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?

15 thoughts on “Hand Kids Some Great Nonfiction!

  1. Jeanette Larson

    Interesting topic. I’m getting ready to speak to a group of writers about writing non-fiction for young people. In my opinion some of the best titles have a broad appeal. Books mentioned by Hoose and Montgomery, for example, have as much appeal for adult readers. I’ve been pleased that my book on hummingbirds has sold equally well to adults as to kids. Some of these books are just shorter than the books written on the same subject for adults or they target in on a narrower subject within the topic. Good non-fiction can read as good as any novel.

  2. Cidney Swanson

    If you haven’t seen Elizabeth Rusch’s THE MIGHTY MARS ROVERS, it is wonderful and oh-so-topical. My thirteen yr old who “only likes YA, Mom,” lurved this full-of-pictures book. Great for space-geeks and space-wanna-geeks. (Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field books, summer 2012)

  3. Kathy M. Miller

    Educators often work with lists of ‘pairings’ of fiction with nonfiction. A book with a heroic character, can be paired with a biography of a real life hero. “The Lorax” could be paired with a book about the trees in your area. I wonder if
    displaying some pairings or posting your own list might increase the exposure of non-fiction titles.

  4. Rondi Brower

    Jennifer and Carol are both right – there are plenty of wonderful non-fiction titles out there, but we could use more biographies.
    Some of my favorites:
    anything by Seymour Simon (mostly HarperCollins) – kids love, love love the wonderful photographs and his explanations are succinct and clear.
    Anything written or illustrated by Hudson Talbott – the forthcoming “It’s All About Me-ow” (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 9/2012)is informative and hilarious.
    Anything by Doreen Rappaport. Her heart and soul went into “Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust” (Candlewick, 9/2012), a spectacular YA book with adult crossover appeal, but her research is always impeccable and the results wonderful. The newest one in her picture book biography series using many of the subject’s own words is “Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller.” (Hyperion) It doesn’t hurt that her illustrators have included the very talented Bryan Collier, Shane W. Evans and Matt Tavares.
    Any non-fiction by Emily Arnold McCully. Her spunky young people are inspiring and fun to read about. Two great ones – “The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux” (FSG) and “Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor” (FSG).
    For funs and grins (and a surprising amount of information) you can’t beat the really cute “ABC Zooborns!” by Andrew Bleiman and Chris Eastland (Beach Lane/S&S) or “A is for Musk Ox” by Erin Cabatingan and Matthew Myers (Roaring Brook, 10/2012).

  5. Kathy M. Miller

    There are books that combine aspects of fiction and nonfiction, such as Carl Sams II & Jean Stoick’s ‘Stranger in the Woods’ sreies. When I created the “Chippy Chipmunk” books, I chose to go the fiction route, but included fun facts in the back of the book. Fiction gave me more creative freedom and I felt it would have more impact. Kids can remember a story better than too many facts. Teaching about backyard nature is done through the photographs and a realistic story line. Funny things happen with wildlife, but not many nonfiction books make kids laugh.

  6. Carol Chittenden

    The internet has certainly made an impact on non-fiction by supplying (its version of) facts so quickly, easily, and cheaply. That places considerable pressure on authors and illustrators to make such a creative presentation that it flies far beyond what a mere wiki entry can do. Joyce Sidman and Steve Jenkins are two of the leaders, and once their books make it into paperback (if I live that long) they’ll do very well with birthday shoppers and gift certificate spenders. One area that’s still lagging is biographies for readers beyond the third grade level. Russell Freedman is superb, of course, but he should have more colleagues.

  7. Catherine Frank

    This point is such an important one: “We can forget how interested in the world kids are, and how much they yearn to learn and know things….” We all know a child whose favorite words are “did you know,” or we know someone who does. Why everyone – editors, publishers, librarians, booksellers, award committees – doesn’t embrace and encourage that is something I’ve never understood.

  8. Jennifer Schultz

    Wow–I think children’s/YA nonfiction has never been better. National Geographic consistently puts out fantastic and unique titles that are quite popular with our young patrons–the Face to Face series is wonderful, as are their photobiography series and their recent guide to national parks (which remains very popular–they really should put out a travel series for kids).

    I tend to get overwhelmed with the big Dorling Kindersley books, but they are extremely popular at our libraries. As for 2012 titles: some favorites off the top of my head have been the Temple Grandin biography by Sy Montgomery and The Fairy Ring by Mary Losure.

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