Non-fiction is an account about a subject, which the author believes is fact at the time of writing. Great non-fiction delights and excites our curiosity, but also leaves us with a reflective sense of wonder.


Identifying great non-fiction
Alan MacDiarmid, Boy Chemist
Further reading

Identifying great non-fiction

What makes for a successful non-fiction book and how can you tell?

You could begin with the author. It is research and expert advice that is the bedrock of a successful information book. If the writer is not a subject expert, then at least the book should acknowledge their work and consultation with experts.

Other considerations in defining a successful non-fiction book

Accuracy and comprehensiveness

Accuracy is an important criterion for judging non-fiction book. A book that presents accurate balanced and up-to-date information is an invaluable knowledge source. Information books should represent the heritage and knowledge of the past along with the latest research and contemporary experience as well.

Literary style and tone

Another consideration is style. Does the author’s writing style, tone and humour bring the subject to life?

A good example of a unique and effective style isTerry Deary’s Horrible Histories series of books, which has seen sales of over 20 million copies to date.

Design and format

Non-fiction book design and layout play a crucial part in determining the readers response as well as conveying information. Is the layout and design appropriate to its targeted audience and do they stimulate interest?

Additional and supporting material

Non-fiction books should also have an appropriate level of ancillary material to support and add value to the content. This ranges from timelines, urls, fact boxes and graphs to an index, bibliography and glossary.

Illustrations and photographs

These are an essential part of the overall layout. Photographs need to be accurate, and captioned. They must also add to, complement or explain the text in some way. Similarly artwork needs to present subject detail and capture the tone of the text to work successfully. 

Satisfies and broadens curiosity

A good non-fiction title can grab and hold a student’s natural curiosity for whatever purpose the student is using the book.

Provides for depth and breadth of information

Many children read non-fiction exclusively. They may read every library book on a particular subject from elephants to forensic investigation. Reading often grows as answers lead to new questions!

Provides models for concise writing

Non-fiction represents a excellent source of writing models to support literacy programmes.

Challenges readers to read critically

Students can use non-fiction for recreational reading as well as for research and inquiry. When texts are being used for study, reading critically becomes a very important skill/strategy. Non-fiction helps readers become skilled at using the strategies of comprehension, questioning, and summarising.

Reading aloud

How about reading non-fiction aloud around a topic to junior or senior students. Read aloud to give emphasis:

  • on part of a topic
  • to support learning such as with younger readers and learners
  • for enjoyment.

One example could be a history teacher reading aloud from a primary source for example letters, journals, and diaries to give information.

Reading aloud also provides the teacher with opportunity to point out concepts, facts and how the information is organised.

Boys and non-fiction

James Moloney states It has long been observed that many boys are attracted to non-fiction books; books with facts, figures and information. They browse non-fiction in groups dipping in and out of books sharing information and prompted by a fascination for subject and detail. Information is FUN! Recognising this, publishers reflect this in the design and layout of non-fiction titles.

Read more about engaging boys in reading

Non-fiction can lead on to lifelong passions and career choices. Here's an inspiring story that perfectly illustrates how non-fiction can and does make a real difference to our lives.

Alan MacDiarmid, Boy Chemist

Alan MacDiarmid
One of New Zealand's greatest scientists, Alan MacDiarmid, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000, along with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa, for discovering a way to make plastics conduct.

When asked how he came to be interested in chemistry, Alan mentioned a book he had read as a boy - "The boy chemist" by A. Frederick Collins. He told how he had spotted the book on the New Books shelves at the Lower Hutt Public Library. He enjoyed it so much he kept renewing it for almost a year so he could complete most of the experiments.

The Friends of the Dorothy Neal White Collection housed in the National Library of New Zealand purchased and donated a copy of the book to the Dorothy Neal White Collection. They reunited him with the book in early 2002 and he confessed that his favourite experiment had been making invisible ink from lemon juice.

Further reading

I.N.K Interesting Nonfiction for Kids - meet the writers who present nonfiction in a new way. Learn how these writers practice their craft, research writing techniques, and gather facts.

Create Readers Blog has reviews of recent non-fiction titles. Select from the categories including: Social Studies, Science, Maths, History, Health, the Arts, among others.

Image: Non fiction in Mahurangi College library