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A Golden Age of Nonfiction?

Every month the Just Imagine post bag is brimming with brilliant new children’s nonfiction. And as a reader who probably reads in the ratio of 3 to 1 nonfiction to fiction, that excites me. The best are selected for review, and many are highlighted in our monthly Book Blast presentation. However, as we approach Nonfiction November, let’s take a few moments to reflect on the current state of nonfiction publishing. Are we in a Golden Age? Or are there simply too many books, making it hard for the best to stand out from the crowd?

Why information is not enough

In 2008, I wrote a chapter titled ‘More Than Information’ in Prue Goodwin’s outstanding edited collection Understanding Children’s Books. That chapter argues that good nonfiction for children does more than convey ‘information’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines information as ‘facts about a situation, person, event’. In our exciting, fast-moving digital age, we have an abundance of facts at our fingertips – the internet excels in retrieving snippets of information faster than the speed of light. However, we cannot always trust the information it serves up and knowing how to fact-check is an essential skill.

On the other hand, good books can do more than simply provide information; they build knowledge. Returning to the Cambridge Dictionary, knowledge is defined as ‘the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject’. Understanding is the salient word. The best writers of nonfiction for children appreciate this. They grapple with sometimes complex ideas and consider how best to communicate them in an age-appropriate way. They do the job so well that we are unaware of the great skill and craft it takes to build the bridge to understanding. But make no mistake, it IS a skill, and many books fall short.

While the dry old-style information book is largely dead, replaced by new ‘wow factor’ nonfiction, it is important to look beyond the surface appeal and apply criticality when choosing books for our school collections.

Why narrative matters

Narratives have the primary intention of entertaining. Story grammar focuses on character development, actions and interactions between characters and a series of events that are organised temporally or causally. Narrative is a structure familiar not only from stories in books but also in film, and television.

Barbara Hardy wrote that narrative is ‘a primary act of mind’.

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future

Barbara Hardy (1968) Towards a Poetics of Fiction (p5)

Stories, she argued, are transferred from life to art rather than the other way around.

Furthermore, stories map onto our everyday experiences, and we recognise the common themes of literature – friendship, conflict, separation, loss, greed, and coping with adversity – from our own lives.

In contrast, expository text is principally concerned with communicating information about a topic. There are many forms of expository text, essays, textbooks or manuals, which may include explanations, reports, arguments, descriptions, diagrams, graphs etc. The structure of an expository text usually includes an introduction which is then elaborated, and the content will often be unfamiliar as we often read this type of text to find out something we didn’t already know, Even if it starts with the familiar to draw the reader in, it will lead into unfamiliar territory.

It has for some years been posited that narrative is easier to comprehend than expository text. For instance, Dochy, Segers and Buchl (1999) argue that familiarity with narrative structure counts as ‘prior knowledge’, and this will impact the ability to make inferences that support. comprehension. In contrast, when readers encounter expository text, they do not have the advantage of genre familiarity. Moreover, new concepts and ideas may be introduced, inhibiting inference-making. So content and form can compound the challenges that young readers experience.

The theory that it is easier to learn from a narrative text has been empirically tested in various research projects with mixed results. However, a meta-analysis of 75 unique samples covering 33,000 participants confirmed that it is easier to comprehend and recall narrative text (Mar, Li, Nguyen and Ta, 2021). They write,

‘Because texts are an important way in which we encounter new information, successfully comprehending and retaining this information to build our knowledge of the world is immensely important. To that end, the advantage afforded by narratives over exposition in this domain should be considered whenever possible.’

It follows that we should provide narrative nonfiction to support children’s understanding of new topics and ideas. This is especially important for the youngest readers. Walker Books’ long-running Nature Storybook series, provides a blend of narrative and expository text, which is a pitch perfect introduction to nonfiction. Jasbinder Bilan and Nina Chakrabarti’s recent book, India Incredible India is another fine example, including a framing narrative alongside expository sections.

Narrative is the main mode of writing history, so it is relatively easy for children to access the subject through text. However, many scientists also use narrative to communicate how things work or how ideas develop. Kevin Padian (2018) writes:

We scientists tell two kinds of stories. One is about our research: how birds evolved; how trees and forbs became adapted to fire, how animals adapted to those plants and landscapes; how a free-living organism was adapted to become mitochondria. The second type of story is our own: how we became interested and even obsessed with our research topics; how we discovered the source of the genes that make the turtle shell; how we discovered the long-lost fossil quarry that established that Tyrannosaurus rex adults and juveniles hunted together.’

