Monday, February 13, 2012

Mentor Monday: Is it Possible to Combine Fiction and Non-fiction?

One of the recent topics on the Children’s Non-fiction list has been whether it is possible to use fictional techniques in non-fiction and if so, what does one call this hybrid? Librarians might argue, More importantly, where does one shelve it in the library?

In an article for the Institute of Children’s Literature entitled "Creative Nonfiction vs Informational Fiction,” author Jan Fields gives this definition:

Creative nonfiction happens when an author uses totally well researched facts to create a story-like narrative with NO made up parts. Creative nonfiction isn’t FICTION – it has to be built from facts. The pieces that lend themselves to creative nonfiction will be either historical, profiles, or biographies.”

(Read the entire article here):

Melissa Stewart, author of more than 150 non-fiction titles for children, disagrees. She posted on the non-fiction list:

“I believe the most accepted definition of creative nonfiction is a more general term. In other words, narrative nonfiction is just one kind of creative nonfiction. There are a host of ways nonfiction can be creative, and in recent years, authors are really experimenting and innovating and coming up with some amazing stuff.I recently wrote an article for the SCBWI Bulletin that draws attention to what I refer to as nonfiction with a strong voice. It is creative because it is lyrical or humorous/sassy/silly, for instance.”

Profile writers for my America’s Notable Women series ( are asked to open each story with a creative non-fiction hook. Using information gleaned from their research, the authors’ first 50 or so words show the featured woman at a crossroads in her life. They rarely use dialogue unless quoting from the profilee’s diary or an interview. It is possible, in this way, to use fictional techniques to grab our child-reader and make her want to read more.

There are other ways to combine the two genres. Some writers alternate chapters. Others might use sidebars to present the non-fiction aspects of their stories. Sarah Marwil Lamstein’s new book, Big Night for Salamanders, uses a change in font to help young readers navigate the switch from fact to fiction. I find the technique very successful but almost unnecessary. While the story is not told in predictable page turns (for example, all left pages would be non-fiction, all right pages fiction), the story flows smoothly from one to the other.

Big Night tells the story of the annual migration of the spotted salamander from their winter dens to the vernal pools where they will lay their eggs. The fictional part of the story involves Evan and his family. Each year, they volunteer to help the salamanders cross a road that separates the salamanders from the pools by lighting the area and asking drivers to slow down watch for the tiny creatures. The fictional aspect of the book provides the tension that makes what could have been just a series of facts a lovely work of literature. It is easier to care about people because they show emotion. The reader transfers the emotional attachment developed for Evan. Because he cares about these small amphibians, the reader cares too.

The use of fictional techniques can enhance non-fiction. As always, we suggest you become familiar with current authors who have strengthened their fictional voices by doing more than stating a series of facts. Melissa Stewart, in her recent post, suggested the following:

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre (illus by Steve Jenkins)

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman (illus by Beth Krommes)

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (illus by E.B. Lewis)

Step Out Gently by Helen Frost (photos by Rick Lieder)

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson (illus by Matt Faulkner)

The Truth About Poop and See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House by Susan E. Goodman (illus. by Elwood H. Smith)

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinski (illus. by S.D. Schindler)

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley (illus. by Edwin Fotheringham)

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos


I'm Jet . . . said...

Eventually I'm going to dig deeper into this topic on my own, but in the meanwhile, I LOVE the titles of the books Melissa points out.

Lots to think about here -- and to research!


Barbara said...

I think there's probably room for both types of creative nonfiction. Different publishing houses have different standards and what may not work for one house will work for another. Again, it comes down to finding the publishing house that most suits your manuscript and style.