Thursday, March 5, 2020

ReFoReMo Day 4: Author Heidi E.Y. Stemple Breaks Down Narrative Non-Fiction


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.

MOTH: AN EVOLUTION STORY by Isabel Thomas, Illustrated by Daniel Egneus

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.




STONEWALL: A BUILDING, AN UPRISING, A REVOLUTION by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christof

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.


GIANT SQUID by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

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.





IT BEGAN WITH A PAGE: HOW GYO FUJIKAWA DREW THE WAY by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad

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.  

YOU ARE MY FRIEND: THE STORY OF MISTER ROGERS AND HIS NEIGHBORHOOD by Aimee Reid, illustrated by Matt Phelan

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.





DANCING HANDS: HOW TERESA CARRENO PLAYED THE PIANO FOR PRESIDENT LINCOLN by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

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.





SWAN: THE LIFE AND DANCE OF ANNA PAVLOVA by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad

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.

LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES by Miranda Paul, illustrated by John Parra

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.




BEAUTY AND THE BEAK: HOW SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND A 3D-PRINTED BEAK RESCUED A BALD EAGLE  by
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.



BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET by Lesa Cline Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

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.




BREAD FOR WORDS: A FREDRICK DOUGLAS STORY by Shana Keller, illustrated by Kayla Stark

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.



142 comments:

  1. Heidi, thank you for this mini master class in narravtive NF. I love both your examples and your insights into them. You've given me a couple of ideas for a few of my manuscripts. Thanks again.

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  2. Thank you for your examples of narrative non-fiction and for your descriptions of each of these books. Much food for thought!

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  3. Nonfiction is so exciting these days! I love that these books gently inform readers while capturing their imaginations. Thank you, Heidi.

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  4. I love narrative NF and your post has highlighted some great mentor texts. Thank you.

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  5. Thank you Heidi for sharing this great list for narrative nonfiction. I've read some of these and can't wait to check out the rest.

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  6. Heidi: THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to tell true stories in such a captivating way. I, too, LOVE narrative nonfiction! I CAN'T WAIT to read and research the titles you listed, to help with some story ideas of my own. And THANK YOU for breaking down the writing process you used for your Audubon Christmas Bird Count book. I look forward to reading it and seeing how you applied these steps. THANK YOU for ALL the INSPIRATION!!!

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  7. The genres used to be so separate, with an impermeable wall between fiction and non-fiction. Now, among others, there’s information fiction and narrative non-fiction and walls seem out of place… These books are truly amazing. Thank you for choosing them and also for drawing attention to pagination.

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  8. Thanks for sharing such brilliantly told NF stories, Heidi.

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  9. Thank you for your thoughts and a lovely book selection!

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  10. Thank you, Heidi. I love the backstory for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, your passion for NNF and the books you've shared.

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  11. Heidi, once again you came through for me. I enjoyed your selection of titles. Thank you,.

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  12. This post is really getting me to pay attention to the language --once I've enjoyed the story of course. I'm glad to have a new list of books to devour.

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  13. Thank you for this wonderful posting on narrative nonfiction. So many tips. So many good books. So many structures to review. Thank you. Thank you, Heidi!

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  14. Thanks for telling us some things to look for when reading narrative nonfiction.

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  15. What a wonderful crop of books. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  16. I loved the backstory on "Counting Birds"! I love this genre also. I will take a closer look at all books you have mentioned. Thanks!

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  17. I am learning so much about how to read in a completely different dimension. I know your description of the narrative form provides me with a new analysis tool. Thank you!

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  18. Knew we could 'count' on you for excellent recommendations. Thanks Heidi!

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  19. I loved, It Began with a Page! It reminded me of my old books still at my parent's house. I'm sure they are hers since I am a child of the 60s. These are a wonderful selection of books, can't wait to see the moth book-it is on the way to my library today! Thank you!

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  20. Thank you. I am a novice in the world of picture books and just gobbling up every word— and book.

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  21. Thank you for this very informative post. Your description of what to look for in each book is particularly helpful.

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  22. Thank you for recommending such great examples of narrative fiction. I look forward to diving into these today.

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  23. Thanks, Heidi. Love your examples and love me some narrative NF. Have you and Jane's newest, EEK, YOU REEK!, sitting my ReFo stack now. How is Jane doing?

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  24. Great list of narrative non-fiction books. What an inspration.

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  25. Loved the books you shared. What great mentor texts for narrative non-fiction books.

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  26. I'm not a non-fiction nerdy - I'm more of a fiction freak -- but narrative non-fiction is a wonderful welcoming blend. I might just give it a try! Thanks Heidi!

