5 Kinds of Nonfiction

Whether we organize the nonfiction in our library by Dewey, ditching Dewey, or some other method, our libraries are often organized by topic. In her AASL National Conference presentation, Melissa Stewart gave conference attendees another way to think about nonfiction collections. While it may not change how you organize your nonfiction, it may change how you look at your current collection, continue to build that collection, and talk to your students about nonfiction. 

Expository and Narrative Nonfiction

5 Types of Nonfiction

Students love nonfiction, but they may not love all types of nonfiction. Stewart takes all nonfiction and divides it into two types. The first is expository that describes, explains, and informs. The second is narrative that tells a story or conveys an experience. She illustrates these two with a reading of Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley as well as Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? (one of her books). Both cover the same topic, so she is able to illustrate the differences between these two books.

After sharing some examples of expository and narrative nonfiction, she asked us to identify which type we preferred or whether we liked both types of nonfiction. In an earlier survey, those that she describes as gatekeepers overwhelmingly prefer narrative nonfiction. This is supported by looking at award-winning and honor books from the Printz, Newbery, Caldecott, YALSA, and Sibert, when nonfiction books were recognized, the overwhelming number of those books were narrative nonfiction.

But when looking at what elementary students prefer, studies have shown that that the majority of students prefer expository nonfiction. Stewart’s point is that we need to collect and promote a wide variety of nonfiction for a rich reading experience.

Five Types of Nonfiction

Stewart shared her five categories of nonfiction, four of which are expository:

  • Traditional: Typically called “all about” books, these books give an overview of a topic in clear and straightforward language. They are also, for many students, a great place to start their understanding of a topic.
  • Browsable: These books have short blocks of text and are well illustrated. Readers can skip around in the book or read it cover to cover. These often have high-interest information.
  • Narrative: Good for biographies or historical events, these tell a chronological story with real characters, scenes, and a narrative arc.
  • Expository Literature: Identifiable by its rich language and strong voice, these books have innovative formats. They have narrowly focused topics and make great mentor texts for writing workshops. They are also often focused on STEM topics.
  • Active: Highly interactive, these titles give readers step-by-step instructions to teach skills to help students engage in an activity. They can include cookbooks, craft books, and how-to guides

Rethinking Your Book Collection

These categories give us another way to view our collection. Stewart shared a 2015 report showing that in a survey of some U.S. classroom libraries nonfiction makes up less than 25% of a collection and expository nonfiction writing makes up less than 10% of collections. She also sets a suggested goal for nonfiction where your school library collection would contain 50% nonfiction. Narrative, expository, traditional, browsable, and active nonfiction titles would break down at 15%, 30%, 20%, 25%, and 10% respectively. She shared this is an evolving idea. 

While it can’t all be captured here, she shares the slides from her session on her blog post. With plenty of opportunities to talk and share, Stewart’s session gave me a lot to consider when it comes to our nonfiction collection.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: AASL National Conference, Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community

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1 reply

  1. Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

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