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As an author and editor of nonfiction books for children, Melissa Stewart has many years of rich and varied experience. An editor since before the days of desktop-publishing software, she remembers when book pages were created by cutting out blocks of text and illustrations and then pasting them down with rubber cement. As an author, she is known for more than 180 books on science topics for children.
Here Stewart discusses what makes a text expository and why the format is so useful, particularly for the classroom.
You have written that you prefer the term
Informational text has multiple definitions. Around 1970, librarians began using the term to differentiate factual, research-based titles from the rest of the nonfiction section (which includes poetry, drama, folktales, etc.). That’s why the criteria for the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal defines informational books as “those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material.”
Unaware of what was happening in the library world, in the 1980s, literacy educators introduced the term informational text to describe a narrow subset of nonfiction writing that presents information about science, history, and other content areas. According to this usage, informational text does not include biographies or any kind of narrative writing.
Then, in 2010, the Common Core State Standards defined informational text in a much broader way, including all factual, research-based nonfiction (the librarian definition) as well as reference books, instructions, forms, maps, persuasive essays, and so forth. As a result, we now have three contradictory definitions, which makes the term useless.
I prefer to think about true texts in terms of writing style. Nonfiction with an expository writing style explains, describes, and informs in a clear, accessible fashion. It’s often the best way to present STEM concepts and processes. Nonfiction with a narrative writing style tells a story or conveys an experience. It’s generally the best way to share information about people and historical events.
At one time, expository nonfiction for children left a lot to be desired, but that’s changed tremendously in recent decades. The term expository literature allows us to differentiate finely crafted expository nonfiction from the traditional expository nonfiction often found in series books.
YOUNG: Currently, many of the books that receive nonfiction awards are narrative nonfiction. Why is it that narrative nonfiction gets so much attention?STEWART: Most people in the children’s literature community, including the people on award committees, tend to connect more strongly with narrative writing than expository writing. They chose to be editors, librarians, literacy educators, professors of children’s literature because they love books and are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling.
Research clearly shows that some people prefer expository writing. They’re more interested in data, facts, ideas, and patterns than in making an emotional connection with the central figure in a book. But those people tend to choose different kinds of careers. So, generally speaking, the children’s literature community has a bias toward narrative writing. It’s important to acknowledge this bias and to recognize that some students think differently. Some children will only thrive as readers if they have access to a rich selection of expository literature.
YOUNG: Today some writers of expository nonfiction use first-person narration. Are there potential dangers of this practice?STEWART: Some librarians and literacy educators have expressed concern about using first-person narration in picture-book biographies. They feel that presenting the narrative from the point of view of the book’s subject moves the book into the realm of informational fiction. Others disagree. They claim it improves the storytelling and aren’t worried that children might be confused. So far, this kind of debate hasn’t emerged for expository nonfiction, probably because having a fly or a dinosaur or a penny talk about itself is less problematic than putting words into the mouth of a historical figure.
Are some young children confused by this way of presenting true information? I’m not sure. Perhaps writers should avoid this kind of narration in early readers and transitional chapter books, where there’s no adult reader to intervene if a child mistakenly believes that an animal or inanimate object really can talk or experience the world in the same way as humans do.
YOUNG: You have said that expository nonfiction qualifies as expository literature “if it (a) is meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts, (b) features captivating art and dynamic design, and (c) incorporates a creative and well-executed mix of the following text characteristics: strong voice, carefully chosen point of view, innovative text structure, purposeful text format, and rich, engaging language.”
Would you please share some examples of your own published and forthcoming expository nonfiction books that include these characteristics?STEWART:
No Monkeys, No Chocolate (illustrated by Nicole Wong, 2013) captivates readers with an intriguing title. The main text has a unique cumulative-sequence structure, while the secondary text offers supporting details that are sure to satisfy curious kids. Comical bookworm characters in a third layer of text amuse readers as they investigate an important science concept—the interrelationships among plants and animals in a rain-forest community.
