Nonfiction defined, its elements, & tool box

Nonfiction is literature written or other wise produced in prose based on facts, real people, and real events. Biography, autobiography, history ... As opposed to Fiction which is literature written or produced in prose about imaginary people and events. Made up short stories, novels, or productions.

Elements of Nonfiction

Four Major Elements of Nonfiction

  1. Lay out
  2. Information
  3. Characterization
  4. Style and Tone
    • make interesting
    • narration

Lay out

Layout should attract the reader and encourage reading and progression through the book.


Information includes facts, little known information, and ideas that spark curiosity, creates mystery, and propels the listener/reader/viewer to discover and learn.


Style and tone

Style should maintain the reader's interest. Nonfiction presents information, but the listener/viewer/reader doesn't need to be bored by a collection of information in choppy sentences. Good style adds interest to the story.

Style and tone that presents information - interestingly

Readers are attracted to nonfiction because they have a question or curiosity. With the question answered or curiosity satiated, what is there to keep the reader reading?

Therefore, authors of nonfiction sequence information to create wonder for the reader as they uncover facts that lead from discovery to discovery. In doing so the scope of information must be presented from simple to complex to provide the reader or viewer essential information for understanding ideas presented and prepare them for more complex ideas to come.

The author must also decide the scope of information to present; giving enough detail for comprehension, but not so much as to overwhelm. Mary Lou Clark does this in You and Relativity, she introduces the concept of relativity by saying:

"relative to the sixth floor, the third floor is down,
but relative to the first floor, the third is up."

Then describes frame of reference building the vocabulary and associated concepts needed for later understanding of relativity.

Isaac Asimov, is very good in doing this in books he wrote for children and adults. An example is when he tells the story of how Mendeleev spent years sorting, classifying, and arranging cards that represented elements, until he arranged them in the order of the periodic table, Chemistry.

Jean George in Spring Comes to the Ocean creates curiosity by her descriptions of the animals.

"First he unhooked the muscle at the spiral end of his old shell. Then he pulled himself out and stood vulnerable, so naked that even a wind-blown grain of sand could kill him. His exposed belly was so delicate that a nodding grass blade could cut him in half... He slashed his tail through the air and stuck it into the new shell. Backing carefully, he reached his tail down and around until he felt the last coil of the shell. Then he hooked onto it with a grip so strong that few could pull him out. When at last he had a firm hold, he contracted all his muscles and slammed himself deep into the shell."

Rachel Carson in The Sea Around Us , increases wonder by telling no one was around when the ocean was created long ago. We would expect it impossible to tell how, when she surprises us by telling us that it is, possible.

"Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea. Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts, there is bound to be a certain disagreement. ... It must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine. The story is founded on the testimony of the Earth's most ancient rocks which were young when the earth was young."

Style and tone of a narration

Many authors use a continuous narrative to join topics in books and sustain interest, Isaac Asimov was an expert with this technique. Another technique, to make facts interesting, is to personalize the readers' experiences by making comparisons and using I and you. Why Can't I?; by Jeanne Bendick , compares the child's feet to a flies and uses you..

"The bottoms of your feet are smooth and slippery. You can make them a little sticky by wearing sneakers. But you're still too heavy to walk up a wall or across the ceiling."

Another consideration in the narrative is the words. Many times authors will use smaller words, because of readability tests or fear that children can't understand big words. But the size of the word is less relevant than if the word is part of every child's vocabulary: like McDonald's, hamburger, refrigerator, aluminum, dinosaur, telephone ...

Another error is personification and sentimental distortion in animal stories. Authors should tell the story through observation, not how they think the animal thinks or feels. Yellow Eyes, by Rutherford Montgomery gives very good and interesting descriptions. Many children want stories that have real people telling the story, use of pronouns we and you achieve this.

Watch for condescension and sarcasm. Superstition in different cultures is often treated in this manner. Edwin Tunis treats his subject this way:

"There was no Indian who was even reasonably free from superstition; it covered everything in the world. When every animal and every tree, and every stream and every natural phenomenon was possessed of a spirit, probably malevolent, it took a lot of finger-crossing and wood-knockin to ward off evil. The Indian was afraid of everything ... of killing snakes and wolves ... of witchcraft and of the owls he associated with it ... superstition ... pervade all Indian living."

Milton Meltzer in All Times, All Peoples: A World History of Slavery wrote:

"white, black, brown, yellow, red- no matter what [your] color, it's likely that someone in [your] family way back, was once a slave."

we’re told why:

"It was hard for [the earliest peoples] to feed themselves... That is why, when they raided other people, they killed them instead of taking them prisoner. If the winners had spared the lives of the losers, they would have been unable to feed them."

Then we are told that as farming and food production grew, and it was possible for conquerors to feed prisoners, they kept them as slaves.

Condescension in animal stories is often in the form of anthropomorphism, suggesting the animal is so boring that the author has to make it human to create an exciting story.

