2016: The Year of Children’s Non-Fiction?

Well, goodbye 2015, it was nice knowing you. We had some good times together – we laughed, we cried, we ate too much cheese (again…) and we really enjoyed being on Blue Peter.

But now you’ve gone. You’ve ceased to be: you’re history, an ex-year, and we must look ahead and see what kind of journey round the Sun lies ahead. Will 2016 be kind? Will it rain on our plans or shower us with unexpected gifts?

I know one thing I’d like to see. I’d like to see more people waking up to children’s non-fiction. The thing is, that in the world of publishing, everyone says they like non-fiction, everyone will tell you how much they value it, admire it, enjoy reading it and so on. And yet it remains so much the poor relation, fobbed off and told to do the washing up while stories go to the ball.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while but it was the LISTS that prompted me to pen a ranty post. What lists you say? Oh you know, those lists that people like to bandy about at the end of December:

  • My Favourite Books of the Year
  • Best Children’s Reads of 2015
  • Top 10 Titles for 8-12s
  • Essential Reading for Kids
That kind of thing. I often don’t look at them because I find them too depressing. Yes, the books on them are good; yes they are well-written; of course they should be recommended and celebrated. But they are always fiction.
 
Now I’m as big a fiction fan as anybody else. I read a LOT of novels, both adult titles and kids’ but if I am compiling a list of books for children I do tend to think about children themselves. Kids come in all shapes, sizes, flavours – and the sad truth is that lots of them don’t read. They don’t choose to read, anyway. I hear this more and more, especially from teachers but from parents and others too.
 
Yet, many of us involved in publishing (and I’m guilty of it too) spend so much time celebrating the types of books that are only read by kids who already read for pleasure. I know this is a bit of a generalisation and there are always exceptions but it’s one of those ugly truths we prefer not to confront. We all do it: authors, publishers, bloggers, illustrators, agents, reviewers, festival organisers, award givers and more. We love the challenging, sophisticated, deep, issue-raising, unflinching novels in which the UK in particular excels. We have so many superb writers.
 
A book for a knave?
 
But what about the kids. What about that boy of 9 I was talking to this week from the Barnsley estate? He had a lovely smile and a dirty white T-shirt. He was pale, keen and probably bookless at home (although you never know). Would those long, challenging novels get him reading? Do fat pages of text appeal to him?
 
We rightly celebrate these books because their quality is admirable but why don’t we celebrate other types of books that are good in other ways? What about books of interesting facts, or books of humorous true stories or collections of wordplay or wacky poetry or quirky miscellanies? These are the types of books that get the Boy from Barnsley smiling, laughing, wanting more, even asking where you can buy these books. 
 
But how often do we celebrate them? How many times have you seen a children’s book award given to a book of funny poems or a miscellany of appealing facts? When do we see these books on lists of recommended titles or round-ups of ‘The Best Books for Children?’ Sometimes the odd one is tacked on to the end. And to give credit it where it’s due, there is increasing recognition of some beautifully presented and illustrated larger-format non-fiction books from publishers like Flying Eye. Lots of people have admired the wonderful Shackleton’s Journey. But is anyone shouting up for the best activity books, joke books, biogs, puzzle books?
 
 
 
A few weeks ago I looked at the children’s programme of a major UK book festival. It boasted about 15 exciting events with great authors and illustrators. All of them were fiction writers/artists (I include picture books here). Not a solitary non-fiction writer was invited to put on an event for that – really quite considerable – portion of the younger population that prefers facts to stories. No poets either – another poor relation that children love. It’s the same elsewhere and it’s time for change.
 
Anyone else with me? I’m not saying less fiction. I’m not saying dumb-down or celebrate the mediocre. I’m not saying aim lower. I’m saying let’s give recognition to the best of non fiction books that many children prefer – the books that get them reading and laughing and going to the library. And not the just books that we want them to like.
 
Could 2016 be the year that popular, funny, interesting kids’ non-fiction is allowed to go to the ball?
 
PS Let’s find a new name for it too: ‘non-fiction’ is such an ugly, un-child-friendly term. And please don’t say ‘fact’ books because not all non-fiction is that. I will award a wonderful prize to the best idea.
 

4 Comments

  1. Great post, Andy.

    I totally agree that the children's literature community (in the UK at least) currently needs to broaden its focus in terms of the books it highlights and acclaims if we want to get more children reading.

    A lot of attention is currently given to books that will chiefly appeal to established readers. Very little attention is devoted to highlighting those books that will hit the mark with reluctant readers and bring them into the fold. And the problem is self-perpetuating. The more the children's literature community focusses on certain types of content, the more children that are interested in other content types will assume that children’s literature – and literature generally – has little to offer them and they will look to other media that better reflect their tastes.

    ‘Diversity’ is currently a buzzword in children’s literature and there has been a commendable effort to improve diversity of representation in children’s books recently. But I think we need a huge effort to improve the diversity of content in children’s books as well.

    Reply
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply
  3. Thanks, Jonathan. I don't think any person involved in publishing willfully ignores fun non-fiction – it's just that their focus is so much on fiction (esp challenging, serious fiction – I want to see funny fiction get more airtime too) that it just leaves no room for popular nf to get a mention. Everyone needs to make a conscious effort to raise the profile of nf in my view. It would lead to more reading for pleasure and those readers will in time move onto other things including quality fiction, hopefully.
    I agree that this is a diversity issue too.

    Reply
  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: