types of nonfiction picture books

A Deep-Dive Into the Types Of Nonfiction Picture Books

Embarking on the journey to write a nonfiction picture book is as rewarding as it is challenging. Nonfiction picture books are not a mere source of facts for children but a window to new experiences—giving life to subjects ranging from the ABCs of history to fascinating animal facts. Nonfiction children’s books come in various formats to educate and inspire.

This article will guide you through creating a vibrant children’s book that not only educates but also entertains.

In this deep-dive into the types of nonfiction picture books, we’ll cover:

  • What is Nonfiction Picture Book Writing?
  • The Benefits of Writing Nonfiction Picture Books for Children
  • Types Of Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Traditional Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Browsable Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Narrative Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Expository Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Active Nonfiction Picture Books
  • Nonfiction Picture Books: Writing Style
  • Age Groups For Nonfiction Picture Books
  • The Value of Nonfiction Picture Books

What is Nonfiction Picture Book Writing?

There are five types of nonfiction picture books for children, but in all cases, their primary goal is to teach a child about a desired topic and leave them with something that resonates with them. Nonfiction picture books are a wonderful way of celebrating the world we live in. The best nonfiction picture books provoke discussions afterwards, engaging not only the child but the adult as well.

The images (photography or illustration) play a vital role, lending visuals to reinforce the ideas or story of the text, making the book more impactful and educational. As with any picture book, these books would not be complete without illustration (or photos). Educational topics, like science, maths, history or biographies, are popular in the classroom and at home to use as an aid to help children’s learning process. Often, the most successful nonfiction picture books have strong ties to curriculums and are thus in school libraries, or used in classrooms as a learning aid.

If you want to write nonfiction for kids, ask yourself what interesting topic you are going to explore that will be unique and engaging to your intended audience. Take time to learn what makes a good children’s book. Which one of the types of nonfiction picture books would you like to write? Also, which children’s book age group are you writing for? There are thousands of picture books out there, so what do you bring that is different? Don’t let this discourage you, but rather spur you to use your creativity, your unique perspective or voice, and write something fresh and exciting. There’s room for you—you just need to make it!

The Benefits of Writing Nonfiction Picture Books for Children

Writing nonfiction holds a major benefit for you as the author: there are eight nonfiction publishing opportunities for every one fiction publishing opportunity.

Out of every 100 new writers, 89 start out with their hearts set on fiction. Yet, out of every 100 published for the first time, 84 published nonfiction.

In total, there are eight nonfiction markets for every one fiction market. Or, to put it in another way, you are eight times more likely to be published as a nonfiction writer than you are as a writer of fiction.

From Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas

In a three-year study published in the journal Teacher Librarian, it was found that when students in grades one through six could choose which books to check out, over 40% selected nonfiction. In another study, kindergarten teacher Marlene Correia tracked her students’ library checkouts for 3½ months. She discovered they checked out more nonfiction than fiction titles.

Another study by Kathleen A.J. Mohr found that more than 80% of first-graders opted for nonfiction when invited to choose their own book. And according to research reported on by NPR, children are “significantly more likely to prefer fact over fiction,” and they’re more likely to choose true stories over fantasy than are adults.

Nonfiction writing for children offers more opportunities for work-for-hire, ghostwriting, curriculum writing and magazine writing than fiction. So, whether you want to write nonfiction full time, or use it to supplement your income, it is a worthwhile avenue to pursue.

Types Of Nonfiction Picture Books

In the early stages of your nonfiction writing, it’s crucial to decide on the type of book you want to write. You can decide this before or after choosing your topic, or even after developing your topic. In other words:

• You may decide the specific type of nonfiction you want to write (as described below) first and then make your topic fit into that form.

• Or you may choose the type of nonfiction you want to write after deciding on an idea, based on which type of nonfiction you think will best suit that idea. Either approach is fine.

There are five categories that nonfiction picture books fall into: traditional, browsable, narrative, expository, and active. Each style is distinct and learning the key differences will help when you choose which type of book you want to write. That said, any of these can be inspiring, scientific, entertaining or just about anything else you’d like your book to be.