Biography is a special form of narrative that can open up a full range of subjects from Astronomy (The Stuff Between the Stars) to Zoology (Wild Life and Shark Lady). Far from presenting a list of facts about a person’s extraordinary life and achievements, the best picturebook biographies invite the reader to engage emotionally and empathise. The illustrations also add to the aesthetic experience inviting a feeling and a thinking response. Biographies open doors to new areas of learning, sometimes using a proxy child as an observer of the famous life, as in Ella in the Garden of Giverny.

While narrative is a good bridge to reading about new subjects, older children need access to different types of text, including argument, which provides a model for logical thinking. Argument is less well served by current publishing, though Ben Garrod’s Extinct series and Lucy Hawking’s collection of essays, Unlocking the Universe introduce children from around 10 years old to different forms of writing.

Why voice is vital

A book that builds knowledge takes the reader by the hand and helps them navigate the subject. Voice is key to this journey. Meg Rosoff once said, Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are‘. The writer connects with the reader through their voice, creating the impression of speaking directly to them.

Consider for a moment the nonfiction that has captured your interest as an adult, and I would hazard a guess that the writer’s voice was key to your engagement. I had no idea that I could be enthralled by the subject of bricks, cement and mortar until I read Roma Agrawal’s Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, But structural engineer Agrawal won me over; not only with her deep subject knowledge but also her enthusiasm in sharing her personal story. I had a newfound appreciation for concrete after reading her book. Previously, I would have looked at buildings from the perspective of an art historian (I studied the history of art and took courses in architecture), but after reading Built, I started to appreciate the mathematics and physics of the structures that I had previously looked at from exclusively cultural and aesthetic perspectives,

We are fortunate that there are some superb writers of nonfiction for children who write about their areas of expertise, employing a voice which guides young readers to greater understanding and appreciation: Nicola Davies, Catherine Barr and Isabel Thomas, for example, are names that should be familiar to every primary teacher and school librarian. These writers are always cognisant of making a subject accessible and piquing a reader’s curiosity. They are never patronising and resist presenting material in a way that is so easy to digest that it presents little substance or challenge. It’s a fine line to tread.

It is equally true that some nonfiction books for children are written in a bland voice that seeks to do nothing beyond communicating facts or ‘information’. It could be that in the effort to make a subject accessible, all the things that make it interesting or worthwhile are edited out. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than a nonfiction book that tells children what they are already likely to know or makes the subject so dull that they never want to pick up another book on the subject.

Why language is key

Subjects use language in particular ways. Each has its semantic field or collection of specialised words. Young readers will encounter more new words when they read a science textbook than when they first start learning a modern foreign language. That’s staggering, isn’t it? Classrooms are often awash with displays of subject-specific and technical words. But it isn’t only the obvious subject terminology that can be a stumbling block for a young reader learning new concepts. For instance, in one recently published book about wildlife under threat, the word ‘disappeared’ is used instead of ‘extinct’. While ‘disappeared’ is more likely to be in the lexicon of young children, for many, it will be associated with temporary absence – like a rabbit disappearing from a hat to magically reappear when the trick is completed. They may not grasp that extinction is a permanent state, and so a key concept of the book could be lost – which is one of the reasons that adults reading and sharing nonfiction is so important.

The density of new words can also be problematic, particularly for newly independent readers when the working memory is still tied up with decoding the words. Complex ideas may also be expressed through longer sentences or unfamiliar sentence structures.

Good children’s writers skilfully and seamlessly weave context-specific definitions into their prose. to support young readers’ understanding. This isn’t always possible, though. There’s a balance to be struck between engaging writing and informative content, so a glossary may be necessary. The quality of the glossaries that I have looked at recently varies considerably. The presence of a glossary is not a guarantee that terminology will be explained in a way that makes sense to children, or that the most useful words have been selected for inclusion. I have noticed the random emboldening of words in some recent titles, which seems to have been done solely to capture children’s attention (This isn’t necessary when the content is interesting). It is especially confusing when the same font and weight are also used for glossary words. In a previous blog, I praised Britannica Children’s Encyclopedia for its intelligent indexing and glossary approach. More of this standard, please!

The importance of imagery

It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, and there is truth in the adage. However, images can also be problematic. In an investigation into boys reading Gemma Moss (1999) found that many boys feigned reading by looking at highly pictorial nonfiction. She noted that books like Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness series were particularly popular but that readers could not take meaning from them without reading the text. The pictures alone were not sufficient. Twenty-five years on, I have witnessed children (boys and girls) browsing nonfiction, skimming the pictures without taking in the key ideas or understanding what the writer wants to communicate.

