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Seminar on Lit for Youth: Literary Nonfiction and Biography

Watch the video, then read the page. 

Creative nonfiction is a relatively new term. Also called narrative nonfiction or popular nonfiction, this literary nonfiction has become increasingly popular.

Read Harkin, Joy (Spring 2016). Narrative nonfiction: a writer reflects on writing real stories. American Educator, 33-37. IUPUI students can view the article online.

According to Wyatt (2007) in The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction, describes this type of work

"as the nonfiction readers pick up as part of their leisure or pleasure reading or nonfiction that 'reads like a novel."

ringThe Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World (2012) by Mary Losure is a wonderful example of this new type of narrative nonfiction for youth. Written for grades four and up, the book tells the true story of how two girls fooled journalists into thinking that they had photographed actual fairies living in the woods near the home. Through the use of poses and photo manipulation, they were able to convince people that fairies were real long before the use of Photoshop. They kept the secret of how the photos were made until the girls were very old women.

Because The Fairy Ring reads like a novel, it will have strong appeal particularly for some girls who aren't drawn to explanatory texts. Readers will easily get caught up in the "white lies" and issues of honesty.

One logistical problem with works of literary nonfiction involves shelving these books in the library so they can be found by youth. In most libraries this book is found in 398.45 under Social Sciences > Customs and folklore > Fairies, elves, ogres. This works fine if children are really looking for fairy books, but it might be overlooked otherwise.

tryTry It!
Browse a preview of The Fairy Ring at Google Books.
How is the book like and unlike a work of fiction? Can you identify features that indicate that it's a work of nonfiction? Do you think these types of nonfiction narratives are confusing to youth? Why or why not?

The narrative approach is even being used across content areas. For instance, Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard (2012) by Loree Griffin Burns explores the way ordinary people became citizen scientists. Divided into four chapters, readers explore four accounts of science in everyday life.


Quality nonfiction narratives for young children are often lost in the "easy" or "picture book" section of the library. Building Our House by Jonathan Bean is a retelling of a true story about building a home. Photos are even provided at the end from the authors real experience.


finding winnieBook Spotlight

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (2015) by Lindsay Mattick traces the remarkable life of the bear who inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Told as a bedtime story by a mother to her young son Cole, the picture book follows a World War I soldier and his bear cub from Winnipeg Canada to a zoo in London, England. Christopher Robin Milne, son of the famous author, befriends Winnie at the zoo and names his stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh. In a wonderful conclusion, we learn that young Cole is the great-great-grandchild of the soldier that befriended the bear cub. The book concludes with an album of incredible primary source documents and photographs tracing the story.

The beautiful watercolor illustrations contribute to the appeal of this charming picture book.
Librarians will find this book to be a wonderful way to introduce a new generation to Winnie-the-Pooh. Consider a display that includes this picture book, the Winnie-the-Pooh chapter books, and related stuff animals. Also, use the book to introduce the idea of primary source documents and how they can help researchers better understand history.

stonewallExplore a few examples of narrative nonfiction:

The Research

In Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices, Kamil, Borman, Dole, Kral, Salinger, and Torgesen (2008) presented evidence-based recommendations to improve literacy levels among adolescents. They identified the following recommendations

In Nonfiction Reading Power, Adrienne Gear stresses the importance of helping student learn "how to think". She suggests that powerful reading

To help youth comprehend nonfiction or informational texts, Gear (2008, 15) suggests five strategies:

gorillasBook Spotlight

GORILLAS UP CLOSE by Christena Nippert-Eng is an amazing, informational book exploring all aspects of the gorilla world.

Designed for middle grade readers, the book contains dozens of short chapters examining the lives of gorillas both in the wild and living in zoos. While learning facts about these creatures, readers will also enjoy getting to know individual gorillas by name. The book concludes with tips, additional resources, an author’s note, and index.

From the adorable cover photograph to the attractive layout, librarians will find readers immediately engaged in this impressive work of nonfiction. Photos, maps, diagrams, and fact boxes will also draw in readers. The book will be of interest to readers who enjoy nonfiction narrative as well as those who are seeking a title useful in research projects.