Let’s have a look at each of these nonfiction picture book categories, so you know what your options are. We’ll also share examples of some of the top published books in each category, so you can be inspired!

Traditional Nonfiction Picture Books

For a long time, these were the only nonfiction books. They were more or less the building blocks of our education. Traditional picture books provide a general overview of a topic or event in an “all-about” manner (e.g. “all about dogs”). Often published in a series or as collections, they can cover a wide range of topics in one series. For instance, a series on transport could have one book for planes, trains, cars, boats, etc.

Traditional nonfiction is written in clear, concise language, with simple vocabulary, and explains, describes and informs on the topic straightforwardly. These books use photos or illustration to accompany the text.

Traditional nonfiction picture books are characterized by:

  • A clear, informative narrative structure
  • Accurate representation of facts
  • Usually adhering to a specific topic or theme

Examples of traditional nonfiction titles:

  • About Series by Cathryn Sill
  • About Habitats Series by Cathryn Sill
  • What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steven Jenkins
  • Little Kids First Big Book of Space by Catherine D. Hughes
  • Are You A Bee? by Judy Allen
  • Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne

Browsable Nonfiction Picture Books

Browsable nonfiction picture books are brilliant if you want to tackle a subject by presenting a lot of data and facts. These types of books are browsable, meaning that the pages can be read in any order and the reader can flip through the book, stopping at the pages or information that catches their attention. This is beneficial for reluctant readers, as they can digest the information in bite-sized portions.

This style of nonfiction book is great if you want to publish an encyclopaedia-style book, where new and exciting facts or information are presented on every page. Arranging your facts interestingly will encourage your readers to flip the page. It’s common to use photographs for this type of book, because it is very data-driven and factual, so using photographs works well in this case. That said, many of these books use illustration, not photos.

The allure of browsable nonfiction lies in its:

  • Visually rich layout with sidebars and pull-out information
  • Freedom to read in non-linear fashion
  • Interactivity, with quizzes and questions to engage the reader

Examples of browsable nonfiction titles:

  • National Geographic Kids, Ultimate Weird but True 300 Outrageous Facts by National Geographic
  • The Stardust That Made Us: A Visual Exploration of Chemistry, Atoms, Elements and the Universe by Colin Stuart and illustrated by Ximo Abadia
  • Children’s Encyclopedia of American History by David C. King
  • Football Biographies For Kids: The 25 Greatest Footballers of All Time by Paragon Publishing
  • The 50 States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 fact-filled maps! by Gabrielle Balkan and Sol Linero

Narrative Nonfiction Picture Books

Narrative nonfiction is a technique that tells nonfiction subject matter using fiction techniques, allowing you, as an author, to use traditional storytelling methods to explore topics by using scenes, characters and a story arc. It is written as a story with a character journey with tension, but it is still factual. If you plan to write a biography, a narrative nonfiction picture book is the way to go. These books are usually illustrated, as it can be hard to find photos for each scene.

What sets narrative nonfiction apart is its:

  • Strong storytelling arc with characters and settings
  • Factual events told in an interesting, narrative style
  • A blend of educational content with engaging storytelling

Examples of narrative nonfiction titles:

  • Kunkush: The True Story of a Refugee Cat by Marne Ventura
  • For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story by Rebecca Ann Langston- George
  • Beacon to Freedom: The Story of a Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Jenna Glatzer
  • Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure: A Woman and a Dog Walk to the North Pole by Sally Isaacs

Expository Nonfiction Picture Books

Expository nonfiction picture books are a newer concept and are written with a narrow view of a topic. Even though it’s newer, many of these have been published in the last few years. Many STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths) topics can be dissected into smaller topics, like bacteria or thermodynamics. Focusing on a topic in these fields more narrowly and in more detail can help young readers grasp more complex concepts, versus focusing broadly. This style of picture book can be quite innovative, handling a STEM topic in a literary way by using poetic, humorous or even lyrical language.

This method of writing is valuable if you’re planning on writing about more complex topics, explaining facts that reinforce your idea. You can even focus on experts in certain professions and dive deep into topics by having an expert (or narrator) guide the children along in your book.

