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What is narrative nonfiction?

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on October 28, 2011

The Sea, the Storm and the Mangrove Tangle by Lynne Cherry

There’s a story in the Dewey Decimal numbered stacks at your library. You’re not reading to discover new things or to change your perspective. The relevance of a topic won’t be what compels you to pick a book.

You’re being driven to find out what happens by literary device. You’re reading in the new world of narrative nonfiction.

End notes, works cited and an index? Pffft! Enter plot, scenes and characters!

Author Marc Aronson lectures on the importance of exploring stories in nonfiction, while The Miami Herald makes evidence-based narrative their mission statement. Scientists, journalists and historians employ the devices at the disposal of the storyteller to help readers wrap their heads around the facts.

As there can be truth in a fable, there can be a fantastic story in the facts. Experimenters in memoir and other creative nonfiction are cognizant of what readers seek—captivating, absorbing true stories.

Why does narrative nonfiction blow my mind?

Nature's Green Umbrella by Gail GibbonsTake two children’s nonfiction writers, who research their topics with equally good rigor: Gail Gibbons and Lynne Cherry.

Gibbon’s book, Nature’s Green Umbrella, can be found at 574.5 Gib in the nonfiction stacks of a children’s library, of course.

Where would you find Lynne Cherry’s The Sea, the Storm and the Mangrove Tangle?

I would have looked first in the 500s. Cherry’s book is actually in the picture book section under E Che.

Both writers present the facts about a particular topic in effective ways. One uses design: illustrations, headings and key words. The other uses narrative: voice, metaphor, story structure.

Both writers respect the readers, their curiosity, their interests. Both writers help readers understand two equally important ecosystems, the rainforest and the mangrove swamp.

However, the empathy of the reader is fully engaged in The Sea, the Storm and the Mangrove Tangle. Cherry utilizes rich watercolors and a good story to breathe persona into facts about an endangered ecosystem.

Can you feel for the mangrove tangle and the plight of its inhabitants… the flock of pelicans, the periwinkle tree snail, the mangrove snappers?

The issue for the storytellers is actually Dewey and his decimals.

Numbers catalogue books about trains, textiles, topography, pets, planets, photography, crafts, cooking, calligraphy. The Hobbyist–Enthusiast in the nonfiction stacks bases a book search on clearly-defined topics and subject matter. If readers have been drawn by affinity, the beauty of story becomes more profound in narrative nonfiction.

Now, the thought leaders in narrative nonfiction are beginning to talk up genres.

Gail Gibbon’s Nature’s Green Umbrella and Lynne Cherry’s The Sea, the Storm and the Mangrove Tangle are both highly worthwhile reads on two important ecosystems the Earth can’t do without.

Category: Narrative Nonfiction

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