Because non-fiction matters, too

Last week, Warwick Davis, of Star Wars and Harry Potter fame, visited a primary school in Deptford as part of the Get London Reading Campaign. When talking with the children about reading, his main approach was to urge them to read absolutely anything they can get their hands on – whether fiction or non-fiction.

A Great Approach

The fact that he highlighted non-fiction – or fact-based books – stood out to me as an approach that perhaps isn’t used regularly enough to entice kids to read. It’s not just books and stories we need to be getting them to read, after all, but absolutely anything that gets them responding to the power of words. If non-fiction texts are what capture their imagination, then fantastic.

Guinness Book of Records 2013Warwick mentioned that he wasn’t a fan of fiction as a child – something which I’m sure many children can relate to. “Even if you’re not so into reading, it doesn’t have to be fiction. Comic books, Guinness Book of Records, that’s what I grew up reading because I love facts,” Warwick said.

Boys in particular have been seen to find non-fiction a much more appealing alternative to fiction – for numerous reasons. For example, boys love to swap facts with each other, so facts and information conveyed in an imaginative way can really appeal to their mindset. Non-fiction books also allow for dipping in and out of a book (or website – or whatever the format), allowing them to pick the bits that interest them and not feel like they have to read entire passages in one sitting.

The Best Non-fiction

In the past, despite the availability of factual books in schools and libraries, they were frequently books that spelled out facts in painstaking detail – not necessarily in an appealing way. They just covered topics required by the National Curriculum. Nowadays, however, attractive covers and glossy images entice children in, with more of a balance between images and texts. The best non-fiction books address more than just what we think they should know – they address children’s interests and curiosities. They develop their vocabularies and build their knowledge of the world, sometimes strung together with narrative (although these are few and far between…)

National Geographic Kids In the past few years, however, many publishers and booksellers seem to have begun to forget the importance of fact-based books in young people’s lives. Children’s non-fiction authors do not tend to receive the same amount of attention that fiction authors receive, and the lower marketing budgets frequently allocated for them means that such books are much less likely to be reviewed.

A Worrying Decline…

Just last year, 26 authors wrote to the Guardian about a worrying decline in non-fiction books for children: “Once, there were hundreds of such books available, covering every topic imaginable – but, almost overnight, it seems, the market for them has almost vanished. Not, we think, because children don’t want to know about the real world.”

The reason for it, they suggested, was the ‘dearth, or even death of school and public libraries’, along with high street retailers cutting back on stocking fact-based books that aren’t character based or tied into TV series. And then there’s the fact that the internet now provides so much information. But what about those who want the convenience of a book to dip in and out of, or who need enticing in by a shiny package? What about those who, as schools begin to focus more on reading for pleasure in the National Curriculum, would rather pick a non-fiction book when their friends dive for the fiction shelves?

Publishers and bookstores, these authors say, really need to “start to take risks again” with this genre, which seems to be getting left behind.

National Non-fiction DayMore To Be Done…

Some effort is being made to highlight the place of non-fiction in children’s lives. The Society of Authors has developed an award, the ALCS Award for Educational Writing – awarded for outstanding examples of traditionally published non-fiction, and we also have National Non-Fiction Day, which is celebrated every first Thursday in November (a Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ national event).

Nevertheless, there’s definitely more that needs to be done. If we want kids to be engaged with reading, the main thing is that we look to ways to feed their interests:  whether that’s books or websites – fiction or non-fiction. And the most important thing is that, when they do decide what they want, these texts are readily available and accessible for them – no matter the content.

A Town of Books: Hay Festival 2013

I was lucky enough to get to spend a weekend at the Hay Festival of Literature this bank holiday, which has become something of an annual event for me and my family. In fact, it started with just myself and my partner, Rich, stumbling across it on a trip into the countryside.  Every year since, our group has grown and grown in size.Hay festival

The Town of Books

There’s something fantastic about the feeling of being at a festival of literature in a little village that is already adorned with streets and streets of quirky little bookshops. Having visited Hay-on-Wye outside of the festival season, I’ve seen how essential these bookshops are to this ‘town of books’ throughout the year (it’s especially entertaining to spot the ‘Kindle-free zones’ around each corner). But even though there might be a fair few tourists browsing the shelves on any given day in the year, there’s this sense that the books really get to shine and come alive when the crowds descend in May. Pristine bindings of Folio titles get to dazzle briefly outside their boxes before being snapped up, and dusty, second-hand copies of much-thumbed classics find themselves being loved all over again. The whole place comes alive with a shared passion for words.

