Creative Nonfiction: Using Techniques of Fiction or Incorporating Fiction?

Sara stopped by two weeks ago to comment on the post about nonfiction versus fiction, where she asked for further discussion of creative nonfiction in children’s books. I thought exploring an example might be a good way to start a dialogue.

Creative nonfiction is still a relatively new genre. The most common definition for the term is nonfiction that takes advantage of fictional storytelling techniques. Does that mean creative nonfiction incorporates fictional details, scenes, dialogue and characterization? Let’s take a look at one example where it seemed to me that creative nonfiction crossed the line into outright fiction. (I’m not picking on this particular example for any reason other than I knew enough about the subject to realize it was not fact.)girls-who-looked-under-rocks

A few years ago, I was excited to finally get my copy the book Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications 2000). I had been researching the life of Anna Botsford Comstock for a children’s biography and I had been told by an editor there was no market for it. Here in my hands was a book that offered a short biography of Anna – along with five other women naturalists- that was a NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2001.

Turning to page 16, I read:

“Leaves fluttered. Branches swayed. Balancing carefully, Anna Botsford looked down at her students. A tree was an unusual perch for a teacher, but after all, Anna was just fourteen when she was asked to fill in while the regular teacher took a few months off.”

Sounds lovely doesn’t it? There is even a two-page spread illustration showing a young girl sitting on a low tree branch, calmly reading to some younger children.


It is very nice, except the scene never happened that way. If you read Anna Botsford Comstock’s biography/autobiography The Comstocks of Cornell:  John Henry and Anna Botsford Comstock (Comstock Publishing Assoc. 1953), on page 67:

During recess I climbed a tree, one of my favorite diversions. I was coming down peacefully when the teacher exclaimed sharply:  “Anna, come out of that tree immediately. Recess is over.”

At this, I stayed my downward course and announced that I would recite my lessons from there, and I did. A few years later when I was a teacher at the same school and we were having school in the woods, one of the older girls said, “What would you do if one of us climbed a tree like you did when Susan Lee taught?” At this an older boy said, “We’d better not try it; Anna would climb right up after us.”

What do you think?

To me, the first version transforms a feisty girl who was willing to disobey her teacher into a demure nature lover, a very different character. Because of the change, I began to question the biographies of all the other women in the book. What is fact and what is made up to tell a nice story? To me, changing the facts lessened the value of the entire book without adding anything significant. After all, Anna’s own words seemed to be compelling enough to me. Or am I being too harsh? Is the scene close enough to what actually happened that it counts as factual?

Perhaps the changes to the scene was simply an error in writing down research notes. However, Glenn Hovemann, an editor at the publisher Dawn Publications, writes in his essay “The ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ Conundrum (and Opportunity)” that  books that use creative nonfiction fall between nonfiction and fiction and “encompass the best of both fiction and non-fiction worlds.” In his view, creative nonfiction is something between the two, and seems to imply that making things up is acceptable to tell a good story.

In contrast Lee Gutkind of Creative Nonfiction Magazine (for adults, not children) says creative nonfiction uses literary techniques, but does not involve making things up, exaggerating or otherwise lying. Then he says something that really resonates with me:  you can be honest, tell the facts, and still write in a highly creative way.

What do you think? Do you agree?


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Pop-Up Activities to Teach Genre

After discussing why writers need to understand genre two weeks ago, today we have a wonderful book for writers, teachers and children who want to understand and use children’s book genres:  Pop-Up Activities to Teach Genre: 18 Unique Pop-Up Projects With Templates, Story Starters, and Graphic Organizers That Motivate Kids to Write in Different Genres by Tamara B. Miller. Pop_Up_Activities_-_20pct

I need to reveal right away that writer/teacher Tamara Miller is a close friend. Although I may be biased, I think she is absolutely the most creative person I know when it comes to designing activities for children, which shows in her ideas for pop-up stories.

