Nonfiction Monday: Nonfiction, Format, and Creativity

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

This past weekend, the Loft held a Children’s and Young Adult Literature conference. I had a wonderful conversation over lunch with a group of writers—some aspiring, some published—about creativity as it applies to nonfiction.

At first blush, nonfiction might seem to require less creativity than fiction. After all, a nonfiction writer isn’t inventing characters, dialogue, and, in essence, creating a whole new universe from scratch. However, I still see plenty of room for creativity, particularly when it comes to format.

By format, I mean the way in which a book presents information. The expected format for nonfiction is something that resembles an encyclopedia article. When we were young, this is probably the type of nonfiction structure we most often encountered. And for certain purposes, it’s fine, especially when you’re writing a report and need to quickly learn essential facts—the capital of the Ivory Coast, the average height of a male giraffe, the main crops in the state of Nebraska. Where this encyclopedia-type structure can fall short is in engaging the reader—it doesn’t always giving you a book you’d describe as fun or exciting.

Some of the nonfiction books I get most excited about are those that take a chance with an unusual format. I recently finished editing a book in which most of the text is written in second person (“you”). I’ll admit that this sounds strange and a bit like a recipe for disaster. But the author really pulled it off, and this point of view only strengthens the book.

Vermeer Interviews Millbrook published The Vermeer Interviews by Bob Raczka in 2009. The book is structured as a series of interviews between Bob and the characters in seven of Vermeer’s paintings. It’s another risky structure, but it’s so much fun! As you read, you find out a lot about Vermeer’s life, his art, composition techniques, and the Netherlands in the mid-to-late 1600s.

In the world of adult nonfiction, a family member is currently reading a book about the dangers of toxins found in common household items. Sounds thrilling, right? Well, the book is Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. In it the authors expose themselves to a variety of chemicals (for instance, by eating a lot of tuna with high levels of mercury for a week) and then go through scientific tests to see how the levels of chemicals in their bodies have been affected. By involving themselves in the narrative, they’ve made their book far more interesting than it would have otherwise been.

Going back to fiction for a moment, it’s rare to find a novel that has a radically new format. A narrative can be structured in different ways (first person, third person, and occasionally second person; past tense or present tense), but when we pick up a novel, we usually know what to expect in terms of format. Perhaps that’s why The Invention of Hugo Cabret was such a big deal when it came out—a different format can shake things up and make all of us excited about reading.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted today by Bookends. Head over there to check out the roundup.nonfiction_monday