Characteristics of expository literature:

Strong visual aids that complement the explanatory text

An engaging tone that makes complex information accessible

Formats that vary from fact boxes to diagrams and charts

Examples of expository nonfiction titles:

  • The Nature Books Series by Dianna Aston Hutts and illustrated by Sylvia Long (A Butterfly Is Patient, A Beetle is Shy, etc.)
  • Look at Me! How to Attract Attention in the Animal World by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
  • Frogs by Nic Bishop
  • A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fisherman and Isabel Greenberg
  • Exploring Stems by Kristin Sterling

Active Nonfiction Picture Books

Active nonfiction picture books are written in a way that gets kids up and doing things, whether that be performing experiments, exploring outdoors or having fun with arts and crafts. This type of book is great if your subject matter is interactive. Active nonfiction books are becoming more popular.

If your goal is to get your audience engaged in a way that makes them want to do activities, experiment or tinker, then this style of book is a good choice. In its most simple form, this type of nonfiction is a call to action, where the words on the page evoke a sense of adventure and inspiration, encouraging kids to go out and do something in the world.

Active nonfiction is characterized by its:

  • Hands-on’ approach with activities and experiments
  • Interactive content that requires reader participation
  • Encouragement of learning through action and play

Active nonfiction invites children to step into the role of protagonists in their journey of discovery.

Examples:

Nonfiction Picture Books: Writing Style

On top of understanding the types of nonfiction picture books, it’s also important to understand the different writing styles. There are two key types of writing styles for nonfiction children’s picture books: narrative or creative and informative. When executed well, both can get your topic across in an impactful way.

Narrative or Creative Writing Style

If you want to get the information across as not only facts, but through creative storytelling, then a narrative nonfiction picture book is preferable. As the name suggests, a narrative book presents your nonfiction topic through storytelling and reads almost like a fiction story.

Narrative nonfiction books have a plot, with a story and character arc. Using techniques like character and plot development, building tension, dialogue and other writing craft elements can have a profound emotional effect on the reader. This can bring home your message on more than one level (mental and emotional), and can work especially well for inspirational biographies or true events.

Informative Writing Style

Informative books present data as facts, not as a story. Whether you’re discussing geography, photography, or the different types of forests, informational books should be just as interesting as creative nonfiction. Kids who struggle to read often prefer this type of writing, as it can have short lines of text and brief text per spread. By exploring a subject and breaking it down into easy, digestible sections, this style of writing can turn a reluctant reader into an avid one. These can also be popular for use in the classroom, for example, to do research for school projects.

Age Groups for Nonfiction Picture Books

Word count for nonfiction picture books varies much more than word count for fiction picture books. That’s said, you should know the industry standard for the age group you are writing for to ensure that your book is suitable for the market. Remember that your books are for young readers that are still learning to read well, and it can be challenging to keep them engaged for long periods of time. While everyone is different and reading literacy varies, aim to keep your word count within the accepted range for the targeted age group. Because picture books require a low word count, you need to communicate clearly, getting your information across briefly and effectively. The goal is to create a book that is not only purposeful, but captivating from start to finish. Most nonfiction picture books are for children five years and older. There are also nonfiction books for younger children, but these are usually concept board books with a word count of under 200 words and 8-32 pages.

Nonfiction picture book page count also varies more than fiction picture book page count. While fiction picture books most often have 32 pages, shorter nonfiction books can have 32 pages, but nonfiction picture books will often have 40, 48, 56, or even 64 pages.

Page count also depends on how much back matter you include, for instance, an author note, extra fun facts, an afterword, teacher or parent guide, glossary, bibliography, etc. Including this kind of back matter can make the book more appealing for schools and libraries. (Note: Page count includes the back matter, but word count excludes the back matter text.)

Age Group: 3-5

Word Count: +- 50 to 600 words

Page Count: 8-64 pages

At this important stage in a child’s development, parents and teachers will be reading aloud to the children. Having engaging images that reinforce the text on the page will help explain concepts more easily and begin to add bits of more complex vocabulary, concepts and themes.

