As school librarians dissect the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the emphasis on informational texts stands out as one of the most obvious ways for librarians to contribute to implementing the Standards. From collection mapping and needs assessment to promoting reading and designing instruction, the responsibilities of librarians lend naturally to the goal of incorporating more nonfiction in content area-learning and independent reading. In this article, I will examine the “literary nonfiction” component of informational texts, look at some examples that you probably have in your collection right now, and consider the links between literary nonfiction and inquiry.
DEFINING LITERARY NONFICTION
The CCSS introduce an unprecedented focus on “literary nonfiction” not only in English/language arts, but also in history and science, in order to support the Standards’ high expectations for reading. Connecting reading and resources across the curriculum sounds like the purview of the school librarian. However, I must admit that when I started to work with the CCSS, I couldn’t confidently define “literary nonfiction,” as described in the Standards. According to the Standards, “literary nonfiction”
Includes the subgenres of exposition, argument, and functional text in the form of personal essays, speeches, opinion pieces, essays about art or literature, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts (including digital sources). . . (2010, 57).
The few examples given in the CCSS are helpful: books by Aliki, Gail Gibbons, and Seymour Simon at the elementary level, and selections from primary source documents and books like Common Sense and Walden for the secondary level. But even as I chatted with some school librarians recently, we realized that we were able to describe more readily what literary nonfiction was not. It is not a book or article comprised of discrete facts. It’s not (most) series books about animals, machines, notable people, or countries. Literary nonfiction is not especially helpful for topical research, because it’s more like a story, readable from beginning to end.
Nonfiction author Elizabeth Partridge writes in Horn Book Magazine that she prefers to call her work “narrative nonfiction” over “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction” (2010). In her article about recent youth book awards for narrative nonfiction, Partridge explains that books such as Charles and Emma (Henry Holt & Co. 2009) by Deborah Heiligman and her own Marching to Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary, use familiar techniques of fiction—”character development, voice, plot, and theme”—to tell true stories (Partridge 2009, 70).
In an English Journal article about successfully engaging teens in reading and writing of contemporary memoirs, Kirby and Kirby explain that with literary nonfiction,
What distinguished these writings from conventional factual and informational texts was that they were not only well-researched accounts of real events or experiences but also artful narratives. They employed literary techniques… including using distinguishable first-person voice, posing questions, and often injecting uncertainties and ruminations into their factual texts (2010, 22).
Kirby and Kirby explain that contemporary memoirs’ use of the reflective, first-person voice stimulates personal connections for readers (2010). Students learning to write in this style build transferable writing skills as they conduct research, make sense of information, and explain relationships.
WHERE IS YOUR LITERARY NONFICTION SHELVED?
To answer this question, I needed to look at books already on the library shelves. I started with books on animals, a continually popular choice for young readers. I first came across Laurence Pringle’s A Dragon in the Sky: The Story of a Green Darner Dragonfly (Orchard 1997)om quality nonfiction. Similarly, Pringle’s An Extraordinary Life: The Story of the Monarch Butterfly (Scholastic 1997) marries science and storytelling. Still in the animal shelves, I found Little Panda (Simon & Shuster 2004) by Joanne Ryder, which describes the first days of a newborn panda at the San Diego Zoo, and this one reminded me of Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship (Scholastic 2006), the improbable tale of a tortoise and a hippo.
Once the idea of narrative nonfiction starts to become clearer, mining your existing collection for new and favorite older titles gets easier. Books by Donald Crews, Jim Arnosky, and Tana Hoban invite younger readers to explore the natural world and their immediate surroundings. The Caldecott Medal-winning Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009) tells the story of Wilson Bentley’s study and photography of snowflakes. Another picture book, James Warhola’s Uncle Andy’s (Penguin Young Readers Group 2005), recounts the author’s August 1962 trip to visit his uncle, Andy Warhol.
At the intermediate and middle levels, check your shelves for history titles such as George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War (National Geographic 2004) by Thomas B. Allen, and books by Russell Freedman, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and Jim Murphy. For shorter selections, Kathleen Krull’s Lives of Athletes: Thrills, Spills, and What the Neighbors Thought (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012)--and similar collections--offer snappy biographical sketches, with caricature-style drawings to complement such entries as, “How to Benefit from Being Tall,” about volleyball player Flo Hyman.
Some works challenge and expand the concept of literary nonfiction, and these books may depend on booktalking or inquiry projects to find readers and occasions for exploring. Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems (Front Street 2001), for example, is an award-winning collection of poems about the life of George Washington Carver. The poetry is (of course) lyrical, but informative at the same time, “invest[ing] facts with significance” in the way that Douglas Hesse contends creative nonfiction uniquely does, “teaching a kind of imagination that differs from pure fiction” (2009, 21).
As part of my shelf scanning, I also found books that my middle schoolers reluctantly skim-read for social studies projects. Facts don’t jump out in narrative nonfiction titles like Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King by Zahi Hawass (National Geographic 2005), and deeper reading is required to establish any sense of the person and the story. Here’s where inquiry enters the picture.
INQUIRY AND LITERARY NONFICTION
With the titles above to spark your thinking, you can begin to boost your school’s emphasis on literary nonfiction by searching the existing nonfiction collection and documenting areas of need. But having books on hand is not in itself a sufficiently strong argument for why librarians can and should be supporting this part of the Standards. Assignments and projects must be designed to encourage inquiry that extends beyond fact-gathering.
Hesse explains that, “creative nonfiction reminds us that, while facts may be waiting for finding, interpretations are waiting for making” (2009, 21). Interpreting, questioning, and doing something with the information students consume: this is the critical connection between school librarians and the teaching of literary nonfiction in content areas. In order to make the most of our literary nonfiction collections, we must provide good scaffolding for reading, with questions that require and encourage critical thinking. By elevating books on the shelf to meaning-making experiences, librarians and teachers can facilitate opportunities for students to dovetail their careful reading of literary nonfiction into research and writing, through sound analysis and insightful reflection.
Examples of Literary Nonfiction Titles:
- Allen, Thomas B. George Washington Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War. National Geographic, 2004.
- Hatkoff, Isabella, Craig Hatkoff, and Paula Kahumbu. Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. Scholastic, 2006.
- Hawass, Zahi. Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King. National Geographic Children's Books, 2005.
- Heiligman, Deborah. Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith. Henry Holt, 2009.
- Krull, Kathleen. Lives of Athletes: Thrills, Spills, and What the Neighbors Thought. Harcourt Brace, 1995.
- Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley. Houghton Mifflin,1998.
- Nelson, Marilyn. Carver: A Life in Poems. Front Street, 2001.
- Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching to Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. Penguin Young Readers Group, 2009.
- Pringle, Laurence. A Dragon in the Sky: The Story of a Green Darner Dragonfly. Orchard Books/Scholastic, 2001.
- Ryder, Joanne. Little Panda: The World Welcomes Hua Mei at the San Diego Zoo. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
- Warhola, James. Uncle Andy's. Putnam, 2003.