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.