Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Thank you for visiting my blog. Please note that this post was published in 2010—long before my first published book, and long before I pursued an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I dedicated half of my critical thesis to the murky nonfiction-fiction threshold and how the classification process adds to the ambiguity. As I revisit the post now, in 2020, it is like peeking at my early evolutions as a nonfiction writer. My terminology and sensibilities are slightly different today. For example, I’m no longer a fan of the term “creative nonfiction.” And “pure nonfiction” is not a helpful term. In the post, I also refer to library shelving decisions, which are individualized by each institution. Stay tuned for an updated post about this topic and an even longer journal article inspired by my critical thesis. Thank you!


Creative Nonfiction is such a nebulous term. A genre still in its youth, we often hear it referred to as literature of fact, narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. So what does it mean? What determines if a story is pure nonfiction or creative nonfiction? And when is the line crossed, making a book historical fiction? Ultimately, the answers determine where a book will be shelved in the local library.

Editor/ author Lee Gutkind describes Creative nonfiction as “dramatic, true stories that use scene, dialogue and close, detailed descriptions–techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers–to examine and explore a variety of subjects…”

Let’s see if I can break it down even more.

Pure nonfiction informs and instructs, sticking to the facts
Creative nonfiction includes a/the story surrounding the facts by introducing place, scene, setting

Pure nonfiction describes the subject(s)
Creative nonfiction adds characterization so that the reader becomes involved and can relate to the subject.

Pure nonfiction is journalistic and scholarly
Creative nonfiction employs a literary voice-a tone- to the story

Pure nonfiction focuses on fact.
Creative nonfiction allows the reader to hear the author’s perspectives

Pure nonfiction is thoroughly researched
Creative nonfiction is thoroughly researched

Pure nonfiction never invents dialog, facts, or events
Creative nonfiction shouldn’t either- theoretically

As Susan Taylor Brown states, “If you want to teach young read­ers about the Irish potato famine, the rain forest, or even math, tell them a story. Tell an interesting tale about interesting people doing interesting things and readers come back for more, sometimes not even realiz­ing they are reading about something that really happened. This is creative nonfiction.”

Okay, so let’s turn back to the subject of nonfiction picture books, keeping in mind that the term “nonfiction” is generalized in children’s literature. That is, until an author like myself decides to pick it all apart and point out inconsistencies most visible when perusing library shelves.

Once again, I’ve chosen a select few picture books that I have on hand. Let me preface this by stating that all of these books are admirable and worthy and so are the various genres. Honestly, I’m all for presenting true stories to kids in whatever way works best to entertain the young readers, as long as we don’t deceive them.

Today, I’m focused on the intricacies of classification and distinction.

Pure Nonfiction (ahem, expository)
GLOBAL WARMING by Seymour Simon (Harper Collins, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction, right where it belongs.
A classic example of pure nonfiction, this book is loaded with wonderful information. Opening questions in the text offer a promise of what the reader will learn “Why is the climate changing? Could Earth be getting warmer by itself? Are people doing things that make the climate warmer? What will be the impact of global warming? Can we do anything about it?

FACE TO FACE WITH MANATEES by Brian Skerry, (National Geographic, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
“You’ll learn all about these sea cows- and about the threats to their world and what you can do to protect it.”

Creative Nonfiction (ahem, narrative)
OLD ABE, EAGLE HERO: THE CIVIL WAR’S MOST FAMOUS MASCOT by Patrick Young, illustrated by Anne Lee (Kane Miller, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
The true story reads almost like fiction with great “show-don’t-tell” details. “Old Abe was very brave in battle. He jumped up and down on his perch and screamed at the enemy.” “As the soldiers crept near the enemy, Old Abe whistled. He was warning his friends that a stranger was close by.”


STRONG MAN: THE STORY OF CHARLES ATLAS by Meghan McCarthy (Knopf, 2007)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction
The true story of how small Italian immigrant, Angelo Siciliano, overcame bullies’ taunts to become a famous bodybuilder and promoter of fitness and exercise. Like Old Abe, this story is “showing” through narrative. Angelo was frustrated. He needed to think, so he went to his favorite thinking place- the zoo. There, he spent hours watching the animals. That’s when he noticed a lion stretching.” “Eureka! Angelo came up with a fitness routine.”

*There are a few lines of dialog that are not clearly attributed to Atlas’ documented words. If they are indeed invented dialog, can this title truly be classified as nonfiction? Hmm!  (EDITED in 2018: According to the Library of Congress, invented dialog is acceptable under the “juvenile literature,” (aka nonfiction) classification. Publishers, on the other hand, often have different opinions.

Fiction / Historical Fiction
FANNIE IN THE KITCHEN by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Atheneum, 2001)
CIP summary clearly states that this is a fictional account, but the book is shelved in my library’s nonfiction section (biography.) Even the jacket flap indicates liberties taken with the facts, but I wonder if kids will assume it’s all true because of the nonfiction shelving.

“Here’s the story “from soup to nuts”-delightfully embellished by Deborah Hopkinson- of how Fannie Farmer invented the modern recipe and created one of the first and best-loved American cookbooks.”

by Sharon Darrow (Candlewick, 2003)
From BookList- This fictionalized picture-book biography focuses on the stormy adolescence of the nineteenth-century woman who wrote Frankenstein.
Marketed as fiction but shelved in nonfiction (biography)
A riveting and revealing story, but does it belong in the nonfiction section?

Ultimately, I think there’s a place for fictionalized stories about true events. As long as we’re honest with kids about what is fact and what is fiction. A few questions come to mind, as I pay closer attention to these kid-lit “true” stories:

1.) Will kids assume fictionalized details are true if a book, with invented dialog and events, is classified or shelved as nonfiction? Should there be better disclaimers in fictionalized accounts, about which aspects are fictional?

2.) How do libraries make shelving decisions between fiction and nonfiction? (I think it’s time to invite some librarians to this discussion.)

3.) On the author front, which is more marketable today, creative nonfiction or historical fiction?

4.) Do apprentice authors worry too much about fitting into one or the other?

Want to read more about the Creative Nonfiction genre? Check out some of these great Resources.