Autobiography and Memoir

Autobiography, memoir, and biography contain some of the best examples of nonfiction narrative. Because many of these works are told as the "story" of a person's life, they use a narrative writing style.

Youth enjoy reading about the lives of others, particular those close to their age.

William Kamkwamba from Makawi in Africa is a great example. Kamkwamba has written two books about his life. The first is a memoir for a general audience. The second is a picture book adaptation. The focus on both books is on a 14-year-old's experience building a windmill in his African village.


Seek out youth who have written stories about themselves. Ghosts of War: the True Story of a 19-year-old GI is a memoir written Ryan Smithson about his experiences serving in Iraq. Youth also enjoy author autobiographies like King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher.


Book Spotlight

brown girl dreamingBROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson has been named the 2014 National Book Award winner for young people’s literature.

Written in verse, this inspiring memoir traces Woodson’s life as an African American child growing up during the turbulent 1960s and 70s. From her experiences with the Civil Rights Movement to her religious upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, readers get a glimpse into the life of an ordinary child that will grow up to be an extraordinary voice for a generation.

Through short powerful poems, readers become immersed in Woodson’s world. Many children will empathize with her struggles with reading and writing.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING would be a wonderful addition to a literature circle exploring the lives of well-known authors. It would also be an excellent shared experience for a class exploring the genre of autobiography, biography, and memoir.

This three-time Newbery Honor author has written some extra-ordinary books for young people. Use this memoir to jumpstart an exploration of all her works such as LOCOMOTION, FEATHERS, and AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER.

To learn more about the author, go to Her website contains a useful research guide providing helpful hints for conducting inquiries related to the topics associated with her books.



Adult biography generally focuses on the whole person both positive and negative. However much of biography for youth stresses the positive aspects of a person's life and their accomplishments. This is slowly changing, particularly in works aimed at young adults.

most dangerousBook Spotlight

MOST DANGEROUS: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM WAR by Steve Sheinkin is a powerful, nonfiction narrative exploring issues of war, espionage, and government trust.

Written for young adults, Sheinkin skillfully tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst who exposes decades of government deceit. Tracing Ellsberg’s life from his boyhood through to the end of the Vietnam War, the author weaves together an unbiased look at the man who exposed what became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Librarians will find a large audience for this book among the growing YA fans of narrative nonfiction. In addition, the combination of war and government secrets will be attractive to readers who enjoy military and spy stories.

Youth will be drawn to connections with recent whistleblowers like Edward Snowden described in the book’s epilogue.

For many librarians who remember this time period or have read books like “All the President’s Men”, this provocative biography will help put the time period in context and revisit the key issues and events in an easy to digest chronology.

Learn more about the author at

benRosalyn Schanzer writes engaging biographies for youth. For instance, How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning (2003) incorporates attractive graphics and interesting language into narrative.

Aronson (2008, 34) suggests

"the point of overturning these and other myths isn't simply to set the record straight; it's to point out that our interpretation of history is constantly being challenged, debated, and revised. The only way we can bring that crucial message to young people is if we risk sharing our doubts about the very accounts they were taught elementary school. If we do that, students may at first feel like they've been fooled. But just as in middle-grade and UA novels that turn fairy tales upside down and inside out, young people will have an opportunity to use what they've learned as a baseline to develop new, more accurate understandings - which is precisely what we want."

Most libraries are filled with unread biographies. Part of the problem is a matter of physical location in the library. Rather than housing scientists in science, sports figures in sports, and historical figures in history, all the "people books" are together. Consider displays and signs that promote biographies across the library collection. For instance, Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe (2017) by Deborah Blumenthal is a picture book biography that could be associated with many different topics including history, fashion, design, careers, African American people, and women.

Fancy Party Gownsgowns

Another problem is that biographies are sometimes viewed as dry accounts of a person's life from birth to death. When showing youth biographies, be sure to share a variety of examples that represent the broad spectrum of options for telling the story of a person's life. We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History (2001) by Phillip Hoose is well received by youth because of it's focus on children in history.


Also, look for biographies that will engage youth readers. Lots of teens know Apple Computers and have heard about Steve Jobs. Use this interest as a hook for reading Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different (cover shown below) (2012) by Karen Blumenthal.

