Imagine you wake up in a strange place. Although the place does not feel threatening, just being there is jarring because you don’t know why you are there, or how you got there. You don’t know what to do or how to interact. That’s what reading a nonfiction book might be like, if it weren’t for the mighty powers of peritext.
Peritext? What’s that? All of the elements in a book that are not in the main body of text. In STEM nonfiction books, peritext can be paramount.
Pick up a nonfiction book from this month’s list and search out those elements. There’s the cover (front and back) and maybe some flap or cover copy; these introduce you to the book and give you a preview of the author’s “take” on the topic. There’s a copyright page and, most likely, other standard elements such as a table of contents, glossary, and index; these give you context, a map to guide your journey, and help when needed. But there may be more—much, much more.
Consider how different the book would be without all of that. What would the reader miss? What do each of those elements actually do for the book?
Before I began writing professionally, I essentially ignored peritext. I rarely read any portion of the backmatter (everything after the main body of text). One day, a writer friend told me she reads every word of the endnotes—I was astounded. Who would do that?
Then I tried it with a book I loved and realized just how much I had been missing. These elements are designed for the inquiring mind! As a reader and writer, it is worth studying the peritext and pondering its value. Peritext invites us into the reading experience and launches us into the next one.
1. Ask a friend to select a nonfiction book that you have never seen. Have them binder clip together the pages that contain the main text. (Note: peritext includes illustrations and chapter titles, etc, but let’s focus on the frontmatter and backmatter for now.)
2. Study the peritext (no peeking at the main text). Jot down a list of what’s there.
- Is there a table contents? An index? What about a timeline? Anything interesting about the endpapers?
- Ask yourself: Who uses each of these elements? Who creates them? Do any serve multiple purposes?
- Now, read the material. From the peritext, what impression do you get about the book?
- What questions are sparked in your mind?
- If these elements are illustrated, jot down notes about them as well.
3. Skim the glossary or index.
- Do some entries surprise you?
- What questions do you now have? Are you now more, or less, eager to read the book? To read other material on the topic?
- Search for clues to the core of the book. Not the topics covered, but the theme, the big ideas, the conclusions. (Don’t forget the covers.)
4. Finally, read the entire book.
- Consider how well the elements in the peritext support the main text.
- If you were the author, illustrator, editor, etc. would you have done things differently?
- What factors might impact what’s included in the backmatter? (FYI, typically the author creates most of the backmatter and other publishing professionals create most of the frontmatter and covers.)
As an author, this is how I look at books. I want to know what is there, why it is there, and how it is used. To help me inquire, I started a running list of the elements in various books. Just off the top of your head, you might remember books with recipes, timelines, acknowledgments, bibliographies, or an author’s note, but you would be amazed at the variety. And think how much each of those elements can vary, not only in content, but also in presentation. In some books, the backmatter was even more interesting to me than the main text.
Backmatter isn’t limited to nonfiction; however, it seems to be more common and extensive in nonfiction. Why? What types of fiction include extensive backmatter? What if more fiction included backmatter?
1. Read a book that has limited backmatter.
2. List at least 3 elements which could have been included.
3. Create 1 of those elements for the book. (You might have to make something up for the sake of the exercise.)
4. Share it with a friend and ask if the added element is valuable.
If you’re not careful, you will now find yourself picking up books and flipping to the backmatter before you read the frontmatter. You’ll be noticing how cool it is that the glossary of Dining With Dinosaurs only includes words not already defined in the main text. (So smart—those are the only ones a reader should need in the glossary!) You might start wishing every historical text included a visual timeline like Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers (Science Comic Series). And when you begin to write your next piece, you might start thinking about the backmatter before the front matter. This is what reading like a writer will do to you!
Heather L. Montgomery can’t resist writing backmatter–the ulimate playground for a nonfiction writer. She almost let it take over her upcoming book, Who Gives a Poop? The Surprising Science Behind Scat (Bloomsbury, September 2020). Aren’t you eager to dive into that? For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with the perimatter in her 15 other STEM titles. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com
The O.O.L.F Files
Just a few more dino books because you can never have too many…
The First Dinosaur: How Science Solved the Greatest Mystery on Earth, written by Ian Lendler, illustrated by C. M. Butzer. In this 220-pager, Lendler carefully lays out how the idea of dinosaurs came to be. Beginning with a bone discovered before the concept of dinosaurs—or even fossils—existed, Lendler walks readers through a wealth of scientific studies to share a story you want to know. This book is likely to blow young minds (and yours).
Dinosaurs By the Numbers (A Book of Infographics), written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. In classic Jenkins style, this fact-packed book is sure to please dino lovers. Maps, graphs, size-comparisons, all formatted on clean white space do an excellent job of accentuating dinosaur facts and extremes. And, there’s an illustrated table of contents–such tantalizing peritext!
When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex, written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Diana Sudyka. This picture book tells how a curious girl grew to be an inquisitive scientist who discovered the most complete (and likely the most famous) Tyrannasoarus rex fossil ever found (so far). Perfect for kids who are collectors and those who yearn to make their own discoveries.
New word! Never knew the collection of additional info was called peritext. Glad to have a label for what I’ve always loved in NF. Thanks for this post and great exercise.
Nice article! Back matter is soooo important. As is front matter. I’ve found that editors do the flaps of course, but, in my case with Holiday House, Abrams, Sterling, Two Lions (ex-Marshall Cavendish), Penguin, others, the author does the introduction, the important extra “fun facts” or “More info…” (which can be in the front also but is usually found in the back matter), whatever maps or charts or extra illustrations are required, the glossary, and the bibliography (sometimes the editor contributes to this). The editor does the index. Reviewers often refer to the quality of the back matter, even listing the various categories.
Wow, this is a fantastic way for writers to explore nonfiction books, but I think it could be great for young readers to try, too. Brilliant!