NNFN: Putting Children’s Non-fiction Firmly on the Map – an opinion piece by Lionel Bender

“Respect. Identity. Equal Rights. That’s what Children’s Non-fiction needs. Non-fiction is as important as fiction. With it, children can learn to read and write fluently. With non-fiction, they can develop the literacy and literary skills they need for everyday life. They can discover many styles of writing and illustrating children’s books. They can learn about famous people, places, and events, many of them far more exciting, mysterious, fearsome, and memorable than anything in fiction.

Children are already reading loads of non-fiction, possibly without realising it. When they are reading about sport, tv, pop stars, wildlife, dinosaurs, vehicles, food, fashion, art, they’re probably reading exclusively non-fiction material. So don’t let them be afraid to say they like only non-fiction. Everyone is reading non-fiction all of the time—in newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, and on Facebook and Pinterest. There are children’s non-fiction picture books, graphic books, and audiobooks. There is “creative non-fiction,” which includes essays, poems, and investigative reporting. There is also lots of non-fiction on TV – news, documentaries, insight reports – and this involves writing non-fiction material and understanding non-fiction information.

So why do few people in the U.K. fly the flag for non-fiction? I believe the core of the problem is that many teachers, librarians, and bookshops here do not get to see or hear of the huge range of children’s non-fiction books, magazines, audiobooks, and programs on the market. Many of the non-fiction materials available come from the United States and Canada so have American English spellings and pronunciations, which many U.K. educators frown upon. But the texts can be easily Anglicised and the materials published as if home-grown. Without seeing the wealth of materials, people in the U.K. may not appreciate the range, variety, and educational importance of non-fiction. What is missing here most noticeably in the children’s market is creative, or narrative, non-fiction, chapter books, graphic non-fiction, non-fiction picture books with an author’s voice or illustrator’s style, and non-fiction digital materials.

I also believe many educators in the U.K. may not be trained in-depth to use non-fiction materials as an educational tool. As a result, they do not buy, review or recommend non-fiction books, magazines, and other products for children as they do with fiction. This deters most U.K. children’s book publishers from creating non-fiction books, and certainly costly illustrated ones that need to sell in great numbers to be profitable.

At the end of the marketing chain, parents and children are not exposed to much children’s non-fiction. That does not help children become well-rounded readers, and certainly does not prepare them for adult life, where non-fiction is the language of the workplace.

What can be done about this? How can children’s non-fiction in the U.K. earn the respect, identity and equal rights it deserves? My suggestions are as follows:

  • 1. U.K. publishers can publish more, and a wider variety of, children’s non-fiction. This involves taking the risk that these books will not sell. But if teachers, librarians, parents, and bookstores —and children — demand them, they will sell.
  • 2. U.K. educators can investigate more how print and digital non-fiction materials can be used in classrooms in more innovative, creative, and exciting ways. They can do this by looking at and copying what other countries are doing, particularly the U.S.A., where the use of at least 50 percent of non-fiction materials in classrooms is compulsory and where there are extensive lesson plans for using non-fiction as an educational tool.
  • 3. U.K. government and industry must force educators to teach the language, grammar and use of non-fiction writing as it is essential for work and everyday adult life.
  • 4. Book, magazine, and electronic product reviewers at U.K. newspapers, magazines, and television companies should explore more about the importance and range of children’s non-fiction materials, and select them alongside those of fiction.

  • Other observations and thoughts I have:

    U.K. publishers such as Walker, Flying Eye, Wide Eyed, Frances Lincoln, Wayland, Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley produce great non-fiction picture books, humorous books and information books, but there is a HUGE number and variety of other children’s non-fiction available.

    Other U.K. publishers and U.K. divisions of international publishers such as Scholastic, Penguin Random House, Hachette have U.S. divisions that produce vast numbers and a different variety of children’s non-fiction. The U.K. houses could publish or distribute those books here in the U.K, and promote them aggressively…….if they wanted, and if they sensed the demand.

    U.K. children’s publishing staff and bookshop children’s buyers should be encouraged to seek out, analyse and review children’s non-fiction when they visit international book fairs and conventions and, by looking at the transformation and success of children’s non-fiction in the United States, realise the potential for doing something similar here in the U.K.

    You’ll be amazed what is out there. There is certainly something for every child, of every age, of every reading ability, and with any interest.Take a look at these U.S. websites. They will show what’s going on in children’s non-fiction in an environment where non-fiction has respect, identity and equal rights to fiction.

  • Children’s Book Council http://www.cbcbooks.org/notable-social-studies/
  • Horn Book http://www.hbook.com/notes-from-the-horn-book-newsletter/nonfiction-notes-from-the-horn-book/#_
  • National Council of Teachers of English http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus
  • National Science Teachers Association http://www.nsta.org/publications/ostb/ostb2016.aspx
  • American Library Association Young Adult Awards http://www.ala.org/yalsa/nonfiction-award
  • Publishers Weekly Children’s Books http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/
  • Teachers First Guide to Nonfiction http://www.teachersfirst.com/exclusives/moreless/librarian/fuss/index.cfm

  • Make National Non-Fiction November an all-year activity!”

    Today’s guest post was written by Lionel Bender, Editorial Partner, Bender Richardson White, producer of children’s illustrated nonfiction for 25+ years, and Founder and Co-chair of the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, held in the United States.

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