Most youth visit Walmart on a regular basis but don't think about where the store got it's name. Use this connection as you're introducing Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America's Richest Man (cover and interior page shown below) (2011) by Karen Blumenthal.

jobssam waltonsam

Book SpotlightRadiant Child

THE RADIANT CHILD by Javaka Steptoe is an award-winning picture book telling the story of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Winner of the 2017 Caldecott Medal for children’s illustrator, this biography shares the true story of a boy who dreamt of becoming an artist. The book concludes with a biographical sketch, information about the artist’s work, and a note from the author/illustrator.

Like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Steptoe used a variety of found materials to create the artwork for this fascinating work.

Librarians will find this picture book to be an effective tool for teaching about biographies along with an inspirational resource for young artists.

To learn more about the author/illustrator, go to

Explore some recent titles:

henryBook Spotlight

HENRY DAVID THOREAU FOR KIDS: HIS LIFE AND IDEAS by Corinne Hosfeld Smith features the life and legacy of this beloved author, philosopher, and naturalist.

Aimed at the middle grades, this well-written biography tells the story of Henry David Thoreau. Focusing on his significant contributions and stressing his wilderness experience, the book is well-organized and focuses on topics of interest to youth.

Twenty-one engaging, hands-on activities including journal writing and gardening are woven throughout the book immersing readers in Thoreau’s world. The many visuals add interest to the story. The book also includes a timeline and list of resources.

Librarians will find this book to be an excellent addition to the library’s biography collection. The hands-on activities add to the appeal for reluctant readers.

To learn more about the author, go to

Picture Book Biographies

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin... You'll find many formula picture books biographies in your library. They often follow the World Book Encyclopedia version you read as a child. These work fine as one of several books that youth explore, but they aren't particularly engaging.

On the other hand, some students find consistency and quiet illustrations comforting. A basic, chronological biography working from birth to death is easy to follow and understanding. David Adler has written dozens of these basic biographies as part of the Picture Book Biography series from Holiday House. In addition to the consistency, students appreciate the easy-to-read style written for third to fifth grade readers. These books are also effective as read-aloud books at the lower grades. The covers of two biographies by David Adler are shown below.

bio 1bio 2

Doreen Rappaport is known for her Big Words biographies focusing on popular individuals from history.


Read Ash, Viki & Barthelmess, Thom (March/April 2011). What makes a good picture book biography? The Horn Book Magazine, 87(2), 40-45. Available through IUPUI.

tateBook Spotlight

THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON POET by Don Tate tells the inspiring story of the first southern African-American man to become a published author.

George Moses Horton grew up as a slave working on a farm in North Carolina. After learning to read he began to compose poetry. Although his slave owner refused to set him free, he was able to write and sell his poetry professionally until he was emancipated during the Civil War.

Tate’s attractive illustrations include verses that flow across many pages bringing Horton’s words alive for readers.

Librarians will find this picture book to be an excellent addition to their biography collection. Combine it with other author biographies in a library display. Or, include it in a collection of biographies related to slavery.

Learn more about the author at

Innovative Approaches to Biography

Over the past decade, authors and illustrators have explored innovative ways to present biographical information. Seek out works that bring the individual to life.

Award-winning A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (2008) by Jen Bryant weaves mixed media illustrations with engaging, lyrical text to bring this poet to life. In addition to the narrative and poem, the book also includes a timeline, author's note, and insights into the author's research.


Nelson's Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (2009) is a great example of a picture book for middle grade readers. The combination of colorful language, beautiful images, and engaging content bring this lawman alive for readers.


Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle combines a focus on Maria growing up and painting the life cycle of the butterfly with basic science concepts. It's interesting to compare the illustrations in the book with the original paintings of Maria Merian (second row below).



Look for biographies that give readers the chance to learn about more than one individual. For instance, Anita Silvey's (2012) The Plant Hunters (cover and interior images shown below) uses primary sources including journals, letters, maps, and notes from the field to introduce readers to adventures and scientists from around the world.


