Do we care about children’s non-fiction?

posted in: 2. Illustrators and Authors | 30

One of my goals for 2014 was to review more non-fiction books for children. So far this year I’ve written 85 pieces on the blog, and 12 have been about non-fiction. Given that non-fiction makes up about 15% of high street children’s book sales in the UK, it seems appropriate that almost the same percentage of my reviews have been about non-fiction titles.

nf1

As I’ve increased the number of non-fiction books I’ve reviewed, I’ve had to think about slightly different issues from those which concern me when reviewing fiction/picture books:

  • Given how few children’s non-fiction books are reviewed, what responsibilities do I have to authors/illustrators and publishers of non-fiction?
  • How much does accuracy matter? To you? To me?
  • What do readers (you!) actually want from a non-fiction review and how does this differ from a review of a piece of fiction?


  • Sales of children’s non-fiction in the UK are booming; so far this year about 36% more children’s non-fiction titles have been sold on the high street as compared to last year. Several new imprints either dedicated to non-fiction or with non-fiction as a strong strand have launched in the last 18 months. Usborne – which is almost synonymous with children’s non-fiction here in the UK – has seen its profits jump this year, up 26% on last year.

    All this seems like great news for children’s non-fiction.

    But.

    Children’s non fiction rarely gets reviewed. Whether we’re talking about reviews in mainstream media, or by book bloggers, reviews of non-fiction for children and young people are few and far between generally speaking. Approximately 2% of the reviews of books for children and young people on the Guardian website in the last year were about non-fiction. Another broadsheet managed a 6% review rate. Look around the UK Child/YA bookblogging scene and you’ll see similar low levels of reviews.

    Why is this?

    One reviewer for a broadsheet told me that she just “doesn’t have time” to review non-fiction. I don’t know about you, but ‘time’ in my world ultimately often corresponds to ‘level of interest’. Another highly regarded mainstream media children’s book reviewer told me that for non-fiction to even get a look in, it had to be exceptional and innovative. I don’t think many reviewers of fiction only review novels or picture books which are ground-breaking. I’d argue that plenty of ‘good-enough’ (fiction) books for children and young people get review space. Is the bar set differently for children’s non-fiction?

    nf2

    Perhaps another barrier to reviewing non-fiction books is our concerns as reviewers about being able to assess the accuracy of the books in question.

    In reviewing non-fiction titles I sadly come across errors far more often than I ever thought I would. And I have not once seen these errors mentioned in other reviews of the same books. Indeed, some of these books end up on award shortlists (I’ve seen this twice this year, on two different shortlists) and in eminent ‘Pick of the year’ lists. Is there a culture of silence surrounding mentioning errors? Is it that reviewers are not picking up on errors? Is it that reviewers are fearful of souring relations with authors, illustrators and publishers? Are we swayed more by looks than by content? Do we just find it easier to avoid non-fiction reviews altogether because then we don’t have to consider issues of accuracy?

    Accuracy of content really matters to me. When I review a non-fiction title I always fact check at least three randomly chosen facts from the book. Yes, this isn’t much, but it often gives me a rough and ready handle on the book. If with just three fact checks I can find an error…. what does that do to my trust in the rest of the book?

    Perhaps there’s a bigger question to ask here: Does factual accuracy actually matter?

    I firmly believe that children’s non-fiction is especially important in the age of Google; anyone can post anything on the net without it being checked whereas published books go through a system of checking, hopefully ensuring factual accuracy. But if books turn out not to be reliable, what advantages do they have over the internet? Maybe none, and yet I believe the physical book format is so important for encouraging quiet contemplation rather than quick-fix consumption, the sort of contemplation that is necessary for deeper understanding and the embedding of information. (When arguing for books over googling, I’d also highlight the attention authors pay to ‘readability’ of non-fiction books i.e. creating a pleasant reading experience. Books really can and do offer something different and potentially much better than at bunch a best of loosely curated articles online.)

    But, stepping back a moment, maybe factual accuracy just isn’t that important. One parent on twitter admitted to me that whilst accuracy was nice, it wasn’t as important as a book being inspirational and grabbing the child’s attention -that if a non-fiction book got her child excited about the topic in hand, factual errors wouldn’t stop her from buying it.