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  27. Heidi, I loved your book choices and your explanation of how each is narrative non-fiction.

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  28. Bread for Words is so interesting, I want to read it now! I ordered it :)

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  29. Thank you, Heidi, for sharing a masterclass in narrative nonfiction writing. Many outstanding titles.

    Suzy Leopold

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  30. This is very timely for me, as I'm working on several nonfiction picture books! What a variety of mentor texts you've suggested. I love Swan and Stonewall, and I'm excited to read the others!

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  31. Thanks for the roundup. I like the different storytelling techniques that fit their subjects. Little Libraries is starkly different from Dancing Hands for good reason. But, truly, I can't wait until my library hold of Gyo Fujikawa arrives. I was entranced by her illustrations while sick as a child. I still seek out her work in used bookstores! Thanks again.

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  32. Love this group of narrative nonfiction! Thank you, Heidi!

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  33. Wow! Thanks not only for this fabulous list of narrative nonfiction books, but more importantly, your insights into each one. As a non-dancer, I would never have caught the link between the language in SWAN and the representation of ballet life, or how nicely BEAUTY AND THE BEAK illustrates the difference between books and magazine articles. I really appreciated the time and effort you put into pointing out the importance things to notice in each book.

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  34. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this great list of work!

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  35. I look forward to reading the books on your list. Thanks.

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  36. Wow! Thanks, Heidi, for sharing the perfect list to show different styles of narrative NF to match the subjects. Whether fiction or nonfiction, playing with the magic of language is key, and what keeps readers turning the page.

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  37. This is a very inspirational list of books. I know it is a great title when there are 20 holds on 5 copies in the library. That was the case with three of these titles!
    Thanks.

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  38. Thank you, Heidi, for this inspiring post on narrative nonfiction. I've enjoyed reading the books used as examples.

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  39. Thanks, Heidi--I feel the same way about nonfiction! I try to work it in even when I'm writing fiction. This was a beautiful collection of books. I loved the messages of hope, caring, and inclusivity throughout.

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  40. Thank you for sharing these captivating stories, and highlighting how each one works so well!

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  41. Thank you, this has been a fascinating read.

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  42. There are a lot of ways to approach non-fiction text and stories. I am glad someone walked me through the ways each of these presented the topic. Thank you Heidi.

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  43. I write narrative non-fiction too and it is always interesting to see other books in a similar vein. Thank you for sharing all these titles, I shall be delving in!

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  44. Thank you Heidi for such clear guidelines. A mini lesson for me, a novice narrative non-fiction writer.

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  45. Great post, Heidi! Thank you for the wonderful examples of narrative nonfiction and for giving us a peek at the backstory for "Counting Birds."

    I loved "Swan" and "Before She was Harriet" and can’t wait to read, "The Beauty and the Beak" and "Bread for Words."

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  46. Thanks, Heidi! I've used GIANT SQUID as a mentor text. I need to read IT BEGAN WITH A PAGE.

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  47. Thanks, Heidi. This is a great lists to choose from!

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  48. Heidi, thank you for this great post/primer on narrative nf! The ex's are super helpful!

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  49. Thank you for introducing me to some new, amazing NF picture books, Heidi!

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  50. Heidi, thank you for the NF mentor texts you chose to share. So much to learn from these inspirational books!

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  51. Heidi - thank you for this very helpful post on narrative NF. I can't wait to take a closer look at some of the books you mentioned, in particular Dancing Hands.

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  52. When I first saw the list of books for today, I groaned. I imagined a pile of biographies that were going to be dry as sand (and I don't like bios). But wow...was I ever wrong! This set of books has been one of my favorites! I enjoyed each and every one of them, with my 2 faves being "Harriet" (such an incredible voice/POV in the writing) and "Swan" (for me, it was like reading a symphony). Thank you, Heidi, for such a great selection both for the heart, and the student!

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  53. a non-fiction lover, too. thanks for the reading list.

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  54. I love non fiction too, and you've chosen a few of my favorite books as mentor texts. Thanks, Heidi!

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  55. Great selection of non fiction and highlights the wonders of facts.

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  56. Thanks so much for these selections and for the thoughtful descriptions that support each one. Learning so much!

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  57. Your enthusiasm and insight are inspiring and so very helpful. Thank you! What wonderful books to study.

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  58. What a great list of books! Thanks!

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  59. Am a big fan of nonfiction as well. I learn so much from reading NF PBs

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  60. I love narrative nonfiction, and this is a great list! Thank you!

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  61. These books sound so interesting. Thanks for the post and the helpful information.

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  62. I love the repeated "before she was" in Before She Was Harriet. so lovely and effective. A great selection today!

