Understanding Categories of Nonfiction for Young People

Thanks to Common Core, school librarians and other educators are plunging headfirst into the wonderful world of reading and writing nonfiction literature, and we couldn't be more thrilled. Early elementary educators typically concentrate their instruction on text features, while teachers in the intermediate grades focus on text structures and narrative versus expository writing style. We would like to encourage educators to broaden their instruction to include explicit guidance on nonfiction book categories, which we believe should be introduced in the intermediate grades and reinforced during middle and high school, as students read and write more complex nonfiction texts.

Most nonfiction books for young people can be classified in one of four categories: life stories (biography, memoir, and autobiography), survey books, specialized nonfiction books, and concept books. Nonfiction authors choose a particular category based on the information they want to share and how they want to share it.

When young readers can identify a book's category, they gain insight into what motivates the author as well as the kind of content the book is likely to contain. They also come to realize that different categories of nonfiction can and should be read in different ways. This knowledge can deepen their comprehension of individual texts and their understanding of nonfiction books overall.

The Four Categories

Life Stories

Even though most students have no trouble recognizing life stories, it's important to introduce children to a wide range of texts, including "cradle to grave" biographies, episodic biographies (partial accounts that require readers to tease out a larger theme in connection to the person's contribution to society), autobiographies and memoirs, and collective biographies that feature many different people.

When young people learn to identify the kind of life story they're reading, they'll know in advance whether they're going to experience the full arc of someone's life or just a snapshot. Some of our favorite life stories published in the last several years include Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh, Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea Davis Pinkney (illusrated by Brian Pinkney), and The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert.

Survey Books

Survey books, sometimes called all-about books, are what we think of as traditional nonfiction. They serve as a broad introduction to a topic and emphasize balance and breadth of coverage rather than depth (Hepler 2003; Kiefer 2010). Young readers should understand that a survey book provides an overview of a topic. While students may decide to read the book from cover to cover, they can also skip around, using the table of contents, headings, and index to locate the subtopics that interest them most. Recent titles we admire include Daily Life in Ancient Greece by Don Nardo, Spidermania: Friends on the Web by Alexandra Siy (illustrated by Dennis Kunkel), and Wild About Bears by Jeannie Brett.

Specialized Nonfiction Books

Specialized nonfiction books are generally narrowly focused to treat a specific topic in a unique way (Kiefer 2010; Hepler 2003). Authors keep stretching the boundaries of this category, exploring intricate in-depth content while also covering a wider range of topics than ever before. Here are a few recent standouts: Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone, Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown, and Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore.

The interests and passions of individual writers often serve as the catalyst for meticulously researched specialized nonfiction, and the way writers present information often models that passion and inquiry. As students read a specialized nonfiction book, they should recognize that it's an in-depth exploration of a topic or event.

Concept Books

Concept books explore abstract ideas or processes and invite young readers to generalize and see patterns (Hepler 2003). In many cases, they offer unique perspectives or new ways of seeing things (Kiefer 2010). This approach works well for picture books about life cycles, seasons, animal behavioral patterns, and other key science and math concepts. As students read a concept book, they should realize that they're exploring an idea or process. Good examples of books in this category include Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Animal Infographics by Steve Jenkins, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart (illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen), and Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre.

Teaching the Four Nonfiction Book Categories

For students in intermediate grades, middle school, and high school to develop a clear understanding of the four categories, they need many opportunities to interact with nonfiction books over an extended period of time. To observe students' prior knowledge and pique their curiosity about categorizing nonfiction books, divide the class into small groups and invite each group to gather a range of books on a single topic from the school library. After students have sorted the books into piles that make sense to them, compare and contrast the criteria each group used.

Next, introduce the four major categories of nonfiction books and read aloud several titles that fit each category. What do students notice about how books in each category share information with the reader? What are the similarities and differences across categories?

Finally, send the groups back to the stacks to gather a selection of books on a new topic. Then invite students to sort the books into the four categories—life story, survey, specialized, and concept.

From Reading to Writing

Learning to classify nonfiction books by category can also help intermediate, middle school, and high school students in writer's workshop. "Nonfiction writers gather, sift, and shape their material. They answer selected questions, raise others, and provide interpretations of evidence they have uncovered. One author's view of historical evidence or presentation of scientific information can be quite different from another writer's" (Cappiello, Zarnowski, Aronson, 2012). In other words, each writer looks at a topic through his or her own unique lens, And, that view affects how he or she presents information, ideas, and true stories to the world.

In deciding how to frame the material, professional nonfiction writers often think first about their mission—the driving force behind their work, what they hope each and every book accomplishes. Then they consider the core idea they aspire to convey with that particular manuscript. In many cases, the core idea is deeply personal. Perhaps it traces back to a powerful memory from childhood. It might be the result of a deep-seated desire, belief, or disappointment. Regardless of the source, it becomes the heart of the manuscript; the emotional trigger that fuels the writing process.