Candace Fleming has become popular writer of biography for youth. Fleming carefully selects a wide range of images to incorporate into her books giving them the feel of scrapbooks. Our Eleanor: a Scrapbook look at Eleanor Roosevelt's Remarkable Life (2005) and Ben Franklin's Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman's Life (2003) are two examples (shown below). Be sure to check out the guides for Eleanor: Guide Available and Ben: Guide Available.


The Great and Only Barnum: the Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum (2009) by Candace Fleming is also an example of this fun formatting. Notice the way the author uses bullet lists and advertisements in the example (below right). There's also a Guide Available to help teachers and students use the work.


Fleming also uses interesting approaches to page layout in The Lincolns: a Scrapbook look at Abraham and Mary (2008). Check out the Guide Available for this book too.


tamBook Spotlight

SALLY RIDE: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY OF AMERICA’S PIONEERING WOMAN IN SPACE by Tam O’Shaughnessy tells the inspiring story of a scientist and astronaut who advocated for space exploration and science education.
Written by Sally’s long-time partner Tam O’Shaughnessy’s, this visually-rich photobiography is filled with personal photographs and artifacts including school papers, ticket stubs, letters, and receipts that provide intimate insights into the life of this very private person. What makes this work particularly appealing and unique is the way the author weaves in her own thoughts and memories of Sally throughout the narrative.

Although Sally Ride was best known as a space shuttle astronaut, this middle-grade biography explores the entire life of this famous woman. Unlike most works of nonfiction, this book doesn’t start with a Table of Contents. Instead, it begins with a prologue sharing the story of how Sally and Tam met. The book is divided into sections focusing on Sally’s early childhood, her tween and teen years, her college years, her time as an astronaut, and her life as an advocate for science education. The book concludes with a cast of characters, timeline, and index.

Librarians will find this to be a popular biography. It’s easy-to-read and highly illustrated making it particularly useful for reluctant readers. Unlike many biographies that examine a famous person at a distance, this book provides a very personal look at this private person. The author does a stellar job addressing Sally’s love-life using an age-appropriate approach. Although Sally will likely be known for her ground-breaking firsts as both a female and lesbian astronaut, the book focuses on her life rather than these labels.

separateCheck out a few other recent examples:

try itTry It!
Compare a classic picture biography such as those by David Adler with alternative approaches to picture biography. Begin by previewing A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams and Bad News for Outlaws.

Is it important that young people explore all perspectives or stick to the legends?

Browse The Lincolns: a Scrapbook look at Abraham and Mary. What would appeal to young people first browsing this book? Compare the format of this book to another work of nonfiction for youth. How is it alike and different?

right wordBook Spotlight

THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS authored by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is a picture book biography for children focusing on the life of Peter Roget and his magnificent thesaurus. Known for their award-winning work A SPLASH OF RED, this author-illustrator team once again delivers an inspiring masterpiece.

This beautifully written biography celebrates the power of language. Through brilliantly selected words, this author/poet is able to bring the life of Roget alive for young readers.

The creatively illustrated book uses the technique of collage to tell the story of the author’s life. The picture book focuses on the author’s passion for making lists and selecting just the right words. The illustrator does an exceptional job incorporating visual representations of words and word lists into the story.

A timeline, information sources, further readings, and an illustrator’s note add depth to the work.

To learn more about the author/poet, go to Jen Bryant’s website at
To learn more about the illustrator, go to Melissa Sweet’s website at

Book Clusters

Seek out clusters of books that relate to the same person. These different points of view can be helpful to youth. For instance, while some biographies focus on the person's growing up years, others examine particular events in the person's life.

Let's use Rosa Parks as an example. Incorporate both biographies as well as related works about the Civil Rights Movement that mention Parks. Also, use primary source documents. You might also connect to related individuals through works like Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.

While you're working with youth, consider reading along with them. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park by Jeanne Theoharis as an adult biography containing an indepth look at Parks' six decades of activism.


Seek out works of nonfiction that bring the culture to life. In The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (1997) and Breaking Through (2001), Francisco Jiménez gives a voice to migrant children. In many cases, authors produce multiple works that will keep the youth reading.