    I personally can’t accept this, at least when it comes to recommending books myself via my blog. I think we do a disservice to our children, and to everyone involved in creating children’s non-fiction if we throw our hands up and say “never mind” when it comes to errors. What do you think?

    I’ve read some thought provoking pieces this year about what to consider when reviewing non-fiction titles, for example this discussion of invented dialogue in picture book biographies and this one about accuracy in illustration in non-fiction titles, both by the inimitable Betsy Bird.

    nf3

    Apart from general stances re factual accuracy, I’ve also learned that there are huge variations in the fact checking process for non-fiction books (in the UK). All the NF authors I’ve spoken to are proud of their rigorous fact checking. Some authors provide fully referenced texts, even if the references don’t make it into the final book. Some publishers never ask for referenced texts. Some publishers will employ a consultant or even two to fact check, as well as a literacy expert where appropriate. But this isn’t always the case. One prolific non-fiction author told me “accuracy is almost entirely in the hands of the author“; “Children’s non-fiction is in such a parlous state that some books don’t even have an editor.”

    Through talking extensively with NF authors and publishers I’m convinced they they are all dedicated to creating accurate, informative, enjoyable books, so why have I gone on so long about errors? Because I worry that silence about them – in reviews – and the processes by which they end up in print suggest that as a children’s book-buying, book-reading public we seriously undervalue children’s non-fiction.

    We undervalue them in terms of publishing time and resources devoted to them:

    Of course in a time of austerity we’re all subject to constraints, but from what I’ve learned this past year about children’s non-fiction, publishers’ time and budgets are being squeezed ever more tightly. There’s lots of pressure on getting books out there, sometimes without all the due care and attention they deserve. Yes, as a parent (and a reviewer) I want to see exciting, imaginative non-fiction, but style shouldn’t win out over substance.

    We undervalue them in terms of public recognition of non-fiction authors:

    Non-fiction authors are the cinderellas of the book world. Sometimes it can even be hard to find out who the author was of a non-fiction book, with their name not appearing on the cover but hidden inside in small print. Non-fiction reviews are nearly always subject driven rather than author driven and non-fiction author events are proportionally far less common than fiction author events. If you’re not persuaded by my argument that we generally hold non-fiction authors in low regard just test yourself: How many children’s non-fiction authors can you name? And how many fiction authors?

    We undervalue them in terms of how much non-fiction authors are paid for the work they do:

    Typically such an author earns a flat fee of around £1000 per book (though offers of much less are not infrequent), and receives no % of any sales. I understand that this is significantly less that the typical advance paid to picture book authors (typically 1-4k), who also receive 3-5 % royalties from all sales.

    All this tells me that we don’t really value children’s non-fiction.

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    So here’s my call to arms:

    Yes, let’s celebrate children’s non-fiction, the authors and the publishers who help bring adventures in the real world into the lives of our children and teenagers.

    Yes, let’s create lots more brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people, recognising that for many non-fiction is their preferred reading of choice. I’m definitely all for more creative approaches to non-fiction and a move away from the look-and-learn style fact books of old, but let’s not cut corners just for the sake of good looks. If you want to create great books you need great authors and illustrators who have been given the time, money and wider support necessary.

    Yes, let’s review more non-fiction for children and young people, but let’s not be afraid of reading it closely, reviewing it honestly, and starting debates about it.

    Yes, let’s get more great non-fiction into the hands of children and young people. What non-fiction will you be buying for presents this year?

    My thanks to all who discussed non-fiction reviewing, publishing, and related issues with me including Damyanti Patel, @ExploraBox1, Sue Cowley, Jonathan Emmett, @childledchaos, Polly Faber, Ian Manley, Cath Senker, Ali Baker, Brian Williams, Isabel Thomas, Ami Segna, Moira Butterfield, Charlotte Guillain, Stewart Ross, Brian Williams, Sean Callery and Nicola Davies. Thank you too to all who chose to remain anonymous. Of course, all opinions here are my own and do not necessarily represent those held by the authors, publishers, reviewers, or parents I spoke to.

    Whilst I’ve been somewhat critical in this post, just for the record, let me state how much I do value everyone working in the field of children’s non-fiction. All the industry insiders I have spoken to, from authors to publishers, are full of passion for non-fiction. They are all 100% committed to producing excellent non-fiction. My commitment to the field is hopefully demonstrated by the fact that for all of the month of November I’ve been co-ordinating an initiative which celebrates non-fiction for children and young people, National Non-Fiction November. You can find out more about the various events which have been held, and the articles many different people have contributed here, here, here and here, or by using the hashtag #NNFN on twitter.

    UPDATE: Whilst I did of course endeavour to have accurate facts in this post, one NF author has since contacted me to say that in their experience, rates for writing a non-fiction book are more like £1200 to £2200. The figure I quote above (£1000) was originally supplied by two different NF authors. If more NF authors would like to (anonymously) share their rates with me, then I could provide a more accurate picture.

    30 Responses

    1. Great article! As you know, we’re passionate about non-fic stuff – and find that even though we get sent an awful lot of fiction books to review, we don’t get as many non-fiction titles (so we happily source our own or dive to the local library which is extremely well stocked). I do think children’s non-fiction has gone through a fairly troubled period of seeing a lot of books hitting the market that ‘dumb down’ or intentionally try to add the icky factor to subjects children would naturally be drawn to (particularly history books) but there are still huge gaps in the market for interesting and engaging books on the lesser known / less well covered subjects (try and find a brilliant engaging children’s book about Geology, for instance)

      Ace work you’re doing, keep it up!
      ReadItDaddy recently posted..Who’s that Banging on the Ceiling by Colin McNaughton (Walker Books)

    2. Hi ReadItDaddy, re Geology, we love
      Geology Crafts for Kids (For the Junior Rockhound) by Alan Anderson, Gwen Diehn, Terry Krautwerst. It’s a very hands on approach to learning about geology. From the US, and sadly OOP, but worth looking for.

    3. Love your call to arms. I’m in!

      Like ReadItDaddy I receive very few non-fiction books to review, much less than the proportional 15% you mention. I’m inspired to search out some fab ones in the next few months.

      Accuracy?! Well that’s non-negotiable. Young readers of non-fiction books absorb those facts, digest them & take much delight in repeating what they’ve learnt to all who will listen to them. They’d be disappointed to discover that they were wrong!!

      Great article Zoe.

    4. Thanks Emma – perhaps we as book reviewers do need to reach out more to non-fiction publishers?

    5. Great post, Zoe!

      Children’s non-fiction is definitely neglected in the UK and deserves a much higher profile than it’s currently getting. Having said which, I’ve had a couple of experiences writing non-fiction that have made me wary of writing more.

      A few years ago I spent several months writing and researching a non-fiction book about recent innovations in technology. It wasn’t a speculative project – a publisher had asked me to write it for a specific series and one of the reasons I said “yes” was that technology is a pet topic of mine and I would be working with an excellent editor, with whom I’d already written several fiction books. While writing the book was an enjoyable experience, after it was finished, the publisher decided to drop the whole series strand of which it was a part. The book was not yet under contract and, although I received a “disappointment fee” it was a fraction of what the advance would have been and, of course, I never received any royalties.

      I’ve had three very simple non-fiction books published, but only two are on my web site as I insisted that my name be taken off the third (although I still receive royalties). There were many issues that led to this, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was an issue of factual accuracy. A senior editor insisted on a change that I felt would give young children a factually inaccurate understanding of the subject. It’s the only book I’ve ever taken my name off – so yes, I think you’re absolutely right to stress the importance of factual accuracy!

    6. Excellent post Zoe. For clarity- as I think the twitter parent in question!- I COMPLETELY expect Children’s NF should be accurate and needs/deserves proper editing. My point really was that it’s not the first thing that draws me to it. I (and more importantly my kids) like the eye candy bells and whistles sort of NF- extras like add on activities (as you yourself are so good at providing!), stories and jokey extrapolations all help draw us in and make us more likely to explore the subject deeply. If, at that point we discovered an error in the book (a minor one not a howler) well- it shouldn’t have occurred- but it’s not going to make me throw the book away or dismiss all the good stuff we’ve got out of it. Facts are of course slippery things- humanities ones can be slanted in a myriad of ways, scientific ones must often be simplified to the point of inaccuracy in the first instance. These things aren’t, as you know, straightforward. (Bet there’s some pretty nice looking Creationist NF published for kids out there…) Eddie has gone through some pretty obsessive interests over the years where he has devoured all the NF he can find on particular subjects- and he’ll notice inconsistencies when he’s in that mode. But it doesn’t put him off- if anything it inspires deeper research. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we can all get from looking at NF is that one point of view/source material is never enough to impart ‘real’ knowledge!
      Having said all this- hooray and yes to your manifesto for more rigour from all concerned. Px

