I am a nonfiction nerd. I love it. I love expository nonfiction. I love facts and figures. I like diagrams and timetables, lists and bullet points. I love nonfiction in poetry. I like it rhyming, silly, serious, and epic. I even like nonfiction in my fiction--backmatter!!
But, today, I want to feature another of my favorite forms of nonfiction—Narrative nonfiction. This is nonfiction told in a story form. While expository nonfiction is telling, narrative is showing.
I had always wanted to tell the story of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, but in all my attempts, I failed. Finally, I realized, the way this story wanted to be told was in a narrative nonfiction format. I needed to come at it straight on—let the actually story have the spotlight. I gave it a narrative arc (one that is slightly different from the one they teach you in picture book 101—it begins at one point and grows, exponentially, from there, to return, just on the last page, to the beginning). I use some word play and mirrored language in the telling—the first line is “Frank Chapman loved birds.” And the last is, “And all this because Frank Chapman loved birds.” And, “All birds are welcome/All birders are welcome.” I play with the sounds of the bird and place names using, mostly, alliteration, “That first year, on Christmas day, 1900, 27 bird watchers, in 25 locations from Connecticut to California, counted common loons and killdeer…” I seed the narrative with literary devices that make it very read-aloud friendly to make it accessible to the youngest readers. I love books that do that.
Here are some other narrative nonfictions that make the most of their 32 (or more) pages with different types of language. Every one is a master class in narrative nonfiction writing.
This gorgeous book tells the story of the peppered moth as it undergoes population changes with the changing world, thereby explaining evolution and natural selection. It takes a complicated scientific subject and makes it clear and easy to follow because of its long historical collapsing of time and generations. Look to its gentle internal rhymes and where the art and words become one.
This book, about the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Movement, is told from the buildings’ point of view. Though, the author may not have intended it, the use of two buildings (because that is the true), means the narrative uses “us” and “we” which feels like the right way to tell a book about fighting for inclusivity. I love how the arc of this story begins in the dark and bursts into the light using language that repeats in both parts.
This oversized book tells, lyrically, the story of a giant squid. I’m not sure everyone would call this narrative nonfiction, but look at all the amazing facts stuffed into this book! The languid language (as well as fantastic art direction) which makes me sway in the reading, as if I am under the ocean with this huge, ink-squirting (check out the double gate fold) creature is picture perfect.
This stunningly beautiful biography reads like you are breathing in and out, in and out. The text (though, additionally, the illustrations in alternating black and white and glorious color really help with this) contracts and expands as the subject’s life moves through childhood, to art school, to her family’s internment during the war, and her first forays into publishing. This book is a real study in pagination. Look at how it uses the page-turn to move time quickly forward or linger. And how it makes you, the reader, stop in either joy (the kimonos page) or stark reality (the prison camp page). I, of course, don’t know if the author paginated, or the illustrator and art director did, but, it is done brilliantly.
The language of this biography is as gentle as Mr. Rogers, himself. It is not overwritten or too explain-y as it shows all the pieces of Freddie’s early life that developed into his later philosophies on a kind life where it is ok to show one’s emotions. It has a lovely softness to it that is evocative of the real man behind the tv show.
With the deftness of a poet (because she is one of the best), the author seeds this lovely text with metaphors and similes that bring this narrative to life. The language beautifully illustrates how art (in this case music) lifts the artist out of the dark and into the light.
Somehow, this cradle to grave biography winds up in everything I write or present. In this case, of note, is that the language (to this ballet mom) is a brilliant representation of a ballet life. At times, rote with an even beat, and at times, gloriously free. But, always with great discipline.
What makes the language in this book so spot-on is that it uses very straight forward text—unflowery, short lines, tackling the subject in a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other way, though occasionally breaking to speak directly at the “you” reader. This is perfect for this book that speaks to the ordinary, every-day hero (or hero-to-be) who does ordinary things that make big impacts.
Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Velkamp
This narrative about a real life bald eagle who was injured by a bullet is told without ever anthropomorphizing the raptor. I love the tidy language in this book that both keeps the eagle completely real and the core of the emotional story. Even though a true account of a science-related incident can sound a lot like a magazine article instead of a book, this text never falls into that trap.
This book is a poem so it doesn’t really follow the traditional narrative form. But, I leave it here because, if you want to learn about nonfiction voice, this is a must read. If you can tell a story like this—you owe it to the world to do so. Read this aloud once, then twice—the first time just to hear its gorgeous language. The second to study its brilliance.
I was lucky enough to get an early copy of this book. The story of Fredrick Douglas’ quest for freedom through learning to read, is told in first person, seeded with questions that shape the narrative in a childlike voice. It follows the young Fredrick as he figures out how important reading is and how to find ways to learn through tenacity and resourcefulness. Read this (when it comes out) to look at how to use language to make a difficult subject accessible to a modern child reader.
Heidi is giving away her book, EEK, YOU REEK! to one lucky winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 2, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.
Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published more than twenty-five books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
Heidi lives and writes on a big old farm in Massachusetts that she shares with one very small cat who lives inside, and a dozen deer, a family of bears, three coyotes, two bobcats, a gray fox, tons of birds, and some very fat groundhogs who live outside.