Why should we value factual books for children?

A recent skim through bookish posts on Twitter painted the usual picture: lots of enthusiastic reviews and plugs, pictures of summer reading piles, covers of recommended kids’ books and authors giving peeks of upcoming titles. As ever it was 90% fiction (including picture books) with almost no poetry and very little children’s non-fic.

We simply do not have a children’s non-fiction book culture in the UK like exists in most of Europe, the USA (where factual books are built into the curriculum) and many other countries. My last non-fic title sold 10x more overseas. Why is this? So many children love reading factual books. A lot prefer them. I was one of those kids – I became a reader through them. Once I was a reader I then developed a taste for fiction.

So, why don’t we value factual books as much as others? Everyone I meet says they do value them and yet these books are still almost invisible in many places and in review streams. I decided to post a question on Twitter to see what people had to say. Here it is and it drew a big response!

All kinds of people replied: parents, teachers, writers, illustrators, publishers, bloggers, librarians and booksellers. Here are some of the most interesting quotes:

I was delighted to see that the reply with the most likes and retweets was this wonderfully expressed viewpoint from teacher Christopher Such:

This builds on the point I made earlier. Adults are gatekeepers when it comes to children’s books and if we don’t introduce and make available a wide variety we are missing an opportunity to make readers who read for pleasure.

The other reason I love this tweet so much is for that word joy. Reading should be fun, and almost no one mentioned this aspect of factual books – so many of them present content in an enjoyable way. You’ll find jokes, quips, witty text, funny illustrations, asides and all kinds of lively visual devices to bring the pages alive. As a writer of children’s non-fiction, building some humour into each title is a priority because I know it will increase appeal and get more kids enjoying books.

One of the problems with these books is the label we give them. ‘Non-fiction’ surely wins the prize for the dreariest, most negative and unappealing name for a category of anything, never mind just books! I’ve said this before but it bears repeating (“Coffee or non-coffee, madam?”). Why on earth do we define something by what it is not?

I like the term ‘factual books’ because it acknowledges the huge range of this sector of reading material (more about that later). Here are some alternatives:

‘Fact books’ – hmmm, this does suggest that they’re all just full of facts. Autobiographies and ‘true-life’ stories are not just books of facts – and nor are several other genres that come under the non-fiction label.

‘Information books’ – again, it suggests something a bit dry to me. A train timetable is information, but the remarkable true story of teenager Juliane Koepcke surviving a plane crash and her long, dangerous walk through a rainforest to reach rescue (as featured in a recent kids’ non-fic title) can’t really be classified as ‘information’, surely?

‘Reference books’ – what???

It doesn’t help that non-fiction can also be written nonfiction and non fiction. The debate will no doubt go on but here are my thoughts on why we should value factual books for children.

1. Factual books are an unparalleled way for children to learn.

  • They are written, illustrated and designed by people who know how to communicate well
  • The text and images are presented at the right level for the intended age group
  • They cover almost every subject, including many of the ‘difficult’ ones, and address topical matters
  • Unlike much info found on the web, they are factually reliable

2. Factual books are a gateway to reading for pleasure for many children

  • They can be matched to a child’s interests
  • The text is often presented in easily digested chunks to help disengaged children
  • Their exciting, highly visual designs and layouts add appeal and boost communication of content

3. Factual books are often superbly illustrated

  • The combination of words and pictures often makes a topic come alive
  • Large, varied and colourful formats make them more inviting for reluctant readers
  • They use rich combinations of great photos, drawn illustrations and graphics to feed the eye

4. Factual books are hugely varied

Non-fiction is not just information – it includes:

  • Biogs
  • ‘True-life’ stories
  • Miscellanies
  • Guides
  • Puzzles and quizzes
  • Joke books
  • Activity books
  • TV & film tie-ins (e.g. Doctor Who annuals)

Interestingly, these are often the types of books that capture children’s interests and yet they get the smallest amount of promotion, reviews, sharing, recommendations and shelf space!

5. Factual books are a powerful way to enable children to develop as people

  • Seeing the real lives of others builds empathy and understanding
  • They are an excellent route into important non-curricular themes such as black history, inequality, diversity and the changing world of work
  • They explain difficult concepts in effective ways.

This is a personal view from someone who has been writing factual books for nearly 20 years and who is a fervent promoter of reading for pleasure. I would love to see kids’ non-fic getting the space, enthusiasm, coverage and recognition it deserves – and for more children to be enjoying it!

Particular thanks to Scott Evans The Reader Teacher for his promotion of factual books and for everyone who contributed comments and more.


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