      • Polly, thanks so much for this. The “anonymous parent”‘s comment was important for me to include partly because it highlights how important engaging and beautiful approaches to non-fiction are. I’m perhaps a little harsher than you – I’ve recently taken out two books from our home library because I was disappointed by their errors. I have such limited shelf space that it seemed to me, even if they were beautiful, I’d rather give the shelf space to something beautiful and accurate, than beautiful and at times in accurate. I’m definitely for more NF so that different takes can be compared and contrasted.

    7. Interestingly, my 8-year-old daughter reads more non-fiction than fiction, and we are big fans of the children’s non-fiction book in our house – there are indeed some amazing ones. And not just ‘fact-giving’ books, but ones for example that help children deal with the emotional side of life brilliantly. e.g. I love the “What to do if you (worry/moan/etc) too much” series.

      As a non-fiction author myself (parenting books) I am all for bigging up the non-fiction world of kids!
      Claire Potter recently posted..Guest interview: “I ate a worm!”

    8. Hi Jonathan, Many thanks for your comment and feedback re your experience of writing non-fiction. I’ve heard other authors also talk about how editing process can introduce errors, sometimes in attempts to make the language more child friendly. I think the line between appropriate simplification and out right errors can sometimes be a difficult one to walk, one which can vary from person to person due to their perspectives.

    9. Great piece Zoe! I will be sharing this tomorrow (today is Turkey day here in the states and might not get read!) because you couldn’t be more right. I admit to not reading much non-fiction at all and frankly, it is because I just like fiction better. That said, things are really changing in our schools with the introduction of the Common Core and our kids are reading much, much more non-fiction. It certainly seems that those titles should be accurate and also that I should be more engaged in them. I will look forward to reading and sharing along with you. Thank you as always for your thoughtful work.
      Stacey recently posted..Picture Books: Our Favorites This Week

    10. Hi Stacey, thanks for kind comments. I should add my facts and figures are very much based on the UK market. My understanding is that the market is quite different in the US, not least because of the focus on NF in the school curriculum.
      Zoe recently posted..Do we care about children’s non-fiction?

    11. Hi Zoe
      This is yet another great post, thank you. I think it’s important to flag up how important non-fiction is, especially as, recently, I’ve observed its popularity with primary school children in the library where I work. Each lunchtime at least one child will come in for an animal fact file we have – it’s by far the most popular item we have. They sit in a corner with their friends and pore over it, talking about it in ways I don’t see with fiction titles. With this level of interest, the facts absolutely must be correct.

      I wonder if non-fiction is reviewed less because it’s of less interest to reviewers? I am guilty of not reviewing it as much as I enjoy reading a story when I relax, losing myself in an imaginary world. It would be good to redress this though and will be looking to do so soon!
      Sam recently posted..What is your transition book?

    12. A thought provoking post, Zoe. As a teacher I know I neglected non-fiction, probably because of my own preference for narrative. But I used to mix in non fiction when we did group reading, so that we all got a chance to discuss the book together and the children enjoyed this. Often they’d be using non-fiction just to find information or check facts, and to go through more thoroughly in a group was something they enjoyed. I also like the hybrid fiction/non-fiction such as the Walker Read and Discover series. I have to say that I assumed every published book would have been thoroughly fact checked, and agree with you that if we call it non-fiction then this should have happened. Although, I think it’s fine to put in things which are ‘not yet proven’ as long as it’s made clear that this is the case. It’s good if children can see that knowledge is a process of discovery and refinement.

    13. Hi Sam, my experience of working in a primary school library very much echoes yours – the huddling and sharing and discussion around non-fiction titles, and yes, animal ones in particular. It can’t just be their size and illustrations because picture books are often a similar size and also (obviously) illustrated – so it seems there really is something about NF which captures these kids.

      I do think there is generally less of an interest for NF amongst reviewers of children’s books. And yet when you look at adult reviews, NF and fiction reviews are much more equally split.
      Zoe recently posted..Do we care about children’s non-fiction?

    14. Hi Zoe, very interesting post especially for me having just finished illustrating my first NF title for Walker. A project that has consumed far more of my time than anything else I’ve worked on partly due to the level of accuracy needed in a NF book. There’s definitely a need for NF books that deliver accurate information in an interesting and lively way.

    15. Hi Zoe,

      I must confess that you challenged me when you mentioned in an earlier post that there was a glaring error in an Usborne space book. As a result I did not purchase that title for our school library. I’m rather ashamed to say that it had never occurred to me until that point to fact-check any NF titles, and it really should have done.

      Usborne, in particular, seem to reissue a lot of material in different formats. This could be problematic with subjects that are continually evolving as new discoveries are made. I wonder if as much loving care is taken over the accuracy as over the delightful lift-the-flap illustrations?

      For me, it is a matter of trust. I would never knowingly expose children to a book I considered sexist or racist, and I am sure the vast majority of librarians feel the same way. I feel that my school has placed its trust in me and that I have a very significant role as a knowledge facilitator and mediator; it would be a serious betrayal of this trust if I was offering children inaccurate information of any kind.

      Concerning the points you rightly make about the neglect of non-fiction, I wonder if this is possibly a by-product of the feminisation of children’s book reviewing recently flagged up by Jonathan Emmett? In my experience NF is often a gateway to reading for boys in particular. Is there perhaps a natural prejudice in favour of narrative over factual material that even the best reviewers have, in the hustle and bustle of busy lives, haven’t recognised?

      Finally, if it would be of any value I would be delighted to contribute the occasional non-fiction review to your blog as a guest reviewer, or at least start posting my own thoughts. I used to get quite a few review copies from Amazon Vine but left the Vine programme for a variety of reasons a few months ago (mainly that Amazon seemed determined to offer me nappies and cat food rather than books!)
      Ruth Waterton recently posted..The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

    16. […] And well this fine, fine read from Playing by the Book: Do We Care About Children’s Non-Fiction. […]

    17. Hi Ruth, I’ve discussed NF accuracy quite a lot with Usborne and am convinced they do take enormous care over factual accuracy. One of the errors I spotted recently was due to the field evolving in the space of time between the manuscript being submitted, and my review going live (about 2 years). When they write another book on a topic they’ve already covered, it’s my understanding that they don’t use the old text – but rather each book comes with its own author and own set of checking procedure.

      Thanks for the offer of NF reviews. Perhaps if you wrote them up on goodreads I could share them? It would be great to see more NF books being reviewed. Let’s have a think about it and see if we can find a good way forward.
      Zoe recently posted..Do we care about children’s non-fiction?

    18. […] Playing By The Book provocatively asked (in a personal capacity): Do we care about children’s non-fiction? […]

    19. Very interesting post and nice thought. I think children loves to read non-fiction than fiction.

    20. Really interesting post Zoe.When I put together the 100 Stories Before School list I searched to include quality non fiction books, to meet particular children’s needs and also to make sure children experienced that type of story prior to reading non fiction early readers at school.It was so hard to find quality books and it was mainly through searching hard online I found any.Children need to develop their imagination through fiction stories but they also need to develop critical thinking and analysing skills as part of literacy development.When i was teaching I always found these type of books with photos and “real” stories particularly appealed to struggling readers.
      Sue Pearce recently posted..Win “Whale in the Bath”

    21. Zoe, I am taking offence!!! Why did you not include me in this absolutely interesting sounding debate!!!

      But okay I forgive you 🙂 So do we care about NF for kids? You bet we do. If you came home you’d see why. I think everything my kids (and I ) have ever learnt is through amazing NF kid-lit only. School is completely incidental!

      We typically have several book son a topic we are reading about, plus may also tap into the internet to watch relevant clips etc.

      In fact just last night my 9 yo was reading a book called ‘How to Make a Planet’ published by Kids Can Press, and pointed out an error — the picture of the water molecule with two small atoms attached to a larger one, but the smaller ones labelled oxygen and the larger one hydrogen!

      • sorry sorry sorry Choxbox! I do most of my chatting on twitter so if you made the move over there……

    22. Oh and I have to tell you this – guess who I ran into recently: Mark Miodownik of Stuff Matters fame!

    23. Nice to see nonfiction getting some well-deserved attention and discussion. I review quite a bit of nonfiction on my blog. I love the idea of Nonfiction November, and would like to point out that there is also a longstanding Nonfiction Monday meme. Anyyone can participate by reviewing nonfiction books on Monday and posting simultaneously on one’s own blog and the NFM Blog organized by nonfiction author, Anastasia Suen. Details @ http:///nonfictionmonday.wordpress.com
      Lisa recently posted..The Terrible Two – a review

    24. Thanks so much for this! You made my day! As a children’s author that writes primarily non-fiction, it was a breath of fresh air and a welcome blast of truth-telling. I’ve written best-selling and award-winning nonfiction for more than 15 years, but even my relatives keep asking me if I am still writing my little ‘stories.’ My little ‘stories,’ however, involve years of detailed research, interviews with scientists, practical experiments and (my kitchen is often a disaster) and a head-cracking amount of deep study. But they also provide plenty of what I call the “Whoa! Factor!” for kids who are still curious about everything and anything (the default state for children) and are equally as engaging, sometimes more so, to many kids than narrative fiction. In my books, you can find out about who farts more, boys or girls, insects that shoot burning hot acid out their butts, and try out activities that let you make nasty green slime or shoot jellyfish-style stingers from a turkey baster.

      The current generation of kids’ nonfiction is not the nonfic we all grew up with. The internet killed the straight information text – as you so correctly pointed out, kids don’t need to go to a printed book to find facts about the Roman army or the butterfly life cycle. We went through about a ten year dearth in nonfiction publishing as those of us in the industry rethought what kids’ nonfiction would have to look like to be worthwhile and commercially viable. The upshot is that current nonfiction books do things that the internet CAN’T do: they synthesize information in ways that make the total package much greater than the sum of its parts. They collate and ‘curate’ (ugh I hate that buzzword, but in this case, it’s fitting) information that would literally take you years to find on the net (because it’s taken us authors years to find, evaluate and sort it). They dig up new information that is not yet on the net. For example, for my current book, Zoobots (Kids Can Press), I spoke to roboticists who shared details of their research that was not yet published. That means kids’ science books like mine frequently ‘break’ new information even ahead of the net.

      In terms of the fact-checking issue, it may indeed be true that some publishers don’t fact check their nonfiction well. But that is by no means my experience. I’ve worked with a wide variety of trade publishers and all of my books have gone through extensive fact checking. Just last week we had a serious back and forth about how many plants Mendel actually did grow for his famous pea experiments. The fact checker, the editor and myself spent a great deal of time trying to nail down the truth, rather than just go with the generally accepted figure (“more than 28,000” is what you see all over the Net. Our discussion revolved around what the actual source for this figure is. And I couldn’t find it. So it’s not going in the book!). Getting the facts right is critical, IMO – not negotiable. Sure, mistakes do slip in, authors are only human. But nonfiction by definition should have facts.

      Ironically, I’ve sometimes been told my facts are wrong, not because they are, but because after I’ve done that deep-digging research, they don’t always conform with general knowledge. Example: I wrote in The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press) that pearls are not formed by the oyster making a layer of nacre around grit. This fact was challenged, because f you check on the web, you will find three or more sources citing the grit theory. But it’s wrong. It has been known for more than a hundred years that pearls actually form as a the result of a parasitic infection. Misinformation repeated often enough, alas, soon becomes ‘fact.’

      You touch on the fundamental issue in your article – adults’ lack of interest, or possibly a lack of knowledge – in the nuts and bolts of the real world. Reviewers who have gratefully left science behind in grade 10 are not as likely to pick up a book about the science of the sea or earthquakes or parasites as they are to grab an easy-to-grasp, Kinney-esque ‘story’ about suffering through middle school. So sure, reviewers gravitate to fiction.

      Many adults also project their own feelings and biases onto kids. If they only read fluff, they expect that’s all kids want to read too. Or even more pernicious, and I hear this all the time, they say “kids don’t like to read” when it’s clear that it’s they themselves that don’t like to read. Kids DO like to read, they can be voracious, and many prefer to read fact-based books, books with snippets of information in small chunks, books that respect their intelligence, interests and capabilities. And don’t be fooled by their young age – an interested kid is quite capable of understanding even university-level science, if it’s presented well. In my upcoming book on Monster Science, e.g., readers will find detailed and perfectly understandable explanations of how neurons fire, genetic engineering, the Hayflick Limit, probability and statistics, how hemoglobin delivers oxygen (it changes shape, dontcha know). Adults who read my books will no doubt learn a lot too, because this science isn’t simplistic, it goes well beyond the grade school science curriculum standards.