In the past few years, my partner and I have developed our little routine of which shops we must visit and how long to leave between each event for browsing the labyrinths of the Cinema bookshop or the caverns of The Children’s Bookshop and Rose’s Books. Coming home empty-handed is never an option, and my personal challenge to find the most battered and fragile, yet perfectly quaint copy of Winnie the Pooh is still underway…


The festival events themselves are like the icing on the cake. And to top it all off, there’s not one – but two festivals spread around the town. I find myself hurrying to book-signings or basking in the sun on the grass in between talks about voyages to Antarctica and Julia Donaldson’s picture books,  before nipping across town to ‘How The Light Gets In’, to be engrossed in an hour-long debate about  the philosophy of forgetting. If your mind doesn’t boggle at the masses of information and inspiration it accumulates each day, you’re doing something wrong…

Hay-on-WyeA highlight for me was a talk by screenwriter and Pixar story consultant Bobette Buster on our last day, who talked through her formulas for what really makes a story. She used examples from such Hollywood films as E.T. and Toy Story to demonstrate that every great story has a set of key ingredients. For example: the chance to take a personal journey with the main character; a clear distinction between enchantment and disenchantment; a juxtaposition between two sets of ideas – perhaps two characters in opposition to one another (hmmm… Buzz and Woody ring any bells?); a transformation from something ordinary to extraordinary; wake-up moments to understand the experience a character goes through to transform; and a story within a story.  It was dense, interesting talk from an excellent speaker – all based around her new book, Do Story, of course.

Young talent

My only regret this year (aside from missing out on Quentin Blake’s mid-week session!), is that I wasn’t able to time my visit with the announcement of the winners of the 500 Words competition for BBC Radio 2, which took place last Friday. I listened instead to the live radio broadcast of the winning entries on my commute to work, as they were read out by such famous voices as Michael Palin and Michael Ball. I was so engrossed that I had to negotiate with myself to peel my feet from the train station platform and risk losing my radio signal by getting on the tube. You can read the shortlisted and winning entries here.

I hope these talented kids get to come back to Hay-on-Wye year-on-year.  If there’s one place at one specific time of year that can inspire someone to open up their imagination, grasp every piece of knowledge from around them and put pen to paper to create something fantastical  – then the Hay Festival is certainly it!

Collectable memories of Pooh

On a recent visit to my parents’ home in Wales, I found myself in my old room which, admittedly, given the lack of space in my current London flat, acts as a bit of a shrine to my childhood – filled to the brim with old keepsakes.

ImageAmongst the pink drapes, wind-chimes, old sorry-looking bears and never-to-be-opened-again files of school notes, is a lone shelf that sums up what inspired me to read as a kid – my collection of Winnie the Pooh books. And I don’t mean the different types of Winnie the Pooh spin-offs that have been published over the years, such as I Love You Winnie the Pooh or The Trouble With Bees (although I did spot Eeyore’s Book of Gloom in there somewhere…) but simply the original tales in their many different packages.  There’s even a special edition copy that I found on a shelf in Singapore and lugged in my backpack through Australia, New Zealand, India and Nepal to get home. Yep – I have to admit it – I’m definitely a bibliophile when it comes to Pooh!

Looking at these all lined up on my shelf, I wondered why it is that I’m attracted to collecting these beautiful representations of my childhood. I suppose right there are two answers before I’ve even started – they’re beautiful, and they remind me of my childhood. But I keep trying to put my finger on why I feel I have to own them in so many different designs, when they are simply the same stories over and over…?

I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that it’s a mix of fear and lust. Lust for the myriad of designs; for the myriad of colourful bindings that encase what to me, are some of the most precious words in my memory. Eeyore’s solemn words of despair on one page, Piglet’s shrieks of comical fear on the next, all interpreted in a different way by the publisher who packages it. Some have black and white pictures and simple, plain bindings; others have shiny jackets and colourful illustrations on quality paper; while others are encased in decorative slipcases as if they were meant to serve as pieces of art.

