Fiction versus Nonfiction: Black and White or Shades of Gray

Now it’s time to tackle the labels fiction and nonfiction in children’s books.

If you spend any time at the library at all, you know that books are shelved in two main sections:  fiction and nonfiction. Someone has to decide where any given book ends up, but it is one of those two categories.


What criteria do people use to decide where a book belongs? Usually the decision is based on whether the story is made up by the author or not. If the story is made up by the author, then it is fiction.

To generate confusion, the nonfiction section at the library includes fairytales, poetry, folklore, and mythology. How does that count as nonfiction when the stories are clearly not real?

Maybe if we think of nonfiction as “captured from real life,” it would make the distinction more clear. Mythology consists of tales that were told in ancient days. Nonfiction books record the old tales, “capturing them from real life.” The same is true of fairytales and folklore.

The distinction still isn’t always clear cut, however. Many works of fiction are based on real events, real people and/or real places. On the other hand, there has been a recent trend for certain nonfiction, like biographies, to contain some made up elements to spruce up the story. Let’s face it, even selecting which facts to present is a form of “making things up.”

In the long run, the categories may run together like this:


Does this blurring solve the problem? Not really, because fuzzy categories makes it difficult to determine what is true and what is not true.

For example, let’s say you are reading a biography that the author reports contains some fictional elements or made up dialogue. Now you have to wonder, did the subject really climb trees or did the author just throw that in to make the story more interesting to children? Does it matter? If the subject had polio as a child and was physically weak, having him or her climb a tree changes a major aspect of the subject’s life.

What do you think? Should the line between nonfiction and fiction remain sharp?

For an insightful discussion of use of dialogue in nonfiction, try Danger! Dialogue Ahead by Marc Tyler Nobleman.


Of course the very next day, here comes a really great discussion of this. See Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?: Libraries Nationwide Are Ditching the Old Classification System mentions:

“For years, we’d been trying to explain to kids why the “Magic School Bus” series was in nonfiction when it’s obvious to any five-year-old that Ms. Frizzle isn’t real. “

Their solution? Red dots placed on the book cover for “imagination” and blue dots for “information.” Although I agree with the kids, Magic School Bus should have a purple dot.

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2 Replies to “Fiction versus Nonfiction: Black and White or Shades of Gray”

  1. The discussions on how to categorize books certainly stirred up some energy. For the future I would appreciate a discussion about one category you list, “creative nonfiction. “ As an author and a reader I sometimes wonder where are the edges? How much of what I am reading is ”imagination”? You identify dialogue as a problem area. What about “scene-setting” – where does this take place? Who else is there, and what how are they reacting? And I am very dubious about the use of real-life characters mixed with fictional ones. This concerns me particularly since I think that a “scene” told as a story is often more memorable than a straight factual description. Yet I see lovely books using a wide variety of approaches.

  2. Sara,

    You make some very good points. I would definitely be interested in discussing creative nonfiction, possibly next Tuesday. To aid in the discussion, I’m going to put together a list of children’s books that use the creative nonfiction technique. Do you have any favorite examples?

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