National Non-Fiction November is a month-long “celebration of all things factual” (Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG), n.d.). It advocates for “all those readers that have a passion for information and facts and attempts to bring non-fiction celebration in line with those of fiction” (FCBG, n.d.). In this way, both reading for information and reading for imagination can result in children reading for pleasure. This year, the theme is The World Around Us and the FCBG’s website has lots of ideas and resources for promoting non-fiction in schools and libraries.
To celebrate Non-Fiction November, I pulled out a book, Wildlife in Towns (written by Cathy Kilpatrick), that I was given as a prize for “general progress” when I was in primary school. Published in 1976, it was a good choice for a child who loved animals and birds, but who lived in inner London surrounded by bricks and concrete. Looking through it, I realised how much non-fiction for children has changed over the last 40 years.
The book is very text-heavy, with pages filled with writing interspersed with black and white photos and a couple of pages of colour pictures. It looks and feels more like a textbook, which was probably not uncommon in the 1970s. Whilst I loved it, it is not an enticing book for a reluctant reader. Nor is it likely to attract the attention of a child browsing the shelves of a library or bookshop.
So I went to my local library and borrowed a selection of non-fiction books from the children’s section. I chose those about animals to see how they compared to my wildlife book (and by happenstance, this is also the theme for 2017’s Non-Fiction November). And I unearthed some real beauties.
Like A Seed is Sleepy, most of the books I found contain illustrations rather than photographs, making them very appealing to young children. They have a picture book quality to them, which is enticing. The variety of artistic styles and ‘looks’ make for an interesting, rather than a homogenous, non-fiction collection.
Creaturepedia is published by Wide Eyed Editions, which “creates original non-fiction for children and families and believes that books should encourage curiosity about the world we live in, inspiring readers to set out on their own journey of discovery” (The Quarto Group, 2017). Another beautiful book from their catalogue is Atlas of Animal Adventures. This includes a double-page illustration on honeybees, containing snippets of interesting information about these creatures so familiar to me from long summer days in England.
This approach, which differs greatly from my 1970s wildlife book, is a feature of today’s non-fiction for children. Images, either photos or illustrations, are peppered with sentences rather than paragraphs of information. It makes for a less overwhelming read for those who are learning or are less confident. It also encourages the use of pictures to make sense of the text, an important strategy for emergent readers. Another publisher that uses this approach very successfully is DK, with their Eyewitness series.
Another means by which information is conveyed to young children in an appealing way is through the picture book format. Using storytelling alongside facts engages readers and allows adults to share a non-fiction book with children in the same way as they would a fiction book. This encourages the concept of reading for pleasure and demonstrates an acceptance of reading preferences. As I explored in an earlier post, when we view all forms of text as being equally important, all children come to see themselves as readers.
My journey into today’s world of non-fiction books for children has shown me how far publishing has come in four decades. There are many beautiful, interesting, informative and engaging books out there. Between their pages, images are balanced with words, much like in picture books, making them accessible to all and providing a doorway into a subject. These books will often lead to further exploration of a topic through more in-depth texts.
Finally there are a couple of non-fiction series that children particularly enjoy: Horrible Histories (along with Horrible Geography and Horrible Science) and The Magic School Bus. The former contains gory and unusual facts, presented in a humorous way, whilst the latter involves “wild field trips exploring a wide variety of science topics including invasive species, weather hazards, … brain and nervous system, and deep sea exploration” (Scholastic, 2017). Both cover a range of subjects, with something to interest everyone.
Welcome to the world of children’s non-fiction. It is a wonderful place to visit!
All images taken by the author.