And fear? Well the fear part comes from the fear of my favourite words ever disappearing from a paper page. No – I don’t mean that the words will physically fade in my copies, neither do I mean that digital books will replace printed books (we’ve all been exhausted by THAT debate), but that the pretty editions I see on the shelves or find in a second-hand shop will one day go out of print, or be shifted off the shop shelves to make space for a newer version of the timeless classics. When there are so many interpretations of the same books out there, I develop a sort of Pokemon-fever – I just have to ‘catch’ them all…

But what of the kids of tomorrow? With the availability of digital apps and ebook formats of their favourite titles floating around and existing as codes of text on the ether, will they care to collect their favourite books just for the sake of it? Will the ability to click and instantly access the books they want, no matter the packaging, be more attractive to them than the idea of keeping something forever?

One thing’s for sure, Eeyore doesn’t really have the answer: “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”

 Winnie the Pooh

A real treat of recent releases

I thought I’d wrote a quick post about some picture book titles that I’ve come across in the past fortnight and thought would be worth a shout-out. So, if you’re looking for an Easter present for this weekend that will last a little longer than ten seconds before it’s devoured, why not pick up one of these treats?:

The Disgusting SandwichThe Disgusting Sandwich by Gareth Edwards (Alison Green Books)

A hungry badger races to get his paws on a sandwich, but it repeatedly escapes him at every step… This is a fantastically illustrated book with extra little stories in the pictures, providing that priceless re-readability  – allowing you to see new things each time you read it. There are lots of little interactions between different animals – from foxes to squirrels – all taking place in one park. I love the way the sandwich is portrayed in such a gruesome, stinky way, and how the ending is icky enough to make children and adults giggle. And you’ve really got to feel for the poor badger! If you’re looking for a squirm and a chuckle, then this is perfect.

Look out, ladybird!Look Out, Ladybird! by Jack Tickle (Little Tiger Press)

This title’s about a ladybird who’s learning to fly and finding that she’s more than just a little bit clumsy at it! The words are great in this book – they’re the type of imaginative, rounded words that children want to repeat. I liked the use of such phrases as ‘tickled Tiger’s tum’ and ‘bopped your banana’, conveying the way the ladybird is clumsily falling through the air, and the zig-zag movement of the words on a page. The story shows that it can be tricky learning something new, but you always get there eventually… and the little wink from the ladybird at the end is a nice touch!

Oh no, George!Oh no, George! by Chris Haughton (Walker Books)

A book about a dog called George who’s trying extra hard to be good but is tempted by everything around him. It’s a great little tale about a dog and his owner, which I’m sure young children will be able to relate to their own pets. The pictures in this title are fantastic – even though I found the illustrations on the pages where he does something naughty a little bit unclear and crowded with colour (just me being picky), the body language really makes the story. And the ending is superb – it just sums up how much can be conveyed through a picture alone. A definite favourite of mine.

 If you have any ideas of titles you would like me to consider for review or recommendation on here, or just a title you that was great and want the world to know about, feel free to get in touch: spotunderthetree(at)

Please note: Any books I recommend on here are purely down to my personal opinion – I have no obligation to any particular publisher to advertise their work. This blog contains nothing but my own words, unless stated.

Pop-up books: for better or worse?

During my last weekly-but-increasingly-frequent Waterstones visit, I spotted a title I’ve had my eye on for quite some time: Playbook Farm, published by Nosy Crow.

Playbook Farm, Nosy Crow

Playbook Farm

In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a ‘pop-up book and play mat in one’ that was published in September of last year. So, it essentially works in the same way as a board or picture book but also folds out into a 3D model that children can use to play with on the floor.