"Kids love No Monkeys, No Chocolate because they're intrigued by the idea that we depend on monkeys (and many other creatures) for our favorite dessert. That's the relatable lens I use to convey the book's core idea—that everything in the natural world is intertwined, including us. Even though I revised the book fifty-six times over ten years, that core idea was front and center in every single draft.
"Why was I so passionate about sharing that concept with young readers? The answer traces back to the glorious woodland walks my father, brother, and I took when I was young. That's when I first discovered how living things are related to one another and their environment. During those walks, our father's enthusiasm for nature rubbed off on us, so in many ways No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a tribute to him."

Because the core idea influences how an author categorizes his or her book, all nonfiction writers, student or professional, should take the time to ask and answer the following series of questions:

  1. Is my goal to write about a person's life and his/her specific accomplishments?
    If yes, then a life story is the best choice.
    If no, go to 2.
  2. Is my goal to provide a broad overview of a topic?
    If yes, then a survey text is the best choice.
    If no, go to 3.
  3. Is my goal to delve deeply into a highly-focused topic?
    If yes, then I should write a specialized text.
    If no, go to 4.
  4. Is my goal to help my readers understand an abstract idea or process?
    If yes, then I should write a concept text.
    If no, reconsider 1-3.

When a nonfiction writer settles on a category early on, it can guide his or her research process and help him or her choose the most effective text structure, writing style, voice, and point of view for a manuscript.

Works Cited

Cappiello, Mary Ann, Myra Zarnowski, and Marc Aronson. "On Common Core: Nonfiction as Mentor Text." School Library Journal (March 30, 2013). http://www.slj.com/2013/03/collection-development/on-common-core-nonfiction-as-mentor-text/#_

Cappiello, Mary Ann. "Parrots Over Puerto Rico." The Classroom Bookshelf blog (December 2, 2013). http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2013/12/parrots-over-puerto-rico/

Hepler, Susan. "Nonfiction Books for Children: New Directions, New Challenges." In Making Facts Come Alive: Choosing and Using Nonfiction Literature K-8, second edition, edited by Rosemary A. Bamford and Janice V. Kristo, 3-20. Christopher-Gordon, 2003.

Kiefer, Barbara Z. Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature. 10th edition. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010.

Activities to Reinforce Nonfiction Book Categories

Identifying Concept Books.

Sometimes, children and adults have trouble identifying concept books. Read aloud Melissa Stewart’s concept book Feathers, Not Just for Flying to students in grades 3 and up. Ask your students to identify what information they learned from the book. Did they learn all about birds? Students will be able to identify that the book focuses exclusively on feathers. This illuminates the “job” that concept books do: they highlight an abstract idea or a concept. In this case, the book reveals that bird feathers have not one function, but many.

To further demonstrate the qualities of a concept book, read Lita Judge’s Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why, a concept book that focuses on bird communication and Melissa Stewart and Higgins Bond’s A Place for Birds, a concept book that focuses on interdependence, and how certain birds depend on certain habitats. Because we can sometimes see more clearly through contrast, finish with two specialized nonfiction books, such as Stephanie Spinner and Mielo So’s Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird and Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots Over Puerto Rico. Ask students to consider the ways in which these last two books are different from the previous three. Finally, ask students to compare and contrast how all five books are organized and the type of information each shares.

Specialized Nonfiction Genre Study.

Begin with a read aloud of Parrots Over Puerto Rico. Next, have students read about efforts to save other endangered animals. For the intermediate grades, focus on books with positive outcomes, like Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor’s The Eagles Are Back, The Wolves Are Back, and The Buffalo Are Back. For middle and high school, include books with a less hopeful outlook: Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop’s Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot and The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal and Phillip Hoose’s The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. After students research the efforts to save these creatures from extinction, have them write their own specialized nonfiction that both informs and persuades.

About the Authors

Mary Ann Cappiello is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and chairs the NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award for Oustanding Nonfiction Committee. She is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity, and she blogs about teaching with children’s literature at Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog, www.theclassroombookshelf.com.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying. She maintains the blog Celebrate Science (http://celebratescience.blogspot.com) and offers school visits and teacher in-service programs that focus on nonfiction writing, using children’s books to address curriculum standards and creative ways to integrate science and language arts instruction. Find her at www.melissa-stewart.com or melissa@melissa-stewart.com.

MLA Citation Cappiello, Mary Ann, and Melissa Stewart. "Understanding Categories of Nonfiction for Young People." School Library Connection, March 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2140894.

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