Non-Fiction: Who’s Borrowing? Who’s Buying?

Alison Morris - October 11, 2007

Okay, booksellers AND librarians — weigh in on this discussion, would you? I’ve been having an interesting e-mail conversation this week with Elizabeth Vaccaro, the Media Specialist at Hillside Elementary School in Needham, Mass. Here’s the pared-down progress of our exchange so far:

Elizabeth: I wish I had been able to hear Steve Jenkins [when he visited Wellesley Bookstore on Sept. 29th]. He’s one of the best authors for those many children who only want non-fiction.

Me: What books do your devoted non-fiction readers seem the most drawn to? Any types of books or subjects in particular? I’m forever trying to get our non-fiction sales to pick up a bit but find that most browsers (apart from teachers and librarians) just skip the non-fiction section entirely, which is sad.

Elizabeth: How interesting because non-fiction is my biggest area of circulation. I have a hard time getting children to choose fiction, and I even have to legislate "at least one from the fiction side." This is particularly true among second grade boys and less able readers of all grades. Jon Scieszka writes about how boys read, and while the boys I’ve asked disagree with some of his points (some really like to lose themselves in books, for example), I see a lot of boys prefer the perusing, fact-finding type of reading.

Pet books of all types are the most popular. Sports books, especially of favorite teams, animal books. The kids like photographs and enough text to tell them something, not just one or two lines of information. (They consider those baby books here.)

Maybe they are popular at school because they aren’t allowed to buy these types of books?

I was particularly intrigued by Elizabeth’s final question, so when Lisa Rogers of Hardy Elementary School in Wellesley stopped by the store yesterday afternoon I asked for her observations. Are the students at her school flocking to the library’s non-fiction section? NO, was Lisa’s emphatic answer. It seems the Hardy students, like most of our store’s young customers, are moths to the fiction flame.

Hmmm… Is this a Needham/Wellesley dividing line? Does our store need to move one town over to talk more families into owning biographies and nature books? I suspect the answer’s not anywhere near that simple, but I’d love to hear some others weigh in with their experiences.

What’s hotter with the young browsers in your store or library, fiction or non-fiction? And have you got any theories as to WHY? If so, Elizabeth, Lisa, and I would love to hear them!

14 thoughts on “Non-Fiction: Who’s Borrowing? Who’s Buying?

  1. Marc Aronson

    I write about this all the time in my blog over on the SLJ site — Nonfiction Matters — I think our industry favors fiction, while our readers are much more open-minded in their tastes.

  2. Beth Revis

    I’m an English teacher–high school, which is a bit older than what I think you’re asking. By and far, though, fiction. They HATE nonfiction, whatever the topic. If they’re interested in a subject, they’d rather read a fictionalized account rather than a nonfiction.

  3. Kris Bordessa

    I’m not a bookseller OR librarian, but I’ll chime in. My oldest had read through the entire section of the library’s juvenile NF section by the time he was 7 or so (this in spite of a big collection at home). Loved NF. My youngest son, not so much. So that may very well just be a personal taste thing. But there is a subset to consider: home educators. As a home educator myself, I find that we (and the people we know) spend an awful lot of money on NF books and not nearly so much on fiction. NF lasts and we go back to it again and again, whereas most fiction novels are read once. I’d much rather borrow fiction from the library and save my dollars for good NF.

  4. Sandra Markle

    I’m an author who has devoted thirty years to making non-fiction as involving as fiction. It’s actually been easy to do because the real world is totally amazing. The key I’ve discovered is to find dynamite photos that let children explore and discover what they can’t easily see for themselves–or things around them they might not normally notice. Most recently, I’ve been writing faction–fictional, could happen stories based on real-life facts. My ANIMAL PREDATOR books published by Lerner fall into that category as do my Charlesbridge books for younger readers: A MOTHER’S JOURNEY, LITTLE LOST BAT, and shortly FINDING HOME. I believe fiction stories have there place, but its non-fiction that gives kids a world to grow up in. Are children reading non-fiction? They must be as I receive letters asking me to please write more.


