10 Narrative Nonfiction Books that Leave an Impression

Back when I started writing, narrative nonfiction (creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, etc), or nonfiction that employs the techniques and tools of fiction to tell stories, was becoming increasingly popular. Now, the Common Core has brought narrative nonfiction back into the spotlight—for 6-12 educators at least—with the shift towards an increase in informational text across all grades, more literary nonfiction in the upper grades, and a focus on learning from text.

Thinking about how students learn from text, narrative nonfiction books and essays may be an untapped resource. Students remember stories, and great narrative nonfiction merges storytelling with information in ways that engage readers and leaves a lasting impression. They’re also fantastic anchor texts for students to use as springboards into more technical reading. Think: reading Unbroken alongside articles about World War II, aviation history, and the Olympics. 

These 10 narrative nonfiction books are bound to have an impact on students (as they did on me):

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

This is a narrative nonfiction classic, Capote explores the mystery of how the Clutter family was murdered with journalistic precision.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

I read this in high school and will forever remember the sultry, lazy setting and the engrossing cast of characters (Chablis, anyone?).

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Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson

In my middle school years, I read this book multiple times, fascinated at the life that was so different from any other experience that I’d previously read about.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I love medical narrative nonfiction, and Skloot seamlessly weaves medical info together with the story of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

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The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

Back in 1995, this was my first introduction to the ebola virus, in a book that reads like a Michael Crighton novel.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Boo paints such a vivid, and endearing, portrait of the children who live their lives in a large slum in India that I slowed down my reading so the story would last longer.

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer’s book is a perfect example of how to tell a tragic tale without losing it to sentimentality.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand’s story about Louis Zamperini reads as well as any literary epic journey.

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Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

McDougall makes the act of running a character in this book that inspired me to pick up distance running.

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1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies 

I love when history turns into a narrative, and this story of the exploration of the world by Chinese fleets reads like a movie.

For more narrative nonfiction, check out this GoodReads list.

My Top 10 Children’s Books

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post about the 37 children’s books that changed lives, I’ve created my own list of ten books that changed my life as a reader.

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Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

I always read this Sendak classic as an example of how imagination plays out in kids’ lives until I heard this NPR interview.

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A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss

This book’s simple explanations for everything—a hole is to dig, hands are to make things, the ground is to make a garden—is a revolutionary celebration of the everyday.

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Corduroy by Don Freeman

As a child, I was obsessed with the idea of what happened when night fell on the department store and Corduroy had free reign. (I’m not the only one; Slate editors discuss children’s books, including Corduroy, in this podcast.)

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The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

The cyclical nature of this story was fascinating to me, as well as the personification of the little house.

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Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary

The antics of Ramona were worth reading, but I really related to the character of older sister Beezus.

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Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

There is a scene in this book, where a boy gets attacked by bees and has to wrapped up like a mummy in mud and cloth, that I could not get out of my mind.

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The Hobbit by J. R.R. Tolkien

For me, this book is a tribute to the power of reading aloud. When my mother read me this story, she created a voice for Gollum that haunted me up until and through seeing the movies 20 years later.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

From the Doldrums to the Dodecahedron, The Phantom Tollbooth is full of language, ideas, and whimsical places and characters that stayed with me long afterwards.

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The Baby Sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin

I believe I read every single book in this extensive series that, at the time, I desperately wanted to be my life. (Who, growing up in the 80s, didn’t start a baby sitter’s club at one time or another?)

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Matilda by Roald Dahl

I think Matilda is on every bookworm’s list. She’s the ultimate literary underdog, and Dahl creates the best everyday villans (long live the Trunchbull).

Now, finishing this list I’m thinking only about the books that I left out—Frances, Dr. Seuss, The Runaway Bunny, and on and on.

Book Review: Uncommon Core Brings the Discussion Back to Instruction

Full disclosure: I support the Common Core. So, it’s been challenging to watch the discussion around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Just this week:

In the midst of all this discussion, comes the new book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get it Right (Corwin Press). Authors Michael Smith, Deborah Applebaum, and Jeffrey Wilhelm acknowledge that the roll-out of the CCSS has presented major concerns. (The concerns primarily emerge through materials put out by David Coleman, author of the Standards and president and CEO of the College Board). In addition to the concerns raised by everyone from the Chattanooga Tea Party to Diane Ravitch (that the CCSS are an attempt to nationalize education, there is an overriding focus on profit, high-stakes tests take too central a role) Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm contend that if the CCSS is implemented in Coleman’s model it:

  • May erode teacher autonomy,
  • May result in a shift away from research-based best practices in reading instruction,
  • May negatively impact students who need it most (students who are underperforming or have specific needs), and
  • May result in a widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

In other words, may not produce the change in education that we want to see.

In addition, the authors point out that reading for pleasure and wisdom aren’t incorporated into the CCSS. Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm argue, and I agree, that reading for pleasure and for wisdom are both important goals for reading in school and at home. (For more about reading for enjoyment and the CCSS is Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading.)

In response to the concerns, Uncommon Core provides a well-researched argument for how the CCSS can be used to enhance instruction by building on strategies that teachers already use and with a focus on student independence (one of the goals of the CCSS). A few areas they incorporated:

  • Rather than having students start with cold-readings of complex texts, focused pre-reading and background-building instruction can help students access complex texts and build skills that will make their ability to “cold read” more likely in the future.
  • Instead of reading whole texts in isolation, reading various passages and texts within a unit improves students’ ability to transfer information and skills.
  • The list of exemplar texts, Appendix B, can be a starting point to build a diverse reading list for students with texts that are relevant, engaging and challenging.
  • Text-dependent questions can drive students into text, and can be combined with more general or authentic questions to drive discussion.

Suffice it to say, the authors of the Uncommon Core establish clear approaches to maximizing the CCSS to improve reading instruction.

I have followed the CCSS since 2010 when they were newly released and have seen the discussion develop from excitement to push-back to resentment. Teachers feel overwhelmed with the expectations of the CCSS and a confusing roll-out that’s merged with teacher accountability and evaluation, among other concerns. In the news, the arguments and discussions about the CCSS have gotten far away from the classroom, often devolving into political rhetoric. Uncommon Core brings the conversation back to the classroom and gives credit to teachers who are doing the work of the Common Core. (Edutopia Common Core, Teaching the Core, and Shanahan on Literacy also provide good resources around CCSS and literacy instruction.)

In short: for teachers who are working in states that are debating the CCSS, this book is a must-read. It will provide another access point for the CCSS and a critical look into what’s behind the educational arguments for and against the ELA Standards. For teachers in states that have adopted the CCSS and are moving forward with assessment, this book provides clarity and ideas for strengthening instruction, as well as guidance around how the CCSS have been and can be interpreted. Regardless of how the CCSS shakes out—if they’re adopted as-in, if they’re revised, or if they become the jumping off point for new state standards—Uncommon Core (as promised by the authors) provides a clear path for quality reading instruction using the CCSS.