s nonfiction, you might notice something important. Something exciting.
There are different kinds of nonfiction.
Five kinds, says Melissa Stewart, whose new book (co-authored with Marlene Correia) takes readers on a deep dive into what modern children’s nonfiction is. Melissa has been thinking about different kinds of nonfiction for a while. So I was thrilled when she agreed to hang out (virtually) here at the GROG and talk about her book and nonfiction with me.
Sue: The primary audience for 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books is educators, but I think there’s a lot here for children’s book writers too. Did you have writers in mind as you were creating the book?
It wasn’t until later that I realized it’s value for teachers and students. When I posted an article describing the system on my blog in 2017, the response was incredible. To date, that original blog post has received more than 500,000 hits.
Because the origin of the system is author-centric, everything that’s come out of it is relevant to us. I’m excited that 5 Kinds of Nonfiction shares more than 150 mentor texts and discusses everything from the history of nonfiction to the differences between expository and narrative nonfiction to nonfiction craft. There are more than 20 activities and most of them are just as relevant to children’s book writers as they are to teachers working with K-8 students.
Sue: I know. I’ve actually been doing some of those activities. So I remember back in 2013 you were trying to develop a nonfiction “family tree.” Over the years, your thinking about this family tree evolved. So can you tell us a little bit about the way you currently classify nonfiction?
Melissa: Sure. We’re used to subdividing fiction into categories like mystery, science fiction, realistic fiction, and historical fiction, but in the past, we’ve just lumped all nonfiction together. The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system brings clarity to the wide world of nonfiction by breaking it down into groups with specific traits.
Before I developed this system, writing every manuscript was like shooting in the dark. I was just stumbling along, reinventing the wheel every time. But now that I understand the patterns of different kinds of books, I can go about my work more intentionally. This has made me a faster, more efficient writer. Now I have general guidelines to get me started, but I also know when and how to break the “rules” so that each book is uniquely creative.
Sue: Which sections in your book are relevant for writers creating nonfiction books for children?
Melissa: That’s a great question. Chapter 1 includes the origins and history of nonfiction, which I think is helpful because it explains some of the things about nonfiction that don’t seem to make sense, such as why folktales and drama are shelved in the nonfiction section of the library and why it’s so hard to pin down a definition for the term “informational book.”
Chapter 2 introduced the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system and provides lots of sample texts. Chapters 3 and 4 are worth a quick scan, but Chapters 5-7 should be incredibly helpful to writers. They look closely at the craft of nonfiction writing. There are interviews with highly-regarded authors, and we’ve analyzed excerpts from a wide range of children’s books. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might recognize some of the material, but here it’s expanded and updated, and, of course, it’s all together in one place.
Sue: Those are the three chapters I have been spending the most time with, for sure. I especially like the way you show how text structures are used in different books, and the insight you provide into voice, language and point of view.
Sue: I love that book. Not only does it contain essays from amazing writers, but it also includes a treasure trove of ideas for things to do in the classroom – or homeschool – to help young writers develop their own “secret sauce” for writing nonfiction.
Melissa: Another great book is Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard. Like my books, it’s written for students, so it’s particularly relevant to us.
If you are especially interested in narrative nonfiction, there are three books you may want to take a look at Draft No. 4 by John McPhee; Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call; and Story Craft by Jack Hart.