In Feathers: Not Just for Flying (illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen, 2014), alliteration, opposition, and repetition infuse the prose with a wondrous, lyrical voice that gently encourages children to explore the many surprising ways that birds use their feathers. Precise, vibrant verbs and similes in the main text drive the book’s compare-and-contrast text structure, inviting readers to make connections between feathers and familiar objects in their daily lives.
Can an Aardvark Bark? (illustrated by Steve Jenkins, 2017) employs an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read-alouds. The main text delights readers with internal rhyme and surprising text patterns, while the secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to discover how and why animals use sounds to communicate.
In Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, 2018), a playfully patterned description text structure, humorous conversational voice, and second-person narration provide a lighthearted overview of 14 animals with traits (small, slow, shy, clumsy) that might seem undesirable to us but are critical to the creatures’ survival.
Below, Melissa Stewart and Terry Young present a list of particularly effective expository science literature for children. These books are categorized according to the most common expository-text structures.
Human Body Theater. By Maris Wicks. Illus. by the author. 2015. First Second, $14.99 (9781626722774). Gr. 5–8.
Using first-person narration and a playful, humorous voice, a singing, dancing skeleton explains the fascinating details of human anatomy. Thanks to the book’s enticing graphic format, children will eagerly read it cover to cover once and then flip through over and over, savoring every tantalizing tidbit.
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard. By Annette LeBlanc Cate. Illus. by the author. 2013. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763645618). Gr. 3–5.
A treasure trove of innovative graphic elements and text features convey information visually, allowing Cate to pack an astonishing amount of information into a survey book that describes the many facets of bird-watching and encourages children to give it a try. Delightful first-person narration and a lively, humorous voice will appeal to even the most reluctant readers.
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes. By Nicola Davies. Illus. by Emily Sutton. 2014. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763673154). K–Gr. 3.
Fascinating facts, clever comparisons, and engaging second-person narration bring the micro world to life for young readers. Inviting, retro watercolors—rendered in earthy tones on creamy paper—impart a sense of wonder while showcasing the surprisingly diverse roles bacteria and other microbes play in shaping our world.
How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Illus. by Steve Jenkins. 2015. HMH, $17.99 (9780544313651). Gr. 2–5.
Ever wondered how a python swallows a pig or a capuchin monkey repels pesky insects? Step-by-step instructions presented in a droll, witty, slightly irreverent voice and accompanied by finely crafted cut-paper collages allow readers to imagine themselves solving the problems 18 wild animals encounter every day.
Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. By Sarah Albee. Illus. by Karl Newsom Edwards. 2017. Crown, $17.99 (9781101932230). Gr. 5–8.
Amusing language rich in puns, rhyme, alliteration, and surprising phrasing delight readers as they discover the astonishing variety of ways poisons have affected us during the last 24,000 years of human history. A vibrant color palette, dozens of carefully selected photos, and cartoony spot art add visual interest.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. By Rachel Ignotofsky. Illus. by the author. 2016. Ten Speed, $16.99 (9781607749769). Gr. 5–8.
Most biographies have a narrative writing style, but this book employs clear, concise expository prose to highlight the accomplishments of 50 trailblazing women in STEM careers, from ancient times to the modern world. Informative time lines, science-themed infographics, and stunning portraits of each woman, rendered in a pastel palette on black backgrounds, enhance the uniqueness of the book’s overall design and format.
Compare and Contrast
Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of. By Martin Brown. Illus. by the author. 2017. David Fickling, $18.99 (9781338089349). Gr. 2–5.
Each double-page spread features a large, eye-catching illustration rendered in a style that perfectly matches the zany, witty voice of the prose. Concise main text and sidebars present a parade of fascinating facts about the two-dozen underappreciated creatures. Dialogue balloons with comments from the animals add to the fun of this list book.
Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals. By Jess Keating. Illus. by David DeGrand. 2016. Knopf, $16.99 (9780553512274). K–Gr. 3.
In this list book, each double-page spread includes a large, attractive photo of the featured animal; a cartoon illustration; and fact-filled text written in a humorous, conversational voice. Each of the four text layers has a distinct purpose and type treatment to guide young readers in navigating the pages as they explore an intriguing array of pink creatures.
Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. By Gene Barretta. Illus. by the author. 2009. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $16.99 (9780805087031). Gr. 1–3.