Didacticism and propaganda - it is hard for some authors not to preach, especially when the subject is as important as drug abuse. But if the facts are carefully arranged, the evidence presented, ideas will build to prove the point. If not, the book may cause learners to dismiss it as pure propaganda or to create doubt and mistrust in what the authors have written. The author is obligated to present the information in a scientific manner. If there are differing theories or evidence, then the author needs to address them.

Objective - Creators of nonfiction have the obligation of being objective. The creator must sort through information and decide what to include or omit. How much fact and how much narration. If the information should just be possible or probable and if controversial information should be included.

Underlying themes are essential in nonfiction. The manner in which the information is presented creates an underlying theme that may be positive, condescending, negative, curious... or what ever.

It is important to consider the reader's/viewer's/listener's understanding and attitude that will develop with respect to the ideas, subjects, or people in the text; shaping the reader's/viewer's/listener's understanding and attitude by the themes; shaping the ideas and emotions that they take from the piece, which may be carried with them for life.

The Invincible Louisa, has underlying themes which unify the story. Again this is best done with reasoning and examples not by being didactic or preachy.

Notice the different underlying themes, of Columbus and Native Americans, created by the style and tone in the following passages from different historical books:

Columbus and his men saw a new beautiful world. Here were brown men with no clothes at all. Their bodies were painted red and other bright colors... They were pleased to take gifts of bells and beads and scarlet caps. They were a gentle and friendly people.

[The Indians] who had been hiding behind trees and rocks came up to the white men. They came in the friendliest manner. These natives were light brown in color, and rather tall, They had straight, coarse, black hair, and large eyes. They stroked the Spaniards' clothes and their beards. Columbus finally managed to "talk" to the Indians by making signs with his hands. The Indians made signs too. They "told" Columbus he was welcome.

[All Columbus saw] were naked, red-skinned savages. They threw themselves to the ground and worshiped Columbus and his bearded men ... They thought that gods had descended from the heavens on white-winged birds. They led the white gods to their homes. Curiosity quickly overcame fear on the part of the people of the island, and soon they came out to meet these strange men from another world.

These very handsome people were Tainos ... Columbus called them Indians. He described them as gentle and helpful in every way. They wore no clothes, and many of the men painted their bodies.

...the only sign of gold was the gold rings that the natives wore in their noses. Indeed, that was all they wore. The people were as naked, Columbus said, "as their mothers bore them" which of course, was pretty naked. Otherwise, they were normal looking. They didn't have umbrella feet or eyes on their shoulders.

Instructional ideas to Analyze Nonfiction

Helping Students - Learn How to Identify and Use Nonfiction

Nonfiction is literature written in prose based on facts, real people, and real events. Biography, autobiography, history...

Fiction - is literature written in prose that is about imaginary people and events. Made up short stories and novels.

Identifying Nonfiction and Fiction

Learners need to use both words within the context of literature to understand and remember their meaning. They easily confuse which is which.

Word associations of - (fact : nonfiction) and (not fact : fiction) are easily switched.

Even the associations of (nonfiction : true) and (fiction : false) can be switched.

Seeing the non in nonfiction, can cause students to think not and thinking not true seems more sensible than not not true or not false. No wonder they get confused.

Learning the definitions is one problem. A second problem is learners often believe or want something to be true so even knowing the meanings of fiction and non fiction may still not be enough to have them identify a piece of literature accordingly.

A good discussion about the meaning of fiction and nonfiction, how to remember, and how to decide can be beneficial. The following questions can provide incite for the teacher as well as the learners.

Model for learners how to use nonfiction books. Ask questions to help then learn how to ask questions as well as how to find answers.

Model how to find information in different texts. and how to use different parts of those texts, if necessary (tables, charts, graphs, outlines, pictures, captions, Venn diagrams, matrix, maps, table of contents, and index).

How do we know if information is accurate when we find it?

Model how to verify information with multiple sources.

Make a chart to list ideas presented in a book in one column and two other columns for verification - secondary verification and primary verification.

Example from text - Antietam was the bloodiest battle in the Civil war between the states.

Fact? Secondary source Primary source
Antietam - bloodiest battle
  • Heard it from dad
  • Heard it on TV documentary
  • Checked casualties of civil war battles in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
  • Archives
  • Manuscript material
  • Photograph
  • Audio recordings
  • Video recordings
  • Journals
  • Letters and diaries
  • Speeches
  • Scrapbooks
  • Published books
  • Newspapers and magazine published at the time
  • Government publications
  • Oral histories.
Lincoln was President    

Activities for Quality of Nonfiction Elements

  1. Sample activity to discuss fiction and nonfiction with The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle.
  2. Ask questions for learners to evaluate nonfiction.
  3. Provide a check sheet with characteristics of nonfiction and share quality examples.
  4. Have learners complete check sheets with ratings of different characteristics and ask why and what proof they have to evaluate the criteria the way they did.
  5. Conduct a year long study of nonfiction and use multiple books to share qualities among them to show the comparisons. A matrix or chart with characteristics listed on one side and the names of the books across the top.


