Children’s Nonfiction Has an Image Problem

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s no secret that many adults enjoy reading nonfiction, and as a result, in the adult publishing world, fiction and nonfiction are respected equally. Major book awards routinely include separate categories for fiction and nonfiction, as have the New York Times bestsellers lists since their inception in 1931.

But as Cynthia Levison, Jennifer Swanson, and I wrote in PW last year, nonfiction for kids has an image problem—at home, at school, and in the media. Despite a robust body of research showing that many children prefer nonfiction, and many more enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally, most adults mistakenly believe children prefer made-up stories.

As a result, well-intended parents favor fiction for bedtime reading, and most teachers automatically choose made-up stories for read alouds and book talks as well as science and social studies lessons. A 2015 study published in Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms found that only 17–22% of titles in elementary classroom libraries were nonfiction. This sends a powerful message to children—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.

“Children want their nonfiction books; adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, chief program officer for Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in education. “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”

A deeper dive into adults’ biased attitude toward nonfiction for children shows that the problem is especially egregious for books that explain STEM concepts.

. . . .

As a science writer who has published more than 200 nonfiction books for children since 1998, I’ve witnessed the exciting evolution of these books firsthand, and I’ve grappled with the bias against them—including my own.

During school visits, children frequently ask me if I’ll ever write fiction. Early in my career, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”

I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. In my professional life, I was surrounded by a community of people who prized stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.

I remember praising the innovative format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden.

Not long after that, while serving on a book award committee, a fellow judge campaigned for her favorite title by asking, “Didn’t it bring a little tear to your eye at the end?” One of the other judges, agreed that it had. But I didn’t answer. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t share their emotional connection to the book.

These comments, and others like them from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an

But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked the question, I finally decided to be honest.

I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. Because he wanted me to know what he was thinking without interrupting, he was using a nonverbal hand gesture popular in many U.S. schools.

“Me too,” he was saying. “I agree.” A moment later, a half dozen other students joined him.

I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “Children’s Nonfiction Has an Image Problem”

  1. Many children are omnivores (as I was). Fiction or non-fiction — it’s all new to a child. Even flat-out pedagogic non-fiction is useful — I may have found the primary point of grade-school “Lives of the Saints” unconvincing, but the glimpses of historic cities & cultures was eye-opening and caught my interest. Old favorites that are adult books now considered suitable for children (e.g., Lassie Come Home, The Jungle Book) are fascinating windows into places and times and people and attitudes.

    Natural history is always a winner (who doesn’t like a good dinosaur or dog book?), and “Famous Inventors” are fascinating not just for their characters and the science/engineering-du-jour, but also for their settings and context. Think of the discovery of mauve as an introduction to Victorian science, fashions, and the clothing industry.

    A good historical novel (Walter Scott, Dumas) is a better introduction to a place and time than endless hours of straight-up lecture. Novel first, then expand on its context — a winning combination, in my view. The surrounding curriculum writes itself.

  2. FWIW, I used to read tbe World Almanac cover to cover.
    I was like tbe robot in SHORT CIRCUIT.
    (Well, still am…)

  3. <sarcasm> This has nothing whatsoever to do with the dumbing-down of “children’s nonfiction” by people who don’t understand the material in the first place or prioritize assimilating into the Cleaver family over everything else. Nothing at all. Because, after all, the kids are too unsophisticated to spot when they’re being misled or outright lied to.<sarcasm>

    One example, from my misspent youth: A then-current-from-a-big-publisher history of World War II with a strong undercurrent — spotted by my fourth-grade self — that all Japanese were united against America… when I lived down the street from a former “resident” of Manzanar (not that author, it was before that book was first published).

    We won’t get into science books, especially “science biographies.” Just because it’s no longer the Cold War or “civil rights era” doesn’t mean anyone is going to tell kids about Rosalind Franklin… or the greater Curie. One must go to the adult section at the library to find that; almost never, however, the adult section of the bookstore, because that’s overrun by the latest fad-following stuff (even in the early 70s when I was first allowed “unsupervised access”).

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