Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Five Kinds of Nonfiction

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?

 Melissa: Yes! The truth is I developed the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system for myself—so that I could better understand the children’s nonfiction market. Back in 2012, when I started thinking about nonfiction classification, I was having a lot of trouble selling manuscripts. I thought developing categories might help me figure out what kinds of manuscripts publishers would be most likely to acquire.

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.


Once readers understand the characteristics of the five categories, they can quickly and easily determine the kind of information they’ll find in a book, predict how the information will be presented, and identify the kind(s) of nonfiction they enjoy reading most.

 And when I say “readers.” I mean kids and children’s book authors as they study books as mentor texts. The system helps to make patterns visible. For example, it highlights why narrative nonfiction is ideal for picture book biographies, books about historical events, and books that describe a scientific process. And why expository nonfiction is a better fit for books about broad topics or specific science concepts.

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.

 Melissa: Chapter 9 also deserves a close read. It looks at today’s most innovative authors and books and where nonfiction may be headed in the future. 

Sue: What other books would you recommend for children’s nonfiction writers who finish reading your book and are looking for more?  

: One is an anthology I edited called Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Children’s Books. It’s a must have because it features powerful, insightful essays by today’s leading authors.

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.

I’m going to add one more to the list: Anatomy of Nonfiction, by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. I find myself referring back to it every now and then.

 A huge Thank You to Melissa for sharing her book and her thoughts on nonfiction with us today. Melissa has written more than 180 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and her newest book Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. She maintains the award-winning Info-licious Inspiration blog, and her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.



  1. So honored to have you on the GROG today, Melissa! Great breakdown of the book and what chapters will help NF writers the most! Thanks to you and Sue.

  2. As an educator and a writer I know NONFICTION WRITERS DIG DEEP is an excellent resource that I refer to often. I'm quite certain I need FIVE KINDS OF NONFICTION: ENRICHING READING AND WRITING WITH CHILDREN'S BOOKS.

    Thank you Melissa and Sue.

    Suzy Leopold

  3. Terrific post for those of us who write NF! Thank you Melissa and Sue!

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