Hand Kids Some Great Nonfiction!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 9th, 2012

In a discussion on the ccbc-net listserv about the Michael L. Printz Award turning 13 this year (awww, the teen award is becoming a teen! kudos to clever CCBC Director Kathleen T. Horning for noting this anniversary), some interesting observations were made about the overwhelming preponderance of fiction in the winner and honor lists.

Some members felt that publishers are not making enough room on their lists for nonfiction these days; others theorized that specific nonfiction awards like the ALSC‘s Robert F. Sibert Award and the NCTE‘s Orbus Pictus Award have contributed to a perhaps subconscious prioritizing of fiction in the general awards. A few souls decried the lack of excellent nonfiction available for contemporary kids and teens, but their protests were quickly countered by many passionate nonfiction lovers, who pointed to authors and titles that not only they, but their students, love passionately.

As a bookseller, I do notice many things about how nonfiction for kids reaches its end user. I notice that it can be all too easy to recommend only fiction to young readers. We can fall into the lazy and erroneous trap of assuming kids will prefer fiction, that they will associate nonfiction with school and reports and unwanted required reading. We can forget how interested in the world kids are, and how much they yearn to learn and know things, to discover and pursue passions for history, the natural world, sports, science, animals, the lives of fascinating people.

It’s possible there’s a gender piece operating here. We know from reading habits among adults (sweeping generalization alert!) that men tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, and the reverse is generally true of women. Of course there are myriad exceptions to this, but anyone who works in a bookstore can probably attest to the general truth of this divide. And because children’s bookselling is predominantly a female field, and because more moms than dads shop for books for their kids (at least at our store, but I suspect in others, too), I wonder if we booksellers sometimes unconsciously bring our own preferences into play and lean heavily toward recommending fiction to kids searching for pleasure reading.

It’s worth reminding ourselves and our staff not to overlook nonfiction, to read and review and share book talks with each other that will hook kids the same way we lure them into fiction.

I do think publishers can help promote their children’s nonfiction better to young readers themselves, by making sure the books have visual appeal. Adult nonfiction has great cover art, but sometimes the kids’ books look, well, dull. Also, it would be fantastic if publishers provided the kinds of promo hooks — the one-liners that grab readers — we get for fiction titles. These, along with a fantastic review quote or two, could appear on the jackets. Heck, have Rick Riordan or John Green blurb some great nonfiction and see what happens. (Kidding, but not really.)

And booksellers? Let’s challenge ourselves to throw two nonfiction titles in with every stack of potential reads we hand to our young customers. I’m creating a database of fantastic, kid-appealing nonfiction for youth here, and welcome suggestions.

Readers, what 2012 nonfiction titles are you reading and loving? And — what is the one-sentence hook you’d use to entice a reader to pick them up?