Colorful cartoon watercolors, clear and concise text, and an ingenious format that reinforces the compare-and-contrast text structure highlight how the ideas recorded in da Vinci’s notebooks foreshadowed such modern inventions as parachutes, armored tanks, scuba gear, and rotisserie cookers.
Cause and Effect
Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems. By Mary Batten. Illus. by Beverly J. Doyle. 2003. Peachtree, $15.95 (9781561459032). Gr. 3–5.
This book’s gentle, authoritative voice clearly explains how invasive species—introduced into an ecosystem on purpose or by mistake—are outcompeting plants and animals native to the area. Information-packed realistic illustrations support the text, providing an engaging overview of how and why invaders are threatening the balance of life in environments all over the world.
Earth: Feeling the Heat. By Brenda Z. Guiberson. Illus. by Chad Wallace. 2010. Holt, $16.99 (9780805077193). K–Gr. 3.
Rhythmic text and detailed oil paintings in a bleak palette explore how a dozen different animals are affected by climate change. On each double-page spread, the text concludes by asking, “Who can help?”—a question that is reassuringly answered at the end of the book: “People can!”
If Sharks Disappeared. By Lily Williams. Illus. by the author. 2017. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (9781626724136). Gr. 1–4.
Utilizing clever design and formatting, this book describes the important role of sharks in Earth’s oceans and presents an accessible, scientifically sound depiction of how the disappearance of these apex predators would affect ocean ecosystems.
Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs! By Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Illus. by S. D. Schindler. 2005. Dutton, $15.99 (9780525469780). K–Gr. 3.
Scientists make mistakes? You bet! That’s the clear message conveyed by appealing art and a lively, conversational voice that highlights how paleontologists have learned from their mistakes as they’ve struggled to understand what prehistoric creatures looked like and how they lived.
A Place for Butterflies. By Melissa Stewart. Illus. by Higgins Bond. 2006. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561455713). K–Gr. 3.
Stunning realistic illustrations and a simple, gentle main text introduce young readers to some of the ways our actions are affecting butterfly populations throughout North America. Secondary text explains how people are working to protect our favorite insects and preserve the places where they live.
The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins. By Sandra Markle. 2015. Lerner/ Millbrook, $30.65 (9781467780308). Gr. 4–6.
Sandwiched between narratives at the beginning and end, engaging expository text with a problem-solution structure describes how scientists and Brazilian citizens worked together to save endangered monkeys from extinction. Vibrant photos, a dynamic design, and rich back matter further enhance the book.
Question and Answer
Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons. By Sara Levine. Illus. by T. S. Spookytooth. 2013. Lerner/ Millbrook, $26.60 (9780761384649). K–Gr. 3.
Most children’s books have a clear overall text structure, but this one is equal parts compare-and-contrast and question-and-answer. Lively second-person narration and inviting stylized illustrations showcase how bones and skeletons of various animals are similar to and different from our own.
Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Illus. by Steve Jenkins. 2014. HMH, $17.99 (9780544233515). PreS–Gr. 3.
Appealing animal portraits, first-person narration with occasional bits of humor, a fun question-and-answer text structure, and an interview-style format make this book unique. Young readers will find the cornucopia of facts about how an animal’s facial features help it survive irresistible.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids). By Bridget Heos. Illus. by Stephane Jorisch. 2011. Lerner/ Millbrook, $25.26 (9780761358589). Gr. 2–4.
This delightful spoof on the popular parenting books features colorful, cartoony art; a lively, playful voice; and an appealing question-and-answer text structure that breaks up the fascinating fact-packed text into manageable chunks that allow readers to pause for conversation.
Caswell, Linda J., and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts (1998): 108–17.
Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts (2000): 485–95.
Mohr, Kathleen A. J. “Children’s Choices for Recreational Reading: A Three-Part Investigation of Selection Preferences, Rationales, and Processes.” Journal of Literacy Research (2006): 81–104.
Repanskey, Lisa L., Jeanne Schumm, and Jacqueline Johnson. “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology (2017): 1–40.
Terry Young teaches courses in children’s literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
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