In the book Tammy briefly explains each of the genres:

  • Mystery
  • Humorous Fiction
  • Science Fiction
  • Tall Tales
  • Fairy Tales
  • Historical Fiction
  • Personal Narrative
  • Expository writing
  • Adventure

and gives examples of popular children’s books that fit each type. She then gives instructions for two very creative writing activities for each section with hand-on components that reinforce learning. To help students organize their thoughts and get ideas flowing, each activity comes with a prewriting page (wish they had these in real life).

For example, for personal narrative, each student writes about an important experience he or she has had. Then the students can make a pop-up and illustrate it, too. When the teacher reads the story, the class can guess the identity of the student.


After the class has guessed, they can lift the flap to see whose story it was.

Isn’t that a great idea for helping the students get to know each other at the beginning of the school year?



 Another fun project explores expository writing by having the students create their own pop-up newspaper.

The best part is, there’s something in these lessons for every type of learner. Visual learners will love the illustration component, audio learners will enjoy hearing the stories and kinesthetic learners will be kept active by making pop-ups. Of course, the lessons can support Common Core standards as well.

Are you looking for a way to brush up on genres and/or teach writing to children? Then this book is for you!

For more information and ideas on how you can use pop-up books to motivate your students in writing this year, go to Tamara Miller’s website at

Pop-Up Activities to Teach Genre: 18 Unique Pop-Up Projects With Templates, Story Starters, and Graphic Organizers That Motivate Kids to Write in Different Genres by Tamara B. Miller

Age Range: 8 – 10 years
Grade Level: 3 – 5
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Teaching Resources (September 1, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0439453356
ISBN-13: 978-0439453356


Disclosure:  I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

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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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The Confusing World of Children’s Book Genres: Why They Matter

I am excited to announce that I am launching a new feature at Wrapped In Foil today:


Over the years I have gathered a whole bin full of information on writing for children, including notes from classes, newsletters, magazines, books, and clips from websites. Rather than letting all that knowledge gather dust in the closet, I’ve decided to pull it out and share it on a weekly basis.

If you choose to participate, this could become a round up or meme. Perhaps every Tuesday we could gather tips for writing for children? Please leave a comment and let me know if you are interested.

Without further ado, the first tidbit:


Tidbit 1: The Confusing World of Children’s Book Genres:  Why They Matter

Not much can cause a beginning writer more headaches than trying to figure out genres. Coming from a science background, I’m used to hierarchical classification schemes. Therefore I expected writing to have a similar system of organization. After all, a genre is a category or a kind of writing, so it would be a way for organizing different forms of writing, right? The word genre even has the same Latin root, genus, which is used in naming organisms, for example, genus Felis species domesticus.

The truth is, however, that in literature everyone seems to have a different idea of what genres are and how they should be used.  A child may be taught in school that genres are science fiction and mystery. A college student may be taught that the genres are poetry, fiction, drama, and possibly creative nonfiction, based on a classic interpretation. Aren’t science fiction and mystery types of fiction? How can science fiction and fiction both be genres if fiction encompasses science fiction? In that case, should science fiction be a lesser category like subgenre or style? Wait, isn’t cyberpunk a subgenre of science fiction? Where does nonfiction fit? Isn’t poetry shelved in the nonfiction section? What in the world is genre fiction?


All of these questions make the beginning writer wonder whether it is even worthwhile try to sort it all out.

It turns out that it is important for the writer to understand how writing is categorized -no matter what the categories are called – for a couple of reasons. The first reason is to help you find out which ones you enjoy and where your passions lie. Reading books of different genres, age classes or styles can help sort out what your niche is, what you would like to write about.

Secondly, you can find out what is expected from the different writing categories, allowing you to communicate effectively with your readers and other writers. You will be able to find others with similar interests and styles more easily, and also benefit more from writing classes and critique groups.

Learning the genres/categories is also important from the perspective of trying to sell your work. Publishers look for manuscripts of specific genres. Bookstores often sell their books organized by their definition of genre (perusing a bookstore is one way to learn more about how books are categorzied), so it pays to be able to categorize your manuscript within the accepted norms. Understanding the line between narrative nonfiction and historical fiction, for example, can save you a lot of heartache and revisions.

Next week let’s look into the categories of fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a resource or blog post that clarifies genre for beginning writers? If you chose to share it, please leave a link in the comments.