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  63. Thank you for this wonderful exploration of narrative nonfiction--you've chosen some of my all-time favorite books and a few I haven't read but have on hold at my public libraries. :)

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  64. Thank you for this wonderful list. it's great to see this form in action.

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  65. Thank you for sharing these glorious examples of narrative NF. I can’t wait to read the books you reference.

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  66. What an excellent sampling of the best in narrative nonfiction! Your insightful comments have given us guidance that will be so useful as we hone our own writing and strive to improve it. These mentor texts also show such interesting topics. Thank you!

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  67. Thanks Heidi. This is a great sampling of narrative nonfiction books!

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  68. Before She Was Harriet is one of the books my Library system didn’t have. I’m making a trip to the bookstore. I have to check it out!:)

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  69. I think I was as impressed by the lyrical language and word choice of many of these books as I was with the way all the factual information was integrated into it. What skill to be able to combine nonfiction with beautiful language! And now I have to Netflix the Mr. Rogers new movie for sure!

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  70. Before She Was Harriet - an amazing, multi-layered book. I need my own copy of this one!

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  71. It is my goal to write a narrative non fiction book and so I treasure these mentor texts examples and your comments about each! Thank you. Could say something about each, but Before She Was Harriet is brilliant and beautifully written.

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  72. While I loved all the pictures I struggle through NF texts. I see the value in them but just not my first choice.

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  73. Thanks for all these examples and for highlighting what makes each one special.

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  74. Nonfiction is so well done now compared to when I was a child. I'm excited that it doesn't seem to be slowing down. Thanks for all these examples.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  75. Thank you for the suggested reading on this list! SWAN is one of my all-time favorite PB bios, but I'm very eager to read more, since I'm working on one, myself. Thanks for BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET, in particular- so wonderful!

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  76. I love these titles and how they are each unique, yet effective.

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  77. Thank you! The Narrative NF stories shared individual struggles during difficult times as they accomplished great things for the benefit of others. I had an opportunity to organize 4 Little Libraries, but did not know of Todd's life and dedication to honor his mother. Thank you!

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  78. Thank you, Heidi! I think I'm a NFN (Nonfiction Nerd) too! I recently read It began with a page, and thought it was wonderful. And, Giant Squid is a favorite. Many of the books you listed are gems. Thanks for giving more insight into narrative nonfiction. I think it adds something special, and I hope to do that as well when writing.

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  79. Thank you for providing us with a master class in narrative nonfiction.

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  80. Thank you for providing such inspiring NF mentor texts - such variety and each one so effective in a different way.

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  81. Great example of narrative NF. Thanks so much for sharing and telling why you picked each!

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  82. I'm like you...I love writing narrative nonfiction! And these are all great examples, each so powerful in its own way, to learn from!

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  83. Thank you for this!!! I love reading and writing narrative nonfiction, so am thrilled to have a new list of examples! I love love love Before She Was Harriet.

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  84. Before She Was Harriet is a favorite of mine. It's on my read again list for April Poetry month. Thanks for explaining NNF. I have a hard time keeping the different NF types straight - Narrative, Informative, Expository, Nonfiction.

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  85. Wonderful post! Thanks for introducing me to some new favorites, Heidi!

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  86. Wow! Thank you for this list, Heidi! I'm so excited to jump in and enjoy these beautiful texts! I love narrative non-fiction as well, especially when done so well! Thanks again!

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  87. Had read Before She was Harriet. Excellent. Want to read, specially, Bread for Words.

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  88. Wonderful selection representing this type of writing. Thank you!

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  89. Bread for Words blew me away when I read it. It made me feel blessed with my chance to learn to read before I even started school. Thank you for pointing out why each book on your list is one we should read as mentor text.

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  90. Narrative nonfiction has become amazing.

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  91. Thank you Heidi! Great examples of narrative non fiction. Super helpful.

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  92. Hi Heidi. Thank you for the deep dive into narrative nonfiction. Loved reading some of those beautiful mentor texts. Fell in love with SWAN. Also glad to see my friend, Shana's, book make your list!

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  93. The art for Giant Squid was great!!!

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  94. Hi Heidi. I have added more titles to my list of must-reads. Thank you, as always!

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  95. Thank you for this post and these wonderful mentor texts!

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  96. Thank you for these wonderful mentor texts. It's helpful to understand that narrative non-fiction is showing vs. telling, and these books do that so beautifully. What an inspiration!

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  97. Can’t wait to read these delicious books. Thanks Heidi

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  98. Thanks, Heidi. You chose important books with beautiful language...each capable of impacting lives! (Yours included!)