It's useful to provide youth with a number of books on the same topic. This is particular important when dealing with multicultural issues and topics. For instance, those owning Kathleen Krull's Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez may want to consider Adler's A Picture Book of Cesar Chavez because they each focus on different aspects of Chavez's life. Krull's book stresses the key events in Chavez's early years that inspired him to become an activist such as the 1965 grape pickers boycott. On the other hand, the Adler book provides more traditional a chronological approach from birth to death.


Graphic Biography

A growing number of graphic biographies are being published. These works explore the lives of both famous and less famous individuals.

Macmillan has published a number of graphic biographies such as Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer, J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography by Rich Geary, and Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer.


Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography (2010) by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón tells the story behind Anne Frank's life including an account of her parents, time in Frankfurt, the War and her tragic death.

frank coverfrankinprimate

Also seek out biographies related to science. For instance Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks in a recent work of graphic biography that explores the lives of these scientists. Consider connecting this book with the many other biographies you already have in your library on these scientists.

Biography and the Standards

georgeAs you explore biographies, be looking for standarda connections. For instance, George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides (2004) by Rosalyn Schanzer is two biographies in one. The book explores George Washington and King George III. This provides an opportunity to make comparisons between these individuals.

Another great twosome to explore is Franklin and Winston: A Christmas that Changed the World (2011) by Douglas Wood.

In some cases biographies are classified as literary texts and in others as informational texts. Either way, they can be valuable in addressing the CCSS. Kristen Bowers (2012) suggests the following questions when addressing the standards using biographies:

aroundBook Spotlight

by Mara Rockliff tells the true story of two women and a kitten who set out on a 10,000 journey to promote a women’s right to vote.

In 1916, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke departed New York City on a journey across America. Their cross country crusade was intended to show that women could do anything and should have the right to vote.
The book concludes with background information, source notes, and a bibliography.

Librarians will find this compelling story useful for teachers introducing the idea of the women’s movement to young history students.

To learn more about the author, go to

desth riverBeyond the Book

Connect books with online resources for a broader experience. Children's books are often limited in their breadth and depth. Use print biographies to jumpstart questions and inquiry projects. Then, connect with online resources to enhance the experience with audio, video, images, and other resources.

Projects based on presidents are a great example. Start with books that will motivate youth to ask questions and learn more. For instance, Death on the River of Doubt: Theordore Roosevelt's Amazon Adventure by Samantha Seiple is an engaging nonfiction narrative biography telling the story of Roosevelt's experience in South America. After reading this exciting biography, students will want to learn more about this fascinating president.

Presidential libraries contain a wealth of information about these government leaders. Use their websites to learn more about their presidencies. These websites contain primary source documents, images, audio, and often video to bring their experiences to life for youth.

Read Lamb, Annette & Johnson, Larry (2015). Rethinking president's month projects trhough presidential library websites. Teacher Librarian Magazine, 42(3), 64-68.

karlBook Spotlight

by Anita Sanchez tells the story of naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.

Young Karl was a curious boy who loved examining plants and animals. He decided it would be useful to organize species into categories so they could be more easily identified. This young naturalist ultimately gained fame and success for this scientific work. The book concludes with additional information and sources.

With more depth than most picture books, librarians will find this biography provides a useful balance of nonfiction narrative and informational reading resource. Use this title in the science curriculum to bring alive the often boring topic of classification and naming.

To learn more about the author, go to


Aronson, Marc (March 1, 2008). Selective memory. School Library Journal, 54(3), 34.

Bowers, Kristen (2012). Attacking the Common Core Standards Informational Texts - Part One. SecondarySolutions.

Bryant, Jen (2008). A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. Eerdmans. (biography, Ages 7+)

Engle, Margarita (2010). Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. Henry Holt. (biography, Ages 5-8)

Gear, Adrienne (2008). Nonfiction Reading Power: Teaching Students How to Think While They Read all Kinds of Information. Pembroke Publishers. Preview Available

Harkin, Joy (Spring 2016). Narrative nonfiction: a writer reflects on writing real stories. American Educator, 33-37. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G.D., Dole, J., Kral, C.C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices. U.S. Department of Education. Available

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux (2009). Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Carolrhoda. (biography, Ages 8+)

Wyatt, Neal (2007). The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction. American Library Association. Preview Available

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