Learning Adventures with Literary Nonfiction

“Literary nonfiction” sounds like an oxymoron. How can nonfiction also be artistic, poetic, creative?

However, such works as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and essays by Norman Mailer in the 60’s and 70’s gave rise to “New Journalism” – reporting events using such literary tools as point of view, narrative voice, scene structure, dialogue, and character development, while still being grounded in thorough research, accuracy, and supportable evidence.

When students hear the word ‘nonfiction’, they often imagine dry, fact-packed, academic textbooks.

Literary nonfiction provides an antidote to the idea that assigned nonfiction reading is boring.

A great example of literary nonfiction is Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Seabiscuit was America’s most beloved four-footed celebrity athlete in the 1930’s, garnering more newspaper space in 1938 than President Roosevelt or Adolph Hitler, and entertaining a nation recovering from the Depression. His owner, trainer, and jockey were just as interesting. Charles Howard, the owner, stoked Seabiscuit’s fame with marketing ploys that resulted in Seabiscuit hats, toys, wallets, games, and even Seabiscuit train rides to his races. His trainer, Tom Smith, was the original ‘horse whisperer’, taking a horse that ran more like a duck than a thoroughbred, and turning him into a national champion. Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard was a failed boxer who was blind in one eye, and too tall to be a jockey, but he rode Seabiscuit to many victories.

Students reading Seabiscuit learn about the effects of The Great Depression, and the rise of a national audience listening to live radio broadcasts. The increase in the use of automobiles means that horses were used less and less as transportation. The legalization of gambling in order to increase state revenues after The Great Depression was a hot political and religious topic. Young people may be inspired to explore other ‘folk heroes’ who overcame incredible odds and experienced tremendous success.

A particularly moving story I read last year, with scientific and human interest threads running through it, is bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. She tells the story of the woman who unwittingly gave science the first “immortal” human cells grown in a lab, and these HeLa cells, sold by the billions, were crucial in cancer research, developing the polio vaccine, and leading to advances in invitro fertilization and genetics. Yet she and her family never gave consent or receive any compensation, and Henrietta lived her life in deep poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Not to be confused with dramatizations based on true events or historical fiction, literary nonfiction reads like a fascinating work of fiction, with well-developed characters, vibrant settings, and dramatic twists. Students will discover that truth can be stranger than fiction. They can also see for themselves the connectivity between subjects that are often detached from each other in traditional textbook-based learning.

Known as “the poet laureate of medicine”, Oliver Sacks has written many books based on his work in neurology and psychiatry. His latest book is Musicophilia – Tales of Music and the Brain. He details the extraordinary experiences of people and the power of music, like the story of a surgeon who was struck by lightning and began to hear music (mostly Chopin) in his head. Dr. Sacks explores cases of “amusia”, a condition that results in the loss of ability to hear music or sing. In some situations, music offers relief to patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.

Literary nonfiction can be deconstructed in much the same way as fiction. Students can analyze text structures, such as chronologies, comparisons and contrasts, and cause and effect. They can pinpoint the use of literary devices: characterization, foreshadowing, flashbacks, satire, alliteration, metaphor, just to name a few. Students can also explore topics further by delving into the sources cited in the book.

Using the format of literary nonfiction in Composition instead of the formal essay or research paper may also give reluctant writers a boost. They can convey information about their research topic in a creative narrative while still learning about sentence and paragraph structure, transitions, drawing conclusions, and citing their sources with footnotes and a bibliography.

Our homeschool family looks at literary nonfiction as two-for-one reading. We experience all the enjoyment of a compelling story, while learning about real events, people, and places.

Note: The books listed above contain themes and content that may be unsuitable for children under 13.

Susan and Ken Raber live in Southwest Ohio with their four energetic and imaginative kids, a rabbit named Captain Nibbles, and an attack Yorkie. They have been dedicated homeschoolers since 1994.


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