I’ve always been amazed by the intricacies of pop-up books. I remember trying my hand at making my own pop-up cards as a child (usually Blue Peter-style!) where the characters would all stand up in front of a painted background as you open the card, creating a little model. Even as adults, there’s no doubt that seeing something transform in front of your eyes is just as amazing as it is for children. The only difference is that us adults might tend to have a ‘wow’ moment and a secondary ‘how did they do that?!’ moment, whereas children probably hold on to that ‘wow’ moment for that little bit longer…


So now, seeing the excellent types of 3-D masterpieces that can be created from layers of paper, complex mechanics and repetitions of images (just look at some of the images by Playbook Farm’s creator on this post!) not only amazes me but makes me wonder about the whole ‘how did they do that?!’ bit and – in a publishing mind-set – leads me to also wonder about the role of such masterpieces.

Crossing the boundary

When it comes to the first ‘how do they do that?!’ question, I won’t go into detail, but simply point out the long, complex processes involved in creating all pop-up books  – each one needing to be printed by specialist printers and assembled by hand. As pointed out by the paper engineer Andrew Barton: ‘the result is one of the last hand-made, mass-produced, complex products that you can buy today.’

Playbook Farm is just one example of what can be achieved by this term ‘paper engineering’. Here we see the idea of a picture/board book being transformed into something fully immersive and – dare I say it – crossing the boundary into the realm of toys (although, I did wonder when I first saw Playbook Farm how durable the ‘play mat’ concept would be beneath the feet of young children – even the recommended 36 months plus….). Such an innovative title hints at the ways publishers could think creatively to give books that upper-hand if ‘competing’ with the interactive element that digital apps might be able to offer – even for such publishers as Nosy Crow themselves, who also develop their own digital book apps. Yet, one might conversely think that the interactive element of the pop-up book could itself be compared to the ‘bells and whistles’ of the digital book apps that publishers have received so critically in the first place…

Giraffes Can't Dance

On the one hand, many pop-up books – similarly to digital book apps – could draw reluctant readers to pick up such a book due to their incongruity and surprise elements. But when it comes to anything more than looking at the pretty pictures, the idea of them promoting any hands-on learning or enticement to really get into reading has been debatable for quite some time. This is not just in the case of non-fiction pop-up titles, but for pop-up picture book titles aimed at early years, where they might be trying to teach basic morals or such simple concepts as ‘a cow goes moo’. Yes, they might see something in 3D, but are they associating what is going on with what it represents? With the emphasis being on the pop-up elements, might what is going on in the text be completely missed?

The science-y bit

A few researchers have in fact looked into this in the past. Most notably, a series of experiments determined that when children ‘have been encouraged to manipulate and play’ with something, they find it harder to understand that what they are playing with is actually a symbol of something else – known as ‘dual representation’. Furthermore, the cognitive effort it takes to manipulate the flaps and pop-up elements of the book can make it harder for them to additionally process what is being said by an adult or the book itself. Overall, they suggested that to get information across to children, ‘less is more’.*

Lost and Found

So it makes you wonder, are the pop-up elements worthwhile if what is going on in the text of a book might be missed as a result? And what about the titles that were originally straightforward picture books and are re-released to become pop-up books? We’ve seen how complex a production process each book has to go through – why go through that all if it is at the expense of the overall story or the message of a book?

The New York Times put it well:

“Why mess around with an established picture-book favorite – one that seems to land on every newborn’s bookshelf? Because the pop-up version isn’t a mess-up, but rather a beautifully produced, restrained amplification of the original” [sic]

In my personal opinion, similarly with digital book apps, it’s all about variation and knowing when to use different formats. If you’re really trying to teach a child what a duck is, perhaps you’re best off showing them a simple picture book about ducks. But if you want to amaze and entertain your child, then pop-up books are a fantastic novelty to do just that.


Playbook Farm itself was engineered by Corina Fletcher, who has also produced some intricate pop-up versions of such well-known titles as Giraffes Can’t Dance and Guess How Much I Love You for many different publishers. Personally, I see the art in all her work and want to buy her work for myself, just as much as I would for a child!


* It’s probably worth pointing out that it’s of course a completely different scenario if you’re working with pop-up non-fiction titles for older children and adults.  Some of the earliest moveable books were aimed solely at adults and used in the medical profession to illustrate the anatomy of the human body – clearly the 3D element has its use when you are cognitively developed enough to automatically understand ‘dual representation’.

All photos © Corina Fletcher: