In a previous post, I discussed how the “Chicken or Egg?” conundrum is a way to view which agency- National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – is responsible for the recommendations for fiction vs. non-fiction in a student’s reading diet.
In 2015, the NAEP the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas” provided a voluntary survey on which teachers could select the literary genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.” NAEP noted that over the past six years, there has been a steady increase in nonfiction in grade 4 and 8, a phenomena that coincides with the adoption of the CCSS and the revisions to the NAEP reading content. As the primary reason or as a result, the CCSS has promoted expectations that a student’s reading diet reflect a ratio 30% fiction and 70% nonfiction across the content areas by the time he or she graduates from high school.
The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction
Complicating the question of which came first, the CCSS recommendations or the NAEP, another genre has been evolving and gaining popularity with students at all grade levels, the genre of creative nonfiction. Creative non-fiction or the narrative non-fiction genre features the same techniques that fiction writers, playwrights, and poets use in order to present real people and events as stories while still using factually accurate prose. The goal of the creative non-fiction writer is to make nonfiction stories as exhilarating, arresting, vivid, or dramatic as anything in the fictional story.
In meeting that goal, consider how the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman (author of Children of the Wild West; Lincoln: A Photobiography; Washington at Valley Forge) has dipped into the fiction trademark, the story, by saying:
“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”
That desire to imitate a storyteller has been generated by a primitive need to communicate and to remember. The story, as author and consultant Lisa Cron explains in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, allows humans to be human. She writes:
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally.”
Similarly, Thomas Newkirk, a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, has argued that that we are hard-wired for the story format in his brilliant book Minds Made for Stories–How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. He writes that, “…as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” as though the need to tell stories is instinctive as embedded in all humans as is our DNA. Newkirk explains:
“We rely on stories not merely for entertainment, but for explanation, meaning, self-understanding. We instinctively make connections of cause and effect, and always have. To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature” (146).
Examples of Creative Nonfiction by Grade Level
Consider the following examples of great openings that use the poetry, humor, or suspense, associated with fiction in different kinds of non-fiction.
The first is the short opening of the picture book Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by
“In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins.”
The poetic combination of “leafy calm” and “gentle arms” sets a peaceful tone that is soon disrupted when the infant gorilla is kidnapped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Washington, to live his real life in a mall.
Or read the opening from the Ludwig Von Beethoven chapter, one of 19 truncated biographies collected for How they Croaked:The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg. Bragg knows her teen audience and keeps the pace moving quickly and informally:
“Beethoven’s dad forced him to practice the piano, like dads have done since the dawn of music. We don’t know what tunes Beethoven practiced, but today, kids are forced to play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, melodies that Beethoven wrote. Practice paid off for Beethoven and he became a musical genius. He played his first gig when he was eight years old. He performed for kings, he did concert tours, and he had a lot of fans. And he had long hair just like a rock star. It turns out Beethoven’s hair helped uncover how he died.”
Yes, this does follow a standard biographical timeline, starting in Beethoven’s youth, and, yes, there is the gratuitous connection to rock stars and “gigs”. This entry-and all of the others in the book- capitalize on a multitude gory details in describing how famous real people in history “croaked.”
The last example is from the opening of the 2013 multi-media Pulitzer Prize winning article in the NY Times Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch. This digital form of storytelling is an excellent piece for secondary students. It begins in medias res (middle of action):
“The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: ‘Avalanche! Elyse!’
The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.”
Accompanying the text are snowfall loops of digital GIFs embedded with video, audio interviews, graphics, and other interactive features. I have written before that the text of “Snowfall” marks a new step in storytelling, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose. Real stories are breaking the 3rd wall in storytelling.
Preference for Narrative Nonfiction
In their books, both Lisa Cron and Thomas Newkirck have identified how our brains have preference for reading and writing the narrative. That preference is advancing genre adaptations that may render recommendations for reading diet ratios unnecessary, whether they come from the NAEP, the CCSS, or some other agency.
Because we are human, and because our brains want stories, the evolving genre of creative non-fiction is rapidly becoming another egg in the reader’s basket.