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  99. Thank you, Heidi, for your thoughts on narrative non-fiction. You gave us some wonderful ideas to help us all out!

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  100. thanks Heidi for your awesome examples of narrative nonfiction.

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  101. You truly are a master of non-fiction, Heidi! Thanks for sharing your wisdom about narrative nonfiction and these gems.

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  102. Thank you for this! I always thought of nonfiction as fact books/expository, but have fallen in love with narrative nonfiction reading to my kids.

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  103. I really enjoyed these books coupled with your thoughtful analysis. Thank you!

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  104. Just what I was needing, thank you for so many inspiring titles to dive into as I study narrative non-fiction more in-depth.

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  105. Wonderful examples of narrative non fiction. Thank you for the post.

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  106. It's not easy to write an engaging cradle to grave biography but Laurel Snyder beautifully did with "Swan". Thank you for sharing your post and recommending this book.

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  108. Some great example of narrative nonfiction!

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  109. Some of these books were slightly longer than I anticipated, but SO full of vital non fiction content!

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  110. Ah, what a list! Swan is one of my absolute faves! And I love Kyo Maclear's work.

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  111. Thanks Heidi! I tried to comment the other day and since have gotten two more of these from the library. Love it!

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  112. This is an amazing selection of books!

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  113. What a fabulous collection of books, Heidi. Thank you for this list, your insights and your NF enthusiasm. I am a convert and loving it.

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  114. Thank you for these wonderful examples of narrative NF!

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  115. On the heels of NFFest, your post amplifies and clarifies the ways NF is coming into its own now. Thanks for sharing such powerful examples

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  116. I've always been a fan of stellar narrative nonfiction. The stuff I grew up with was like chewing cornstarch. Thanks for this fabulous list. I've already read some of these, but others are new. I'm excited to read them!

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  117. Thank you for sharing a selection of books that I wouldn't have otherwise looked at!

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  118. Being a librarian, I so love the story of the Little Free Libraries. These are all wonderful selections. Thank you!

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  119. I am writing non-fiction and loved this selection of books. Thanks.

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  120. Heidi, this post certainly is a master class! Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for providing such excellent narrative nonfiction mentor texts and descriptions.

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  121. Thank you, Heidi! I don't write nonfiction (yet), but this was inspiring!

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  122. Thank you Heidi. Your descriptions are yummy, like a talking about a favorite recipe :) Cant wait to finish reading them and savoring every "bite!"

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  123. Thank you, Heidi, for this great list of narrative NF books. I love the way they make the topics accessible and engaging for everyone.

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  124. Thank you for sharing so many great examples in non-fiction!

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  125. What great examples! The definition between expository and narrative nonfiction was very helpful.

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  126. Thank you Heidi. Great examples and great lessons.

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  127. "While expository nonfiction is telling, narrative is showing" thank you for this simply perfect definition and the beautiful examples you shared.

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  128. Narrative nonfiction is my absolute favorite to read and write. Putting Bread for Words on hold at the library.

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  129. I'm not as well versed in NF, so really appreciated this post. I loved exploring the different ways NF can engage and take shape on the page!

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  130. Thank you Heidi for your thoughtful contribution to our studies! This crossover genre really brings in additional readers that wouldn't typically go for nonfiction.

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  131. Absolutely loved how these stories -- so different in their content and language -- are each so compelling! They not only draw you in to that specific story, but they make you want to engage with the non-fiction truth/history behind it.

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  132. Thank you for this great list of accessible non-fiction books.

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  133. Thanks, Heidi, for this fabulous list and analysis of narrative nonfiction. As a narrative nonfiction writer, I echo your sentiments wholeheartedly. Facts told in story-form are often more fascinating than fiction!
    PS. It was a pleasure hanging out with you at Highlights this month 😊

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  134. I love narrative non-fiction, too! Thanks for this post, Heidi. I read Moth to the kids in my 3rd grade classroom - the science was easy for them to grasp. I read Giant Squid with my son but we both thought it ended too abruptly - we wanted more. All of these were good in their own way.

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  135. I love to hear what resonated with others when they read books. Great insights!

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  136. Narrative non-fiction holds a place in my heart as well. This selection of texts is perfect. They inspire as well as entertain. Thank you for highlighting this topic. :)

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  137. I love narrative nonfiction. My library only had half of these titles. I look forward to finding the rest of them. I love your descriptions.

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  138. Lovely post. I enjoyed reading these quiet, thoughtful texts to share with young children.

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  139. SWAN is a longtime favorite of mine, but I'm excited to use BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET as a mentor for an upcoming bio project! Thanks!

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