    As a kid, I read only fiction; I didn’t like nf. As an adult, I began to read a lot more nf, and when I started writing, I began to write nf. I love it now (still like fiction too, of course). As a teacher, I’ve had many high school kids (both boys and girls) who didn’t want to read fiction because it wasn’t real; they were always asking, “Is this a true story?” and were disappointed if it wasn’t. I took a children’s writing class several years ago; there were 18 students and each student got to submit 2 manuscripts, for a total of 36 in the class. Of those 36, 35 were fiction MSs to 1 nf (one of my two). At least some of the critiques from my classmates implied that they had no idea what nf was (“This sounds like an informational brochure”). I think for many people, “children’s book” is synonymous with “story”, so they don’t even consider nf as possible. I’ve now sold my first book, and when people ask me about it and I explain that it’s a book about plants and seeds, I can see their faces change — oh, THAT kind of book, not a cute book about cats in hats, or something. I feel that my book is a story, just not a human story. I think that in the publishing world, too, fiction and nf are two completely different animals, with different publishers specializing in each; many editors will not even consider nf, I presume because it doesn’t sell as well? On the other hand, the odds of getting published in nf seem to be a lot better: I’ve sold my first book, while my friends from that class are still struggling to sell their fiction! If the odds are 35 fiction MSs to 1 nf, as in my writing class, it’s not that surprising: there’s a lot less competition on the nf side, even if it has fewer outlets. I think they’re two different kinds of books, and if a reader is expecting one kind, the other is a disappointment. If you want a story, a beautiful narrative, much nonfiction seems disappointingly flat and tentative; nf writers can’t tell you too much beyond the facts they know. If you want to learn facts, history, information, then fiction stories seem frivolous, sugar-coating facts to make them easier to swallow. I think they’re two different animals, appealing to different reasons for reading.

  6. M. Smith

    I work in an elementary school library, and I see a gender difference. The boys check out mostly non-fiction and the girls fiction. The animal books most popular are those about animals in the wild, not pets.

  7. marc aronson

    I have enjoyed reading this discussion — but, as I keep urging, there is no reason why NF need by “flat and tentative” — it certainly is not for many adult authors. So be of good courage, we who write NF for younger readers should aim to be just as engaging, startling, truth-telling, as the best adult authors.

  8. Donna MacKinney

    I’m currently a middle school librarian. My students read a lot of nonfiction – inspirational books (Chicken Soups), animal books, history (lots of WWII), books about vehicles of all kinds, weapons both current and historical, list books, – you name it. I’ve also worked with preschoolers and they, too, love nonfiction. Adults mostly head for story books…kids gravitate toward nonfiction very often if left to their own inclinations

  9. Jeannine Atkins

    And then there are those great books that use some fictional techniques to approach information. Hank Green, who reviewed The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon and Tracking Trash by Loree Griffin Burns in yesterday’s (Oct. 14) NYT Book Review, admired the authors’ use of story to emphasize the deftly presented science he found there. He says of Burns’s book, “It’s a science text, but there’s a bit of detective novel thrown in as well.”

  10. ShelfTalker

    I’m so enjoying everyone’s responses to this and thrilled to see so many come out in support of non-fiction! Marc Aronson, I completely agree with you — I think the important thing to remember is that non-fiction books are often compelling, engaging reads. The trick seeems to be in communicating that to the many people who’ve apparently been led to believe otherwise. Perhaps their school libraries included primarily the “flat and tentative” stuff, back in the day. Now that so many adults are falling in love with literary non-fiction, though, hopefully they’ll realize that stuff of the same high quality and interest level is also being written for their children.

  11. ShelfTalker

    Jeannine, I too love the emerging tendency to invoke reader’s curiosity by setting up a non-fiction mystery of sorts. I think Phillip Hoose did an excellent job with that in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird and love too the way Karen Levine unravels the threads of Hana’s Suitcase. This year I saw some of the same elements at work in The Secret of Priest’s Grotto by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola.

  12. Jan M.

    My experience as a children’s bookseller is that kids gravitate toward well-illustrated nonfiction on displays (Gail Gibbons, Steve Jenkins, ANYTHING with T. Rex on the cover, for example), browse through it, and point out the cool stuff to siblings and friends. Some parents then insist they pick out a “reading book” (i.e., fiction) to buy. They don’t realize that they’re making reading an unpleasant experience for the kids.

  13. Phoebe

    When I was at the Sprague library on Wednesday mornings the year before last, the kids (especially boys) much preferred nonfiction (pet books, animal books, sports books, LOTS of crafts books/cookbooks) to fiction. This seemed to be more phased-out the older the kids got though — like third graders liked fiction more than K/1st graders and 5th graders liked fiction yet more. Of course, in the Booksmith fiction is much more preferred I think both by kids and especially grownups buying for kids. I think nonfiction is a little harder sell because you have to be interested in the subject material as well as the writing whereas good fiction writing can be compelling where specific themes aren’t. Then again, there is some nonfiction writing that’s so good it could be about anything, but I think that is more rare.

  14. Myra Oleynik

    As a K-3 library media specialist, my students check out non-fiction more often than any other genre. They prefer those books with stunning close-up photographs on the the covers and inside. Pets, dirt bikes, animals, crafts, Waldo and I Spy books are the favs.


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