Skip to main content
Five Kinds of STEM-themed Nonfiction Books for Kids

Background Knowledge

Five Kinds of STEM-themed Nonfiction Books for Kids

It’s a great time for children’s nonfiction! In recent years, these books have evolved into five distinct categories. Learn more about the characteristics of traditional nonfiction, browse-able nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, expository literature, and active nonfiction.

On this page:

It’s a great time for children’s nonfiction! In recent years, these books have undergone exciting and dramatic changes, evolving into five distinct categories. Who can benefit from understanding the characteristics of these categories?

Teachers and parents: Different kids prefer different kinds of nonfiction books. Understanding the five categories can help teachers and parents guide children toward the kind of nonfiction they’ll enjoy reading the most.

Children’s book authors: Certain topics are better suited for a particular nonfiction category. Understanding the categories can help professional scientists and science enthusiasts interested in writing children’s books frame the ideas and information they are passionate about in ways that are likely to catch an editor’s attention.

Traditional nonfiction

Up until the 1990s, children’s book publishers were producing just one kind of nonfiction — traditional nonfiction. These survey books, sometimes called “all about” books, provide a general overview of a topic and are often published in large series. They emphasize balance and breadth of coverage, have an expository writing style that explains, describes, or informs, and feature language that’s clear, concise, and straightforward.

Characteristics of traditional nonfiction

  • Survey (all-about) books
  • Overview of a topic
  • Part of a large series
  • Expository writing style
  • Clear, straightforward language

Examples of traditional nonfiction

Browse-able nonfiction

Thanks to the invention of desktop publishing software, Dorling Kindersley was able to develop its innovative Eyewitness Books series in the early 1990s. These beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated books include short blocks of expository text that offer fact-loving kids an engaging way to access information. Readers can dip in and out, focusing on the content that interests them most, or they can read the books cover to cover. Today many publishers and media companies are creating books in this category.

Characteristics of browse-able nonfiction

  • Beautiful design, lavishly illustrated
  • Short blocks of text
  • Expository writing style
  • Can read cover to cover or skip around
  • Great for shared reading

Examples of browse-able nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction

In the mid-1990s, children’s book authors began experimenting with narrative nonfiction — prose that tells a true story or conveys an experience. Like fiction, narrative nonfiction includes characters; settings; scenes; and, ideally, a narrative arc with rising tension, a climax, and denouement. The scenes, which give readers an intimate look at the world and people being described, are linked by transitional text that provides necessary background while condensing parts of the true story that aren’t relevant to the author’s purpose.

Although narrative nonfiction is most commonly utilized in biographies and books that recount historical events, it also works well for animal life stories and books that describe journeys of discovery or natural processes.

Characteristics of narrative nonfiction

  • Narrative writing style
  • Tells a story or conveys an experience
  • Real characters, settings, scenes, and narrative arc
  • Chronological text structure
  • STEM biographies or journeys, life cycle stories, or books about natural processes

Examples of narrative nonfiction

Expository literature

Expository literature came on the scene in the mid-2000s. In many ways, it was a reaction to shrinking school library budgets and the rise of the internet, which offers facts for free. Unlike traditional nonfiction, which provides a broad introduction, expository literature presents narrowly-focused topics, such as STEM concepts, in creative ways that reflect an author’s passion for the subject. These books typically feature an innovative format, a carefully chosen text structure, a strong voice, and rich, engaging language.

Characteristics of expository literature

  • Expository writing style
  • Narrowly-focused topics presented in creative ways
  • Innovative format and carefully chosen text structure
  • Strong voice and rich, engaging vocabulary

Examples of expository literature

Active nonfiction

Active nonfiction has been around since the 1990s, but it really hit its stride in the last few years. These browse-able books are highly interactive and/or teach skills that readers can use to engage in an activity. Written with an expository writing style, these field guides, books of scientific experiments, book-model combinations, etc. are currently extremely popular with young readers.

Characteristics of active nonfiction

  • Highly interactive and/or teach skills for engaging in activities (inspired by the maker movement)
  • Expository writing style
  • Can read cover to cover or skip around
  • Field guides, books of projects or experiments, and books with models

Examples of active nonfiction

Teaching nonfiction tips with Melissa Stewart

About the author

Melissa Stewart (opens in a new window) is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying. She holds a degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. Melissa maintains the highly regarded blog Celebrate Nonfiction (opens in a new window) and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

This article was retrieved from PLOS Blogs: Five Kinds of STEM-themed Nonfiction Books for Kids. (opens in a new window)

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.