NNFN: Defining Non-fiction – a guest post by Andy Seed

We’re well in to National Non-Fiction November now, so perhaps its time to take stock and ask some tricky questions: What counts as non-fiction? Where do its boundaries lie? Why does this matter? And do we need a name to replace “non-fiction”? We’ve a guest post today by award winning non-fiction author Andy Seed to open up this conversation.

sidesplittingAndy Seed writes memoirs, funny poems and humorous non-fiction books as well as all sorts of things for teachers. Andy’s The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff, won the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book with Facts Award (It also features in our ‘100 Brilliant Non-Fiction Books for Children and Young People‘ booklist).

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“Browsing through my local library yesterday I was pleased to find a copy of Puzzle Dungeon by Susannah Leigh and Brenda Haw (Usborne). The series includes Puzzle Mountain, Puzzle Castle etc. These books first appeared in the 1990s and have a very simple formula where readers solve visual puzzles to find some lost person or item.

puzzledungeonMy own kids enjoyed these books when they were younger and the large colourful spreads work well, but precisely what type of books are they? They might look at first glance like activity books (as the word ‘puzzle’ suggests) but each title also contains a story: there are 2-3 paragraphs of text on each page featuring a setting, characters and a kind of plot. So are they fiction?

What if we decide they’re not fiction because of the puzzle/activity element (they were shelved in the non-fic section of the library)? Are activity books non-fiction? Sudoku collections, sticker albums and colouring books don’t really fit our notion of what non-fiction is. Most people think of children’s non-fiction as fact books or information books and indeed most of the non-fic titles in the library that day would fit into these broad categories but non-fiction has never been easy to define.

Looking around the shelves I also found poetry, biographies, ‘true stories’, joke books, reference titles, miscellanies, annuals, and all sorts of other activity books such as manuals, ‘Things to do’ compilations and cookery books. Are these non-fiction?

365Poetry is usually classed as a whole separate category of books and in many ways is closer to fiction than to fact. Biographies are of course factually-based as are true stories (narrative non-fiction) and miscellanies and reference titles. Some activity books such as recipe collections and ‘How to’ titles contain a lot of genuine information and so do fit inside the established non-fiction umbrella while others don’t. Dorling Kindersley’s excellent 365 Outdoor Activities You Have to Try by James Ambrose is composed of instructional text and photos but it also contains a lot of facts and is most certainly a non-fiction book.

The problem with thinking of non-fiction books purely as information books, especially in a narrow educational sense, is that we risk leaving whole groups of certain books without a category in which they have a hope of being recognised and valued. The classic case here is the humble joke book. It certainly isn’t fiction, but is it non-fiction? Do we cast it aside because it has no facts in it?

As an author who specialises in promoting reading for pleasure I understand the power of humour in hooking children into reading. Every kid I ever met loves a good giggle and yet joke books, despite their phenomenal interest level for all ages are all too often invisible in libraries, bookshops and schools and just don’t get a look-in when it comes to reviews, festivals or awards.

So, I say let’s keep our definition of non-fiction broad so we don’t abandon books which get children reading. And let’s have a proper debate about the dreary, unloved label ‘non-fiction’, recognising the absurdity of defining something by what it’s not. Right, I need a non-coffee.”

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Our thanks go to Andy for asking some big questions about non-fiction. Do let us know what you think in the comments below!

You can find out more about Andy Seed on his website, http://www.andyseed.com/ and you can also follow him on Twitter @andyseedauthor.

3 responses to “NNFN: Defining Non-fiction – a guest post by Andy Seed”

  1. […] our discussion of what is or isn’t non-fiction, and how we might (or might not) distinguish it from other books, today we’ve a guest post […]

  2. Angela James says:

    Well said. I’m a children’s poet & I write a lot of poems around history, war, science, animals, etc. These I would class as non-fiction poetry. I have even delivered workshops this month on war, engineering & will soon do one on Florence Nightingale. These workshops I have labelled ‘non-fiction’ & have used them to shout out about National Non-Fiction November. It is always a delight to show children that reading & writing non-fiction can be just as much fun as fiction.

    • Andy Seed says:

      Indeed, and of course through poems such as yours, Angela, children can learn a great deal of information (and in a particularly meaningful way often, too). The boundaries between categories of books are much more blurred than the publishing world would have us believe!