Creative Nonfiction: a True Story Well Told

If you want to teach young readers about the Irish potato famine, the rain forest, or even math, tell them a story. Tell an interesting tale about interesting people doing interesting things and readers come back for more, sometimes not even realizing they are reading about something that really happened. This is creative nonfiction.
Creative nonfiction remains a nebulous term. Although the genre has been around the adult market for some time, only in recent years has it made inroads into children’s publishing: Nonfiction has widened to use storytelling techniques usually associated with fiction to enliven, but remain true to, facts.
Carolyn Yoder, Senior Editor, History and World Cultures at Highlights for Children and their new imprint, Calkins Creek Books, explains: “The difference between straight nonfiction and creative nonfiction has to do with structure. Straight nonfiction relies solely on the parts—the facts for the most part—and not on the whole. Creative nonfiction is all about the whole—how the parts make it up. Creative non-fiction, like fiction, is all about story or theme. Creative nonfic­tion tends to have strong char­acters, strong sense of place, rich details, obvious themes, conflicts, arcs—everything.”

Engaged Readers

“Storytelling is storytelling,” says Reka Simonsen, Editor at Henry Holt and Company. In nonfiction, the story happens to be true rather than invented, but the same rules apply: There should still he a strong story arc; there still has to be a problem that needs resolution; the characters have to be fully developed; there must be moments of dramatic tension and emotion of whatever kind appropriate to the events. Kids have to read quite a lot of books that are good for them—that is one of the main ways we educate our children in this society. At its best, creative nonfiction imparts this necessary information in a way that captivates young readers, excites their imaginations, and sparks an interest in learning more.”
To get kids to read, writers need to grab their interest right away and keep them turning pages.
“Good creative nonfiction helps kids learn to think by engaging their curiosity,” says Shannon Barefield, Senior Editor at Lerner Publishing Group. “It makes readers ask, `Then what happened? Why?’ and so on. An engaged reader retains information and often goes on to seek more. Creative nonfiction is of great use with reluctant and challenged readers, who may find their interest piqued, making the work of reading more rewarding than usual. Finally, storytelling techniques can bring to life a subject’s significance in a way that just-the-facts writing can’t always do. It’s crucial for kids to learn the nuts-and-bolts facts of the Holocaust, for example, but to learn the human side of those events is critically important as well. Creative nonfiction evokes the humanity within our history.”

Literature of Fact

“I prefer to focus on the literature of fact,” says Judy O’Malley, former Editorial Director of Houghton Mifflin Books, “books that tell the shaped story of what is known about lives and times, and that include the documentation of those facts that model for young readers how exciting authentic research can be. That leads them to read further and deeper, starting with the author’s trail and following wherever their passion for the subject leads them. But, in essence, creative nonfiction is a good true story told well.”
“Nonfiction is creative when it presents concepts or information in an entertaining manner,” says Jean Reynolds, Publisher of The Millbrook Press, which is now looking for a new corporate buyer. Reynolds continues, “To use a cliched example, a good story about a kid running a lemonade stand can get across far more informa­tion about supply and demand and free enterprise and competition than a straight explanation of economic concepts ever could.” On meeting the needs of today’s readers, Reynolds says, “What reader wouldn’t prefer to be entertained while learning the facts about something. Tests have shown that information is retained far better when presented in narrative form.”
With story, even disagreeable historic characters come to life in a compelling fashion that makes us want to know more, as in the Robert F. Sibert Award-winner The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, by James Cross Giblin, author of many creative nonfiction books. Giblin says, “Creative nonfiction is nonfiction that makes use of the following fiction techniques: (a) a dramatic opening, whether the piece is a magazine article or a chapter in a book; (b) an abundant use of involving scenes, not invented but shaped from the factual material that research has turned up; (c) an equally abundant use of dialogue drawn from letters, speeches, autobiographies, and other sources (but never made up!); and (d) a strong finish, if it’s an article, and an ending with a hook that will draw readers onward if it’s a chapter in a book. The aim in all this is to make the material as attractive and involving as possible for young readers while always hewing to the truth.”

A Short History of Nonfiction

Simonsen explains the evolution of the category: “Nonfiction used to be a very dry genre. The books were thought of as instructional and were intended to be used in schools. The emphasis was on facts and scholarship, but not neces­sarily on making the books appealing to a child reader. Then Dorling Kindersley started their extremely popular Eyewitness series, and the world of nonfiction changed. The Eyewitness books are big, glossy books with eye-catching photos and lots of interesting facts imparted in small tidbits rather than long chapters. Suddenly, nonfiction was very popular (especially with boys), and it had a presence in book-stores, not just schools and libraries.”
Simonsen continues, “Those illustrated nonfiction books were very popular for a long time, and many of the best of them still are, but at a certain point people began to get a little tired of the format. Maybe there were too many books like that, and people wanted something new. In any case, the genre began to change again. Some authors, artists, and publishers decided to try to make nonfiction books with the same approach that made their best fictional books so appealing to kids: interesting writing with a lyrical or narrative style to hold the story together; gorgeous, artistic illustrations that did not necessarily have to be photorealistic; fasci­nating, but perhaps lesser-known or more unique topics. These creative nonfiction books have generally been very well received by kids, educators, and bookstore buyers alike.”
Barefield says, “It used to be acceptable and even expected for children’s nonfiction books to contain fabricated material to make them more palatable. Some of those old fictional­ized tales became accepted as fact, such as Parson Weems’s famous story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Since then, standards have shifted. We want nonfiction to be entirely factual—but we want the infor­mation presented in a way that brings it vividly to life. Flat, just-the-facts writing isn’t good enough in many cases.”

All Shapes & Sizes

O’Malley says, “Authors and publishers are continuing to experiment with new formats and approaches.” She describes some of the more successful:

  • picture book biographies that focus on a particular incident in a subject’s life or a short period of years and offer a window into the later life and accomplishments of that individual;
  • poetry linked to factual prose on a topic to give a blending of intuitive and informative ways of knowing about something;
  • the use of primary documents—letters, maps, journal entries, public records—on the page to tell the story directly, much as it was experienced;
  • books that are open-ended, asking as many questions as they attempt to answer, demonstrating that we are constantly expanding, re-assessing, and gaining new understanding of who we are and what we know, as our ways of collecting and accessing information become more advanced.
    Many writers have embraced the idea of flexing their storytelling muscles with creative nonfiction.
    “The ability to bring characters and events convincingly to life is as neces­sary for, say, historical nonfiction as it is in a novel;’ says Karen Wojtyla, Senior Editor of Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She cites the opening of Jim Murphy’s Inside the Alamo:
    The town of San Antonio de Bexar lay silent and still. Most of its twenty-five hundred residents had already fled to the safety of ranches in the surrounding countryside… Suddenly, the grave stillness was shattered by the clanging warning hell, its harsh sound filling the air and racing along every twisting street, every narrow alley.
    Now, that is good storytelling put to the aid of nonfiction,” says Wojtyla.
    Science and nature books are no longer the dry books many adults remember in their own childhoods. The enormous selection of creative nonfiction on these topics include such books as Laurence Pringle’s An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly.
    “I could have written a straightforward nonfiction book about monarch butterflies,” says Pringle, “what the caterpillars eat, the autumn migration, etc. Instead, I wrote about one caterpillar who became one female adult trying to get to Mexico, survive, then mate and reproduce in the spring. Many readers tell me they feel sad at the end of the book—at the end of the monarch’s life. Some people cry—an unusual response to a nonfiction book, I believe.” The butterfly is not like Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web: she does only what monarch butterflies do, or could do. The book is well-researched nonfiction, but has a character whose life a reader follows, and cares about.”

    When Too Creative Fails

    Writers are warned to not be too creative with weaving their stories, however. If you add characters, dialogue, invent scenes and alter facts, you moved to the realm of historical fiction, a noble genre but still, fiction.
    Reynolds cautions writers to be wary of being too creative. “The author who does not treat the genre with respect can easily convey erroneous impres­sions. Creative nonfiction requires even more careful research than straight exposition, as so much more information is being conveyed. It is the small details that the creative writer adds that bring texture and drama to an event, but it is not come by easily.”
    “If characters are added, scenes are imagined, dialogue is invented, this is now a fictional story based on real events, and as a reader, I want to know what actually happened and what may have happened,” says O’Malley. “For me the cardinal rule is, ‘Never lie: If you made up some of the elements, bring your reader into that process: Use an author’s note to explain clearly what, why, and where,”
    According to Yoder, “The problems that writers run into is when style overcomes everything else—and the story or theme suffers. You’ve painted a beautiful picture, but there’s no real substance. This is especially true with history writing. Context and background suffer and the reader has no firm grounding,”
    “One of the hardest things for many writers to do,” says Simonsen, “seems to be getting the emotional aspects of a nonfiction topic across successfully. I’ve noticed that many authors try to carry the emotion with anthropomorphism or an abundance of exclamation points, rather than building the story in such a way that the natural drama of it comes through. Sometimes, the descriptive language is not as strong as it could be. I’ve found that nonfiction authors are more likely to use a simple, somewhat familiar description rather than searching for a more evocative, unique way of saying the same thing.”
    Yoder adds, “Creative nonfiction lets the author come out. I want to see the author. I want to follow where the author is leading mc. So many times with history writing, the author feels that he or she has to be quiet, has to rely on the facts. The great history writer analyzes the facts, picks the rich anecdotes and details, and paints a picture. That’s why I always ask authors to rely on the best resources, whether primary or secondary. Rich research can only lead to rich writing. It’s as simple as that.”
    O’Malley sums it all up: “Though it’s stimulating to share our thoughts about innovative formats as a community devoted to children’s literature, I think there is some danger in worrying more about terminology than about whether the style and form effectively communicate the ideas, spirit, and nature of the material, be it fiction or nonfiction. I would hope that every writer is always striving to make that modifier—creative—fully apply to his or her work, whether it’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, humor or any other style of writing. Anything less is just not good enough for the young readers we serve.”
    —Susan Taylor Brown
    NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.