Raising Readers: What You Need to Know About Nonfiction (Guest Post)

Mar 7, 2016

I discovered Alysa's blog a couple of years ago, and we instantly connected over our love of children's literature.

Alysa is a graphic novel enthusiast (she just finished serving as a Round 2 Cybils judge in the graphic novel category), and since that is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in, I love to go to her blog for recommendations. In February, she made a goal to write a post on her blog every day (every day!), and she totally accomplished it with wit and style and humor.

Today she's sharing some tips about how to raise a reader who loves nonfiction. I feel like I'm constantly on the lookout for great nonfiction books that will please all my kids, but especially my rather picky six-year-old. I hope you find this post helpful, too!

Over the past month or so, I've had a couple of friends ask me about how to help their kids get into reading non-fiction. Perhaps they asked because they know I have an elementary education background. Maybe they asked because they know I judged non-fiction for kids in the Cybils. Or maybe they just asked because we are friends and it was on their minds. Anyway, I thought what I told them might help you, too. 

There are two types of non-fiction: narrative and non-narrative. Actually, there are many types of non-fiction, but they can all be roughly divided into two categories: narrative, and non-narrative. 

You know that a narrative is a story. So, narrative non-fiction is true stories—think about biographies and historical accounts. Non-narrative non-fiction is true facts—think about the Guinness Book of World Records or My First Book of Numbers. 

If your children enjoy fiction, I recommend introducing them to some narrative non-fiction. This category of non-fiction book is designed to be read straight through. My friend Kirstin said that she had tried some non-fiction with her kids but, "they asked me to stop reading! They said they were done. And they never say that they're done with a book." I asked her a little bit about the book, and it was non-narrative. Since her three kids are all pre-kindergarten, I'm not surprised they didn't stay interested in the book. 

What keeps us interested in non-narrative (sometimes called expository or informational) non-fiction, is that it is answering our questions. I know kids who read the dictionary for fun, but I wasn't one of them. I use the dictionary when I have a question. And that's perfectly fine. Informational non-fiction is designed to be dipped into, to be picked up in the middle. It's organized so that you can quickly find what you want and get out. It's a beautiful thing, but it's different from narrative, and kids who don't know how to read in this way might need a little more help from you. Kirstin's kids might have stayed more engaged with their book if she had guided them towards some questions about the subject. If you're not accustomed to pausing during reading and talking with the kids, this could seem strange at first. But if you think of non-fiction books as a way to engage your kids in deep and meaningful conversations, you'll find success. 

It is definitely worth it to help your kids enjoy non-fiction. And it's easier now than ever to get them going on it. Remember when I said you could think of biographies and historical accounts as two kinds of narrative non-fiction? Well there are so many more. There are picture books that tell the story of volcanoes creating island. There are bird watching guides that have a conversational tone and just really suck you in. 

That's the biggest thing that I learned when I judged the non-fiction category for the Cybils. The Cybils only accepts nominees that are narrative, it doesn't take workbooks or collections of facts or other informational non-fiction. And I was totally shocked by how much amazing narrative non-fiction is out there. The quantity and the diversity of the nominees blew my socks off. "This is NOT the non-fiction I grew up with!" I found myself saying. 

So, next time you take the kids to the library, I hope you take a minute to browse the non-fiction in the children's section. (If they have a "new" shelf especially for non-fiction, go praise your librarian.) Now that you know a little more about narrative and non-narrative non-fiction, you'll be better prepared to help your kids pick something they like and learn how to read it.  

Remember, if it's narrative, you can treat it a lot more like a typical read-aloud. If it's non-narrative, don't be afraid to dive in the middle, stop once your questions have been answered, or just enjoy the pictures and captions. Different books are meant to be read differently. 

Alysa makes her online home at Everead, where she has been writing about children's literature since 2008. Her offline home, in Connecticut, is equally well stocked with books, opinions, and optimism. She loves refried beans and being a stay-at-home-librarian to three young patrons.


  1. Thanks for having me, Amy! This was a lot of fun. And I'm glad to know you're looking for non-fiction for your six-year old. I'm prepping a post for today that's going to have lots of good non-fiction recommendations! So I'll definitely be thinking of him. Any particular subjects he is interested in?

    1. Bugs! (He's more of the non-narrative type.) My 7-year-old loves narrative nonfiction about history (like books by Jim Murphy or Steve Sheinkin).

    2. Glad you told me this! I tossed our favorite bug book in the post. Maybe he's already read it! I confess I haven't read any by Murphy or Sheinkin, though I did pick up Bomb and start browsing through it once. It was fascinating! But I was interrupted and the owner of the book took it home again. :)

  2. I never really thought about that division for nonfiction, but it's completely right!

    I have a kid that would get interested in something and devour all nonfiction about it. Invertebrate sea creatures! (Animal books. Ocean books. Diving books.) Egyptian pyramids! Which branched into Egypt in general and any ancient civilization that did pyramids. He would do narrative fiction but also would dip into just the relevant sections of encyclopedic books, which meant he mastered indexes and tables of contents very young.

    He's still not a very enthusiastic reader, but I try to leave out things that tickle his interests, fiction, and both kinds of nonfiction. Then I try very hard to pretend not to care if he picks them up or not.

    1. Thank you! And oh my goodness it sounds like your reader definitely reads for information, rather than for entertainment. I love your current system.

  3. Great post! I'm happy to find your blog, too. :)
    I love narrative non-fiction, and actually read a lot of it myself. So this post was right up my alley! My kids like a mix of the two kinds, but if it's non-narrative, we definitely take it in pieces.

    1. Thanks, Linnae! I have to say I'm glad to find your blog, too!


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