Get a Handle on Non-Fiction

Ask a group of elementary school children what the difference is between fiction and non-fiction and they know – even if it’s counter-intuitive. The “non” is real and the not-“non” is fake…

Ask kids if they pick up a book of fiction, what are they sure to find in it? After initial offerings of “words” and “pages, with a little coaxing, they come up with “characters,” “plot,” “setting,” maybe even “theme.” These are useful handles for digging in and discussing a work of fiction. Ask the same kids if they pick up a book of non-fiction, what will they find? They may talk about “information,” “pictures,” “facts” and, with a little coaxing, “glossary” and “index.” In fact, they have no easy word handles to access and discuss the good, deep stuff in non-fiction.

So, is there a template for critiquing non-fiction for kids or anyone for that matter? The answer is… no. Chances are that in later school and life in general, reading and writing non-fiction will be important – so “no” is a problem.

As non-fiction writers, we puzzled to find word handles to help kids – and adults – access non-fiction. We researched educational theory, talked to other authors, and mostly brooded ourselves. We finally came up with an acronym SKILL –Story, Knowledge, Ideas, Language, Layout.

Story comes first and it’s most important. When an author finds the story in an event, life, or analysis, it makes for memorable reading. The message sticks. Sometimes story can only be used as a hook or thin thread in the telling – but often, if the writer thinks hard about the material, a great story lies there-in and the principles of character, plot, setting, and theme can be applied to draw the story out.

Knowledge, not “information,” is a deliberate word choice. On a scale of increasing complexity, good non-fiction supplies more than data and more than information. Those are present but have been digested, processed, organized, and put in context. Good non-fiction builds knowledge to further the continuum towards wisdom.

Ideas strike two ways. Good non-fiction offers ideas, presented straight up.  Really good non-fiction also sets the stage for readers to spark their own ideas. As the pages turn, the reader should be making connections, predictions, inferences, and evaluations from personal experience, finishing the book with exciting new ideas of their own. One way the author can achieve this idea making is by working in themes or embedding a subtext.

Language in non-fiction, particularly non-fiction for kids, tends to be spare. The writer often shares the page with the illustrator and cuts text accordingly. With a limited word count, each word is chosen carefully. This usually means finding the most precise, active verbs. If successful, the author discovers a punch and clarity that make it possible to present complicated issues and feelings even to very young kids.

Layout is critical to the readability of non-fiction for kids. One publisher invited us to think of a book as an object or present, wrapped in a cover and designed to delight. There are so many tools available to create a pleasing product – font, color, art, negative space, cover and so on. As we write, we imagine what each page might look like and what can be reinforced with design and illustration.

The beauty of an acronym such as SKILL is that it can be used in part or as a whole. Did the author find the real story? What is the big new idea? Next time you read a book of non-fiction, ask yourself, is this written with SKILL? And next time you are writing non-fiction, ask yourself am I presenting this with SKILL?