What Can the US Teach the UK About Children’s Non-Fiction?
Recently, I wrote a post here which encouraged everyone to revisit their relationship with children’s non-fiction. Originally, I didn’t have space to address an interesting comment that Nicola Davies and Vivian French made at Booktrust’s London Book Fair seminar: that children’s non-fiction seems to be more popular in the US than in the UK. As an American in London, I know that cross-cultural idea exchange is a great learning experience, and this really intrigued me. I wanted to find out why two successful non-fiction authors would feel this way, and whether things are different for children’s non-fiction across the pond.
I spoke further with Vivian French about her personal experience and got on-the-ground insight about children’s non-fiction in the US from Dr. Joan Kindig, an education and reading specialist at James Madison University, who certainly has her finger on the pulse of US children’s publishing trends.
Here’s what I think the UK publishing industry should take away from our counterparts in the states…
1. Children’s non-fiction is not dead.
In our conversation, Vivian French commented on the lack of excitement children’s non-fiction inspires in the UK. She described how she’s often met with apathy when the subject comes up, and shared another person in the industry called children’s non-fiction ‘dead,’ due to the internet.
It’s difficult to make general comparisons about the US and the UK’s markets as they are vastly different in size, but French said in her experience, while reviews and excitement about children’s non-fiction has tapered off in the UK, attention in the states has remained steady – even with all of the changes happening in publishing.
That observation tallies with what Dr. Kindig says about children’s non-fiction in the US. There is such stable interest from educators, librarians and book buyers that several children’s publishers have exclusively non-fiction imprints, and the major publishing periodicals, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal all have dedicated non-fiction sections. To Kindig, this means that children’s non-fiction is having ‘Far more than just a moment, it is here to stay.’
2. It’s an important educational tool.
Dr. Kindig believes part of children’s non-fiction’s popularity in the US can be attributed to the fact that every parent wants their child to be ‘a little genius.’ Fortunately, it’s not all about parental pressure – kids really love facts. Check out the programme for the recent Hay Festival: Usborne’s Great Big Animal quiz, based on their Animal Fact Cards and Animal Quiz cards, is scheduled to take place in the festival’s biggest venue with seating for 200.
In my last post, I wrote that as children’s non-fiction writers, French and Davies’ goal was to share information that makes kids want to learn more, and Kindig said that’s exactly what children’s non-fiction can do. She advocates for the use of narrative non-fiction in the classroom because it can be a great way to get reluctant readers reading, and it inspires participation.
She explained using several non-fiction books can be far more effective than teaching from a single text. A topical selection of titles encourages students to interact with information in a way that’s manageable for them, which helps build reading skills. It also enables everyone to take part in class discussion and talk to each other about what they’ve learned.
Interacting with information, building reading and discussion skills – sounds like a pretty good lesson.
3. It is really worth celebrating children’s non-fiction
If the foundation last year of the SLA Information Book Awards is any indication of what teachers, school librarians and the people who are working on these books think about children’s non-fiction, then this idea is already beginning to catch on in the UK.
The award is designed to ‘reinforce the importance of children’s non-fiction whilst highlighting the high standard of resources available.’ Judging chair, Chris Brown said,
‘It is a celebration of the fantastic skills being applied in the creation of the very best of such books for our young readers. It is intended also to highlight and emphasise the immense value, in this ‘Information Age’, of the organisation and breadth of coverage being achieved and brilliantly conveyed in the very best books.’
It’s easy to surmise from Mr. Brown’s words that educators have a vested interest in keeping children’s non-fiction alive and vibrant, and that they want to raise its prestige.
They can certainly take their cue from the US. Two distinguished national awards for quality children’s non-fiction exist there: the National Council of Teachers of English’s Orbis Pictus Award and the Association for Library Service to Children’s Robert F. Sibert Medal. The Orbis Pictus has been awarded from 1990 and the Sibert Medal from 2001.
In terms of recognising the educational value and contribution of children’s non-fiction, the US is leading the way. I hope some of the excitement will catch on and grow here.