      Which brings me to my last point, and that is that much of the information on the web falls into two categories – aimed at experts, or aimed at idiots. Look up a term like, hemoglobin, for example, and you will find scientific studies or information aimed at high school and up biology students, or simple definitions aimed at the lay audience. If you want to find something in between – if you, like me, are a reasonably intelligent adult, but not a scientist – good luck to you.

      Children’s nonfiction is that sweet spot. A huge part of my job is reading all that high level expert stuff, digesting and, and converting it into language an intelligent reader of any age can understand.

      I know that what my colleagues in the trenches of children’s nonfiction do is valuable. Which is why I keep writing it, despite the fact that after 60 books and numerous awards, few people outside of the industry knows my name (even school librarians don’t always connect my name with books in their libraries, which is the downside of not being a ‘brand’). And when acquaintances or relatives ask me, dismissively, “how are you little stories coming?” I just smile sweetly and say, “grand.”

      • Dear Helaine,
        Many many thanks for your detailed and thoughtful response. Your perspective and experience is great to hear and will only add to my arguments when campaigning for more NF for kids and young people.

    25. Andy Seed

      I have only just come across this excellent thread and would like to throw a few observations into the mix as an author of non-fiction (as well as fiction and poetry). First of all, thanks Zoe for the original piece and Helaine for those valuable insights. The first point I’d like to make is that fact-checking is not always straightforward and in addition to the number of unreliable sources out there, not just on the web, there are many quite authoritative reference works which disagree. As an example, try finding out the length of the Zambezi River.
      I agree totally that non-fiction is under-represented in the world of children’s books and needs more advocates as well as more reviews, more shelf space in stores and more attention in the media. I’d like to add that unfortunately many people also have a disappointingly narrow view of non-fiction, thinking of it in terms of ‘fact books’ or ‘information books’ when in actuality it covers a much broader range. I do a lot of work in schools promoting reading for pleasure and one of the most effective strategies for reversing negative attitudes to books among children is to share and enthusiastically endorse good-quality non-fiction books which are not ‘fact books’ in the usual sense: humour/joke books, biogs, activity books, puzzle books, miscellanies, TV and film tie-ins, quiz books and ‘true stories’ plus the most neglected of all children’s book categories, poetry.
      Of course there’s an issue over quality with some of these types of non-fiction – bookshops (and sadly quite a few schools and libraries) give shelf space to some dreary material – there are LOTS of awful jokes books out there as many suffering parents will attest – but there are also many great innovative, imaginative, well-written, visually stunning and very engaging titles out there. These books sadly get barely a look-in anywhere despite the fact that children often love them, they capture reluctant readers, they provide rich variety and provoke interest and turn children onto reading. Why is this?
      Next week I will be in a primary school near Nottingham with Alan Gibbons performing The Reading Show, a one-hour theatrical outpouring of enthusiasm for books, and non-fiction (including all of the categories above) will be strongly featured – because we know that these are often the books that can make a breakthrough with the disengaged, particularly boys.
      I think we need to loudly applaud those people and organisations which do stand as advocates for children’s non-fiction, including blogs like this, of course. I was fortunate enough to win the Blue Peter Book Award last month (Best Book with Facts) for The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff (Bloomsbury) and I was doubly delighted: first because the winning title is voted for by children, and second because this is such a great endorsement of non-fiction. Not only is there an award on equal footing with its fiction equivalent but the winning books get featured on TV! Yet staggeringly, when I first was nominated and subsequently googled around to see how widely the Blue Peter Award was featured across the world of children’s books I was shocked to find that on many prominent websites it doesn’t even get a mention! In my view we should be regularly lauding the BBC and the Blue Peter Editorial team for giving books such a high profile on the show – they recently awarded both Michael Morpurgo and Malorie Blackman gold badges for example – and at the same time encouraging Booktrust and other organisations like Waterstones to feature the full range of non-fiction more and raise its profile through awards and media coverage.

    26. Andy Seed

      Good stuff! I’ll have a look at the ones I don’t know.

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