Biography - Characteristics or Elements

  1. Describe and discuss the life of a real person
  2. Information is based on fact
  3. Incidents, dialogue, and people are accurate and from a reliable source using first person accounts when available
  4. The person's life story is told with respect to other people and events of the time in which they lived
  5. Develops an understanding of the places, times, events, and other people when the person lived
  6. Tells the story in a style and tone that the reader/listener can relate to the person and believe in their humanness
  7. Develops a person as a real and interesting person not a persona or stereotypical member of a particular group.

Sample Questions to Help Analyze Biography

  1. List the events in the main character's life that you believe were note worthy.
  2. Describe why you believe those events were note worthy.
  3. List the events in the main character's life that you believe were harmful or hurtful to his or her self or others.
  4. Describe why you believe those events were harmful or hurtful to his or her self or others.
  5. Describe the main events that you believe influenced the main character through his or her life.
  6. Describe the influence those events had.
  7. Describe the characters you believe influenced the main character through his or her life.
  8. Describe the influence those characters had.
  9. Describe what personality traits the main character had.
  10. Describe how each personality trait shaped his or her life.
  11. Describe how some of those traits were beneficial and how some were not.
  12. Were there decisions the main character made that you believe were made well? If so, describe those decisions and what you would have done differently, and your expectations of what those different results would do.
  13. Were there decisions the main character made that you believe were not made well? If so, describe those decisions and what you would have done differently, and your expectations of what those different results would do.
  14. What, if anything, was there that you learned about the main character's life that could be helpful for you in your life?
  15. Make a list of what you believe characterizes this person.
  16. What difference were made by this person?
  17. How would you classify this person? As a sports star, mentor, hero, celebrity, ordinary Jane or Joe, or ...? and Why?

Favorite Nonfiction Books

Author Title Notes
David Adler
  • We Remember the Holocaust.
  • A Picture Book of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Text with some pictures
Aliki Corn is Maize-the Gift of the Indians.  
Isaac Asimov Chemistry. Text with some pictures
Monica Byles Life in the Polar Lands. Picture book
Cherry Lynne A River Ran Wild. Picture book with illustrations of historical artifacts around the edges that date with the setting of the historical ecological story of the river.
Christine and Jens Olesen Chicken and egg. Picture book
Pam Conrad Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher. Mostly text with some pictures
Lois Ehlert Feathers for Lunch Picture book very colorful art created with torn paper.
Mary Ann Fraser Sanctuary the Story of Three Arch Rocks Picture book with pictures and pencil illustrations
Russell Freedman Indian Chiefs
Lincoln A Photo biography
Buffalo Hunt
The Wright Brothers
Children of the Wild West
Immigrant Kids
Mostly text with some pictures. All excellent historical stories.
William George Box Turtle At Long Pond. Beautiful picture book about the ecology of a pond.
Ann Goodall The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving their World and Ours Picture book about Ann Goodall and her work with chimpanzees
Kate Jassem Chief Joseph Leader of Destiny. Mostly text with some pictures
Bobbi Katz The Creepy, Crawly book Picture book
Kathryn Lasky She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head Picture book about the founding of the Audubon Society.
Loreen Leedy Tracks in the Sand. Bantam Picture book
Ellen Levine If You Traveled West In A Covered Wagon Mostly text some pictures. Excellent beginning book about pioneers who traveled west.
Elizabeth Levy Are We There Yet? Fun picture book about traveling
David Macaulay
  • City
  • Mill
  • Cathedral
  • Castle
  • Pyramid
  • The Way Things Work
  • Building Big
  • Ship
Combination of pencil drawing illustrations and text that tell the story of the making of the structures in the title. Ship is a historical account of the building of a thirteenth century vessel combined with an archaeological discovery of the same vessel in modern times.
Kenneth Mallory and Andrea Conley Rescue of the Stranded Whales. Mostly text with pictures
Jim Murphy
  • The Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War
  • The Great Fire
Mostly text with some pictures. Excellent historical story.
Robert Quackenbush Pass The Quill, I’ll Write A Draft. Mostly text with pictures that tells the story about the writing of the US. Declaration of Independence.
Conrad Stein The Story of Wounded Knee Mostly text with pictures
Anika Thomas Life in the Ghetto Mostly text with pictures autobiography
Wendy Towle The Real McCoy Picture book excellent book about a Black American engineer and inventory. Most notable an automatic rail car oiler that gave rise to the expression in the title.
Edwin Tunis Colonial Living Mostly text with illustrations
Forrest Wilson What It Feels Like To Be A Building Picture book that creatively describes structural forces related to architecture, and science.
Chris Crowe Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. (2003) Book coverExcellent account of this historic story.


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