Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Has Come a Long Way, Baby

Not so long ago—just 10 or 15 years ago—nonfiction for kids was very different. It looked different and it was written differently.

It consisted of big blocks of terse text. The design was uninspired at best, and completely ignored at worst. Occasional images acted more like decorations than as powerful teaching tools that extend and expand the book’s message. The term “sidebar” hadn’t been invented yet. And in books for middle school and high school students, color was a rarity.

Today’s nonfiction for kids is vibrant and fun and, in some cases, even participatory. We’ve come a long way, Baby.

Why has nonfiction changed so much in just a decade or so? That’s a question I’ll be examining here over the next few weeks. The first reason is financial, which is to say that publishing is a business. And publishers make books that they think, they hope will sell. And when times get tough, the stakes increase.

About 80 percent of all children's nonfiction titles are sold to schools and libraries. That was great in the 1980s and 1990s when teachers were able to find lots of creative ways to integrate children’s literature into their lesson plans.

But then 2001 rolled around. That’s the year the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. And everything changed. Suddenly educators had to teach to the test. They no longer had much time for creative teaching strategies, and they had to greatly reduce their use of trade books in the classroom.

During the last decade, many schools have eliminated school librarian positions and even closed school libraries all together. At the same time, public library budgets have been slashed.

So with fewer sales outlets and less funding available, successful nonfiction books must really stand out from the crowd. And that means nonfiction authors and publishers have to work harder than ever before if they want buyers to choose their titles.

The resulting changes have affected art and text and designed—creating exciting and dynamic new products. Next week we’ll take a look at changes in design.

1 comment:

  1. As a Grade 4 Teacher in the 90's, even I was often bored by the non-fiction books available. If I was bored, how was I supposed to get my students to enjoy those books?

    I am trilled by the improvements in non-fiction for kids. I'm not convinced NCLB has lead to less books being purchased, however. With high stakes testing especially focused on Reading, Writing, and Math, teachers are more dependent on good reading material than ever. I would suggest that the changes in non-fiction mirror the changes in picture books over the last decade- less words, more engaging formats and illustrations (or photos).

    I also wonder if the recent focus on reluctant readers, especially boy readers, has led to some of these changes. Boys tend to favor non-fiction over fiction. And they tend to favor books with lots of action and humor (Fish Farts, anyone?).

    I remember certain books standing out in my classroom. The ones that were more like today's books are the ones my students and I went to again and again (e.g. This Place is High by Vicki Cobb, When Clay Sings by Byrd Baylor, Market! by Ted Lewin, among others). Your books and books by April Pulley Sayre are now favorites, as well.