Note: Nonfiction books in this age range are often board books.

Examples of Nonfiction Picture Books for 3-5-year-olds:

  • Odd Beasts Meet Nature’s Weirdest Animals by Laura Gehl
  • All About Weather: A First Weather Book for Kids by Huda Harajli
  • The Backyard Bug Book for Kids by Lauren Davidson
  • My First Book of Planets: All About the Solar System for Kids by Bruce Betts
  • Fox Explores the Night by Martin Jenkins

Age Group: 5-8

Word Count: +-200-1500 words

Page Count: 32-64 pages

For this age group, the books are still fully illustrated, but you can introduce more complex language and concepts for this age group.

Examples of Nonfiction Picture Books for 5-8-year-olds:

  • We Dig Worms! by Kevin McCloskey
  • There Was a Black Hole that Swallowed the Universe by Chris Ferrie
  • Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
  • Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating
  • Inky the Octopus: The Official Story of One Brave Octopus’ Daring Escape by Erin Guendelsberger
  • Human Body Activity Book for Kids: Hands-On Fun for Grades K-3 by Katie Stokes
  • Forces: Physical Science for Kids by Andi Diehn
  • A Butterfly is Patient by Diana Hutts Aston
  • Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messne

Age Group: 8-12

Word Count: Up to 3000 words (usually 2000 words or less)

Page Count: 32-64 pages (usually 48 pages or less)

This age group consists of middle graders, and these books have more advanced text and a higher word count. It can sometimes have a challenging vocabulary to encourage learning. That said, the books still need to be easy enough for kids in this age group to understand, so as not to discourage them from reading. It’s important to n stretch your readers and improve their vocabulary and comprehension abilities, while not making it unpleasantly difficult for them.

As mentioned, with nonfiction picture books, lengths vary more than with fiction picture books. For instance, We are the Ship by Kadir Nelson has 88 pages and a word count of 16,560 words, and it’s a Silbert Medal winner!

Examples of Nonfiction Picture Books for 8-12-year-olds:

The Value of Nonfiction Picture Books

Regardless of which types of nonfiction picture books you are reading to children, nonfiction titles introduce young readers to language and an expanded vocabulary and aids them in acquiring important learning skills. An adult reading to a child about farm animals sounds is a different reading and learning experience than when a child picks up a book biography. Thus, nonfiction introduces not only different topics, but also different styles of conveying information. By reading these varied styles of books, different methods of learning and language skills will be developed.

Prepares children for later education: Education books are informational texts. The earlier you expose children to these types of informational texts, the easier it will be for them to excel in their later education, and because nonfiction books come in a variety of styles, children can choose the formats they find appealing. Thus, nonfiction can develop a love of reading and encourage curiosity, while exposing kids to different writing styles. This prepares them for more advanced educational texts.

Expands vocabulary: Nonfiction titles introduce children to new topics, and with that comes new vocabulary. Learning unfamiliar words and concepts at an early age improves comprehension, general knowledge, and ongoing academic success.

Helps second language learners: Picture books can be a significant aid in helping a child master a second (or third) language. Because illustrations play a crucial role, picture books bridge two languages better than text-only books, as images help to understand words or phrases.

New ideas and an expanding world view: All the types of nonfiction picture books provide new perspectives and ideas to children. For example, a British child reading about Brazil is being exposed to a different culture and customs, climate, style of government, and much more. In this way, nonfiction encourages ongoing learning and growth. There is so much for children (and adults) to learn about, and nonfiction picture books can encourage learning and personal development as a lifelong habit.

Conclusion

Now you know the types of nonfiction picture books that enrich children’s literature. Nonfiction picture books are a treasure trove of knowledge, presented in a variety of ways that different types of young readers can appreciate. From the classic layouts of traditional nonfiction to the participatory nature of active nonfiction, these books are powerful tools in sparking a lifelong love for reading and learning.

To learn more about how to write a nonfiction picture book, check out this article!

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  1. Which one of the types of nonfiction picture books would you like to write?
  2. What are some of your favourite published nonfiction picture books?

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