Non-What?

by Lauren

Defined only by what it is not, non-fiction for children is seen as the poor relation in books. These books are never reviewed, rarely commented on and mostly overlooked. Adult non-fiction is prestigious and lucrative – Bill Bryson and Brian Cox are household names – but can you name one author of children’s non-fiction? Or even an established author that has had a go at it? (Jan Mark has, by the way, as well as Michael Ford – the guy who writes the Beastquest books)

It’s not like it doesn’t sell – the market in non-fiction for children and young adults grew by 4.5% in 2009 – and many people (librarians and teachers included) hold it as the key to encouraging boys to read. Apparently they prefer to read about ‘real life’. Non-fiction can provide a ‘credibility’, and because non-fiction is – now this may come as a shock – just like fiction, it can ensure 8-14 year old boys do not one day just stop reading.

How is non-fiction just like fiction? When it comes down to it, they are no different at all, because a successful non-fiction book hinges on stories too. The story of a Roman stable-boy, or the story of how plants grow. These stories may be informed by history, science or geography, but they are ultimately stories and therefore have a beginning, middle and end, an engaging plot and coherent structure. In The Amber Spyglass one of the major themes is how stories shape us as we grow, and not just fictional stories, but the stories of others and stories we take part in. Non-fiction writing provides us with many of those stories, and reminds us that many of the timeless themes in fiction recur throughout history, nature and science. I still remember when I first learnt about the Holocaust as a seven-year-old – it was the first time I was aware that evil existed outside the pages of a book. I had one book of funny failures in science that I poured over – and my eighteen-year-old self reaped the benefits by impressing a prospective boyfriend’s parents with her knowledge of the Piltdown Man. I often wonder if they would be less impressed knowing that this science hater knew it because a book read ten years ago had managed to present the subject in a way I found engaging and entertaining. I re-read this book only at the weekend, and I am still fascinated. Why are the sources that provide us with this type of nourishment at a young age regarded as inferior or even unworthy?

That stories are vital to non-fiction is evident through the existence of the sub-genre ‘narrative non-fiction’, which is usually a novel written about a specific period or event in history. The only difference between these books and fiction is the level of research that goes into them, and the starting point of a real event in history. Yet these books are not reviewed alongside fiction in the media. They are ignored.

Many publishing houses are doing truly exciting things with non-fiction, aside from narrative non-fiction. Walker Books publishes an excellent book on Gaia theory for 11-14 year olds, entitled Gaia Warriors, complete with a foreward by James Lovelock. An innovative approach and beautiful design ensure not just an informative experience, but an entertaining and aesthetically pleasing one. There are beautiful non-fiction picturebooks for younger age groups – including one about different types of animal poo. And yet this diversity and innovation is not recognised by the media or by institutions like our own. It seems that because these stories are ‘true’, they are not worthy of the same merit.

Perhaps this all springs from its ‘non’ status. No one celebrates it for what it is, just marginalises it because of what it is not.

Does anyone else have any non-fiction books they still remember from childhood? What do you think are the barriers to studying a work of ‘narrative non-fiction’ in the same way we would a work of fiction?

Lauren is a former MPhil student who is now working for an international publishing house in London.

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4 comments

  1. I so completely agree with you Lauren. My brain still conjures up very vivid images of dinosaurs, Ancient Egypt or the cycle of water whenever I hear about these various subjects – and it all comes from non-fiction. Love the article x

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  2. As a child, I was an avid reader of non-fiction texts, and reread favourites in the same way that people read novels. As far as I remember, the attractions were similar: entering another world, imbibing atmosphere, inhabiting possible futures. As Margaret Meek says in the best work I've read on (as she calls them) 'information texts' (though I'd be interested to hear if anyone can recommend others), 'stories nest in every kind of text'.

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  3. At the first Write Away conference, Margaret Meek Spencer put out a plea to re-christen non-fiction, because as you rightly say, to be known as 'non' anything is not good! I'mnot aware that anyone has come up with a new definitive term…

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