My love of children’s literature is what inspired me to pursue a career in publishing. Until now I’ve devoted most of my attention to fiction titles, but, since attending Booktrust’s seminar The World into Words: why reading non-fiction is vital for children, I am seriously rethinking my own relationship to children’s non-fiction. And, after listening to children’s non-fiction authors Viv French and Nicola Davies and children’s librarian Jake Hope share their insights, I think the industry as a whole may need to as well.
Five Things to Rethink About Children’s Non-Fiction
1. It can (and should!) have a strong narrative voice.
French and Davies made a compelling point about this: no one questions the use of narrative in adult non-fiction. It is an integral part of biographies, memoirs, travel pieces, and even cookery books.
So why shouldn’t it be a component of children’s non-fiction? The panellists agreed that narrative shouldn’t be thought of as just ‘story.’ Rather, it is a tool that writers use to impart information to reader, and it can make it easier to remember facts and details.
Strong narrative also helps establish reading as a pleasurable experience, which should be a primary goal of all children’s titles.
2. Non-Fiction children’s books must establish a pleasurable reading experience.
Obviously, this point goes hand in hand with the first. The panel bemoaned the abundance of children’s non-fiction books on the market that simply list facts with no narrative to string them together and make little or no effort to engage children by having the words and pictures support each other.
Adults don’t like to read books that simply list facts. That’s why instruction manuals are boring. Children are just as capable of expressing their likes and dislikes, so why are we repeatedly handing them ill-thought-out products?
3. Non-fiction can be presented as a positive.
French, Davies and Hope agreed that the big ‘NON’ in front of non-fiction gives it a bad rep. It simply makes it sound negative to children from the get-go. To combat this, Both French and Davies said they prefer not to distinguish their books from other children’s books, they simply say they write for children.
That’s a good first step, but I think a school librarian friend of mine has an even better idea. Since non-fiction is a concept that children can have difficulty grasping in general, she prefers to explain what books are by saying: ‘It’s fiction,’ or ‘it’s fact’.
Right away, a big difference. By calling the book a ‘fact’ book instead of a ‘non-fiction’ book, the emphasis is not on what the book is lacking, but what it does: share information.
French and Davies said that’s their biggest goal as children’s writers: to share information that makes kids wants to learn more.
4. We need to celebrate non-fiction authors as much as fiction authors.
Good children’s non-fiction authors translate and deliver information in age appropriate ways. This is an awesome, amazing and admirable skill, which you’ll appreciate if you know (or ever were) a kid that keeps asking ‘Why?’
So why don’t we celebrate them just as much as fiction writers? French and Davies lamented the lack of attention children’s non-fiction writers receive. In their experience, publicity budgets are smaller for non-fiction books and they’re less likely to be reviewed.
Non-fiction authors are just as capable of phenomenal success (think of Terry Dreary of Horrible Histories fame) so why aren’t we working just as hard to promote children’s non-fiction authors in schools, bookshops and at events and to get their books in to the hands of critics, bloggers, librarians and educators?
If we aren’t working hard for our authors, we’re failing ourselves.
5. Non-fiction shouldn’t just teach – it should inspire.
It’s no coincidence that the seminars at London Book Fair were called ‘Love Learning.’ Publishers and writers are some of the most inquisitive people around – producing quality non-fiction for children is a way for us to pass our enthusiasm for learning on.
Isn’t passion, a love of reading and a desire to learn why we got in to this business?