As part of our Improving Literacy in Science course, we ask teachers to observe how children navigate nonfiction when reading independently. Teachers’ insights from this gap task have been fascinating. Many have noted similar reading behaviour to that highlighted by Moss. This has implications not only for nonfiction publishing, but teaching too. Just because a book looks inviting and attractive doesn’t mean it will support children’s reading or understanding.

Diagrams, charts and graphs, when used well, also support understanding. Again the quality in recently published books is variable. Sometimes the overall look and feel of a page are given priority over the clear communication of an idea. In science, diagrams convey complicated processes and often need to show dynamics, which can be difficult in two dimensions. There are conventions to be learnt, like the use of arrows, that make it easier to interpret. However, I have seen instances recently of diagrams without legends or keys to help make sense of them. There is room for improvement!

The best illustrators and photographers make us see a subject in a new light and provide clarity when needed. The choice of illustrator makes a huge difference to the success of a book. Jennie Desmond’s illustrations for Nicola Davies, One World, add depth to the central concept. Emily Sutton’s illustrations for Tiny, awaken us to the beauty of the microbiotic world. Paleoartist Gabriel Ugueto’s artwork for Bend Garrod’s Extinct series, imagines prehistoric works with a well-researched accuracy but also brings drama and excitement to the reading experience. Steve Bloom’s breathtaking photographs in Elephant, highlight details that make us look at elephants in a completely new way – noticing eyelashes, the undersides of their feet, and the signs of old age.

This leads me to the point that there are nowhere near enough books with high-quality photographs. This is partly a fashion choice but I have also heard the argument photographs date quickly and are expensive. It’s a pity because a really good photograph has the capacity to provoke discussion. And book talk is essential to children’s nonfiction reading experience, in and out of school.

Good design is crucial

Good design cannot be overestimated. On my desk, as I am writing, I have an appealing book about physics, and it’s crammed with fascinating information. Each spread looks enticing, but navigating around the page is a nightmare. The eye is immediately drawn to strong visuals, the accompanying text is small. Poor colour choice of font on a black background does little to help a young reader (and if you have a visual impairment, this will be doubly challenging). It’s hard to know which text relates to which image. or what needs to be read first. As it happens, it’s crucial to read the page in a specific order. The content is about blue stars, yellow stars and red giants, but the colours in the diagrams do not match the colours of the different stages. The red giant is pictured yellow as it explodes. And because the text explaining the process is not proximal to the image, it is confusing. As an experienced reader, I will take the time to work it out, but most young readers will skip on to the next page, none the wiser.

Publishers that have impressed me recently with the clarity of design include What on Earth Publishing, b small, Walker Books, Scallywag Press, Phaidon and Nosy Crow.

Choosing nonfiction for the classroom

So bearing all of this in mind, here are some of the criteria we use when choosing nonfiction books for our collections, and especially for our Take One Book programme.

  • Is the book engaging? Does it engage us? Do we think it will engage children?
  • Is the writer’s voice friendly, knowledgeable, authoritative, speculative, thoughtful, didactic, or patronising?
  • Can we make an assessment of the writer’s authority on a subject? Have experts been consulted? Is this made clear to readers?
  • Are some sources cited (without the text becoming bogged down)? Is this information addressed to the child reader, or is it assumed that there is an adult reading the end matter?
  • Does the book invite the reader to question?
  • Is provisional language used where appropriate (probably, possible, estimated, it is thought that)
  • Does the writer try to connect with the reader’s likely knowledge and experience to build new knowledge and understanding?
  • Is the design attractive? Does the design enhance the reading experience or inhibit it?
  • Are the illustrations, diagrams, charts etc, informative? Are drawn, and photographic illustrations used to their best effect. Are they given enough space?
  • Is technical vocabulary introduced clearly? If a glossary is needed, are the definitions easy to understand and child-friendly?

Are we in a golden age of children’s nonfiction publishing?

Finally, to return to the question we started with. Well, there is plenty to celebrate. The nonfiction phoenix has risen from the ashes it appeared to be consigned to a decade ago. I am constantly delighted by the variety and original perspectives of nonfiction publishing, whether it’s Black History from a musical perspective, geopolitics viewed through the lens of physical geography, the life of a stone age hunter-gatherer from an author’s first-hand experience of living like our stone age ancestors or observations of the natural world from the perspective of a 13-year-old naturalist. We have a pool of highly talented writers and illustrators, many of them experts in the subjects they are writing about. And there are some highly creative publishers who also keep in mind the needs of young readers. But there is room for improvement, too, as this brief blog suggests. I can’t wait to see what the next few months have in store.