The Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize celebrates the best books that communicate science to young people and this year’s I’m thrilled to be part of the shortlisting judging panel. I’m working alongside several scientists, a teacher and a writer, Andy Seed. Andy himself was a teacher for many years, but now he’s an award-winning author with more than 20 books under his belt, for children and adults, fiction and non-fiction. His The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff won of the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book with Facts Award.
To celebrate our working together I recently caught up with Andy as he jetsetted between school visits in Dundee and Lagos and we got talking about issues that matter to us both: (1) what makes great non-fiction for children and young people, (2) cheese (yes, really!), and (3) why we’re both so enthusiastic about a book award which inspires young people to read about science.
To ease us in gently I ask about childhood reading. It turns out that Andy wasn’t a great reader when he was at school though Dr Seuss and later ‘Stig of the Dump’ were favourites. As to his introduction to non-fiction, Andy reveals that he “became hooked when my grandparents bought me Look and Learn annuals at the age of about 9 and I discovered The Guinness Book of Records (as it was). It was the combination of pictures and fascinating details that gripped me: the things in these books were real and they stirred my imagination and left me wanting to find out more. I like facts and figures too so that helped. I think the visual element was powerful: pages of uninterrupted text by themselves are unappealing to many kids.”
Perhaps it’s partly because of my blog focus on picture books, but I’m really interested in this power of illustration, so I quiz Andy a bit more on this: why is illustration so important in children’s non-fiction (CNF), what makes for great CNF illustration…? Andy responds enthusiastically:
“The world of children is visually much richer than it used to be and books need to up their game to compete with electronic devices, TV and so on. But that does not mean that CNF books should be wham-bam in terms of design, colour and illustrations. In fact I saw a CNF book recently which was so violently bright that I didn’t want to read it. Another had so much shine and glitter that the info was drowned out.
The visual element is not just about illustration, it’s about layout, text formatting and page design. Text in fact books needs to be inviting, and the shape and structure of it can make a big difference: the writing and pictures need to work together and there should be ‘breathing space’ on a page too: I think that having too much stuff on crammed together leads to skimming and a degeneration of reader attentiveness. A good page draws the reader in, points him or her to the way in and the guides the best route through the content (both images and text) – the challenge is to invite the reader to take in everything while maintaining an attractive spread. The best CNF books do this.”
I couldn’t agree more. But perhaps publishers of CNF are a little bit stuck in a rut? It’s my experience that for quite a few purchasers of CNF, books lavishly illustrated with photographs (such as DK Books) are often considered to be the be all and end all when it comes to richly illustrated non-fiction.
“Great CNF illustration can be all sorts of things,” continues Andy “In some books the photos overwhelm the info so it’s important to strike a working balance. I’m a fan of drawn pictures because the illustrator is interpreting, complementing, highlighting and often embellishing with a little humour too. Lots of small, clean photos can work well but there are no rules really – it takes the eye of a brilliant designer to create a whole from the various parts.”
Some CNF with drawn illustrations which Andy really loves include these:
Looking at this amazing array of non-fiction I find myself wondering out loud about why on earth non-fiction doesn’t always get the airtime it deserves… why it is quite often overlooked.
Andy jumps straight in: “One of the issues for me is that the gatekeepers of children’s literature in this country are in the main people who prefer fiction and they (for very good reasons) want to promote great stories or fiction books which cover issues they consider important and worthy of children’s attention. I’m wary of bringing up the issue of gender because it puts one at the risk of being shot down in anger or misunderstood (as happened to a fellow author recently) but children’s publishing has few men in key roles and therefore few people who have directly experienced the boys’ perspective. It’s a truth that many boys prefer non-fiction (as some girls do too) but fiction is more often put in front of them.
Another reason is that children’s non-fiction (CNF) is often too narrowly viewed. It has an unhelpful association with educational books – fact books which are perhaps regarded as a little dull. CNF is far more than that but it’s this perception that holds it back. CNF includes miscellanies, biogs, joke books, puzzle books, activity books, TV/film tie-ins, and more – but these categories of books are overlooked in the main as being less important. They are in fact very important in capturing reluctant readers in particular. Everyone loves funny fiction but funny non-fiction rarely gets a look in.
A third reason connected with this is book awards: there are few prizes for CNF and those that exist get little airtime. Many awards are open to CNF but fiction always wins because of the reasons given above in my view. CNF also doesn’t get as much space on blogs and articles. Media reviews of CNF are like hen’s teeth! Some reviewers tell me that publishers hardly ever send them CNF titles. Do they ask for them?”
Andy is on a roll and barely stops for breath…
“Add to this the perception that the internet, in some people’s view, has made CNF redundant. For me this is nonsense and reflects the narrow view of CNF as ‘information books’. Good CNF has a magical combination of images, high quality writing and child-centredness that the web (which is 95% aimed at adults) cannot match.
