Narrative nonfiction. It’s the trendy name for a newish kind of nonfiction writing that’s been slowly simmering for years. Today, it’s at a full boil, partly because of our schools’ adoption of the Common Core. So what is it? Narrative nonfiction is a kind of nonfiction in which writers use fiction techniques (like plot, narrative, drama, voice, creativity, and fully-drawn characters) to tell a true story or explore a topic.
What’s so great about these books? They’re fun, they’re engaging, you can’t put them down–which is hardly true for the vast majority of nonfiction out there. Kids love these books, because they teach history, science, and other subjects in a compelling way, without the dryness we’ve come to expect from nonfiction.
Narrative nonfiction is a big deal in the world of books for young adults, but there are lots of great books being published for younger readers, too. Here are five great choices:
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone (ages 5-8)
This is a picture book, meant for adults to read aloud to pre-readers. And it’s a fantastic way to share a new idea—women gaining the right to vote—with very young children. Award-winning writer Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of the brave, unconventional woman who challenged the notion that only men can have a role in running our nation. The beautiful illustrations perfectly complement Stone’s spirited, fast-paced prose, which contains almost no dialogue (because only documented dialogue can be used in true nonfiction) but is good fun to read all the same. The story touches on serious subjects (including slavery), and this is bound to spark meaningful conversations between parents and children.
The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum, by Candace Fleming (ages 9 and up)
Candace Fleming, another award-winning writer with a long list of popular nonfiction books to her name, takes on America’s most famous circus man. Although Fleming doesn’t shy away from P.T. Barnum’s faults, ultimately he comes through as an integral, iconic part of American history. A self-made man, he dabbled in politics, gave millions to charity, and donated valuable items to the American Museum of Natural History. The sidebars explore other topics of interest, a great way of expanding the subject without getting off-topic in the main narrative. The many amazing photos bring the era to life, and at the end of the book, readers will be hungry to learn more about circuses and this period in history—which is just what a good nonfiction book should do.
Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion, by Loree Griffin Burns (ages 11 and up)
Using new technology to track sneakers and other cargo lost at sea, scientists have made huge leaps in our understanding of ocean currents—and drawn important conclusions about the impact of our trash on the environment. One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the author’s sense of humor. By providing funny anecdotes and refusing to take the subject too seriously, Loree Griffin Burns warms up a potentially frosty topic. The discussion of sneakers is particularly effective. What student could not see the concrete correlation between sneakers lost off a Korean cargo ship and later found washed up on shore, and the study of “ocean motion”? Personal photos (such as the one of a scientist and his mom in front of their home, holding sneakers), add even more interest. The book ends by making a link with environmental issues. Readers will be motivated to change their ways after reading about the Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the coral reefs harmed by lost fishing nets.
Brooklyn Bridge, by Lynn Curlee (ages 10 and up)
Did you know that when the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, in 1883, its towers were the tallest structure on earth? And that its massive cables were the first thing to be constructed of the new substance called “steel”? Those are some of the interesting tidbits in Lynn Curlee’s beautiful picture book-style volume. But besides the engineering details, Curlee reveals the human drama behind the bridge. We learn, for example, that the brutal underground digging in compressed air—in conditions described as “a scene from hell”–led to the death of the three workmen and made the Chief Engineer an invalid and recluse for life, leaving his wife to take over; that one week after the bridge’s opening, a panic broke out and 12 people were trampled to death; and that P.T. Barnum led a herd of elephants across the bridge a year later as a publicity stunt. Although this is really aimed at tweens and teens, younger children may enjoy looking at the lush illustrations as an adult reads aloud.
Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, by Rosalyn Schanzer (ages 11 and up)
Using legal documents and letters, Rosalyn Schanzer attempts to suss out the truth about the terrifying witch hunt that resulted in hundreds of people jailed and over 20 people hung. This subject is a blockbuster that has fascinated Americans for centuries. Schanzer gives it a different treatment, writing in a clear and direct but slightly chatty tone, and enhancing the tale with her own eerie black-white-and-red woodcuts. Although she does not make assumptions, reminding us that some things will never be known because of the lack of written evidences, she does suggest theories and raise questions. Overall, the book does an excellent job of humanizing something that happened over 300 years ago, as well as encouraging young readers to think and wonder rather than just absorb.