Then there’s the part played by schools: I visit over 50 schools a year and so often CNF books are out of date and put on neglected library shelves. Rarely do I see displays of varied non-fiction. Horrible Histories and the series it spawned are the exception and they still feature but teachers need to give children opportunities to read and enjoy a range of CNF. And as for bookshops? They often have a tiny CNF shelf tucked away (not always) but have you have tried to find a joke book or children’s poetry in a shop? Labelling and categorisation in libraries is often unhelpful to CNF too. And we haven’t even talked yet about book festivals – they rarely feature CNF and this needs to be challenged. One prominent festival had 18 children’s fiction authors doing events and no non-fiction (for children) at all. That is inexcusable – where is the diversity, the inclusion, the variety, the choice – and why would kids who love CNF go anywhere near that festival?”
But surely it doesn’t have to be like this? In the United States, non-fiction for children has a much higher status and seems to be more widely read and enjoyed. What do they do differently which we could perhaps model here in the UK?
“As I understand it there is a requirement in the US for children to use non-fiction books as part of their programmes of study. This creates a strong market because schools actually need the books to fulfil this element of the curriculum. This leads to the necessary engagement of teachers with CNF – they have to be familiar with the books to ensure that kids use them well (and of course they want classes to have good books in front of them). So there is an interest in CNF generated by the American educational system.
This just isn’t the case here in the UK. The English curriculum certainly mentions information texts and looking at features of non-fiction books (headings, sub-headings etc) but my experience, as an ex-teacher and visitor to over 50 primary schools a year, is that teachers tend to use photocopied pages for this (so everyone is looking at the same examples) or scanned samples on a digital whiteboard or maybe even ready-made page grabs from the web. Of course some will use real books but I just don’t see teachers using CNF books in the classroom like they once did. Some use them for research still but the internet is an easy option for many.”
So apart from perhaps lobbying for a more robust inclusion of non-fiction into the curriculum what else can we do to encourage great children’s non-fiction? Here at Playing by the Book I try to highlight exceptional CNF books whenever I can, but authors and publishers surely also have a role – could they be doing something differently to support CNF? Andy comes up with some very practical suggestions:
“CNF authors are usually limited by the market and what publishers are looking for so that’s a problem… but CNF authors can do the following:
– Encourage one another to work together and promote CNF
– Blog, tweet, write articles and similar
– Question or even challenge the fiction bias/predominance
– Shout about CNF’s excellent credentials in terms of capturing reluctant readers
– Come up with a natty label: YA has YA, MG has MG. Perhaps ‘CNF’ will do but we need a hashtag and twitter groups and more. A focal point is essential
– Encourage organisations like the Society of Authors and Booktrust, Literacy Trust and government agencies to back a campaign to promote CNF and raise awareness of its value
Publishers can send out more CNF for review, push their CNF authors to festivals, put more publicity money in CNF promotion, show more imagination in terms of buying/producing CNF which marries fun with fact or biogs or books which have visual pizazz. Some of this is happening and Flying Eye Books are having deserved success with many of their titles.”
Marrying fun and facts with great visuals is definitely something I’d like to see more regularly (though I also believe that real engagement doesn’t only have to come about through humour). Passion, a sense of vitality, really helps when it comes to hooking readers and so I wonder if Andy, who it turns out really loves cheese (indeed “If I were a scientist I think I would study the impact of different crackers on the taste of cheese… “) might ever write about his passion?
“Hmmm, interesting question! If I did write a children’s book about cheese I wonder how publishers would react. If I did I would include lots of fun elements: jokes, cheese weirdness, wacky lists, cheeses with silly names and so on. Lots of interesting facts and info too, of course. It would be appealing to children but I suspect publishers would shy away from the idea because such a book would be unusual and not sit easily into any category (making the sales people nervy perhaps?). Or maybe it’s changing…”
Andy and I are certainly getting a snapshot of what the children’s non-fiction world looks like at the moment with all the books submitted for the The Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize. I get the strong sense that Andy is just as excited as me to be on the award’s shortlisting panel. “Oh Yes! I’m really thrilled! I mean the Royal Society is one of the most respected, august and historically significant organisations in the world. I think it’s excellent that they have asked a CNF author who writes funny books to be part of the panel because it shows that they have a good understanding of the child’s perspective. There are also many great science books for kids out there and I want to help get them noticed.”
Yes Indeed, is all I can say to that!
You can find out more about The Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize here.
If you’re a teacher or someone who runs a youth group, perhaps you and the children you work with would like to help choose the winning book for the award? It’s easy to register to become one of the judging panels for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize, with participation open to any group able to read and discuss the shortlist and vote for what they think is the best book.
To become a judging panel for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize you’ll need to complete this online registration form. Registration to become a judging panel will close on Monday 25 April 2016.