Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Fiction or Nonfiction? What Kids Really Like to Read

On December 11, 2020, the article “Will My Grandkids Still Love Me If I Buy Them Nonfiction?” by Jay Mathews appeared in the Washington Post. Author Cynthia Levinson posted it on the NF Fest Facebook forum, sparking a lively discussion.

When Cynthia returned to the conversation a few hours later, she wrote, “I posted this in the hopes that we could respond. Anyone interested?” Jen Swanson and I jumped at the opportunity.

First, we drafted a letter to the editor of the Washington Post (which was never published). Then we queried Publisher Weekly to see if they’d be interested in publishing a response. They said “Yes,” and we got to work.

When our article Hey, Grownups! Kids Really Do Like Nonfiction,” appeared in PW on January 7, 2021, it received a terrific response. In fact, the Washington Post ended up reprinting the article on January 26, 2021.

Laura Backes of the
Children’s Book Insider invited us to discuss the article and all things nonfiction on the CBI Kidlit Distancing Social on February 2, 2021. Lionel Bender, Editorial Director of the UK-based book packager Bender Richardson White saw the program and contacted us to share his perspective “as a producer of children’s illustrated nonfiction for more than 40 years and as a person who has always had a strong preference for nonfiction.” Here’s what he had to say.

I believe that everyone involved in buying books for children should focus more attention on nonfiction. The impact these books have on children’s lives is tremendous. Here are some points I’d like the U.S. children’s literature community to consider.

Many Children Prefer Nonfiction to Fiction
Research shows that many children prefer nonfiction. Others enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally. Their reading choices are influenced by what is available to them, their age, what they are given and by whom, how attractive the books look, what interests them, and what is in fashion or “cool.”

The Top-20 lists that Mathews cites in his Washington Post article indicate readership or sales of individual titles. In those comparisons, fiction will always win because these titles are more heavily pushed by book outlets and more widely covered by reviewers, increasing their sales. Note that in national book award and prize competitions where children vote, nonfiction titles often win.

The Growing Popularity of Nonfiction Books
In the past two decades, children’s interests have changed significantly to the extent that they prefer and choose nonfiction more than ever before. Figures from Publishers Weekly and Nielsen BookScan show the sales of children’s nonfiction print books have been growing constantly and significantly for several years.

Print and digital books are completely different sensory experiences and educational tools, particularly for children and for very visual books. Most children’s nonfiction books are highly visual. Sales and readership of children’s print nonfiction will continue to increase as illustrators, designers, and publishers experiment more with artwork and new layouts and formats.

Today, children are surrounded by and bombarded with a continuous feed of information, making them more aware and interested in the world around them than ever before. They seek out nonfiction books to help them understand topics of interest, deal with issues that affect them, and contribute to the outside world.

Children’s nonfiction books now deal with “hot” topics previously covered only by young adult and grown-ups’ magazines, such as health and hygiene, food and cooking, fashion, gender issues, race, religion, environment, government, and politics.

Children Need Better Access to Nonfiction Books
Teachers, librarians, and parents have to work hard to find and explore the wealth of children’s nonfiction books available. The publishing industry should improve the supply chain to ensure all retail outlets can stock and better display and promote nonfiction.

Most bookstores do not have sufficiently large purchasing power to buy direct from publishers. They have to buy from wholesalers, which favor the fiction titles they think will sell quickly and not get stuck on warehouse shelves. Without an enticing range of nonfiction choices, many parents and grandparents will default to purchasing fiction for the children in their lives.

In schools, library and classroom book collections are fiction-heavy and the range of nonfiction books is limited. The increasing use of and reliance on digital books and online learning are probably major contributors to this.

Nonfiction books are invariably highly illustrated, making their purchase prices far higher than fiction. As a result, teachers and school librarians are very selective about nonfiction titles they buy. That means a good percentage of the printed nonfiction books in school library are dated and, therefore, unattractive to children.

Many schools purchase books based on guidance from state education departments and book distributors that filter out nonfiction titles on the basis of their science, gender, race, religion, or ethnicity content.

Trade and mass-market nonfiction books are often excluded from schools because they are not easily used as educational tools in classrooms. (Trade and mass-market publishers could probably do more to help here.)

Lionel Bender is the Editorial Director of book packager Bender Richardson White (BRW). He has edited more than 1,400 children’s illustrated nonfiction books and classroom materials for 35 different publishers in the UK and USA and written 72 children’s nonfiction books.

Lionel was the founder and co-organizer of the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, held in the U.S. from 2013 to 2016. He has been on the Faculty at SCBWI Regional Conferences and at the Highlights Foundation.

Writers, illustrators, and editors interested in opportunities in children’s nonfiction may wish to register for Lionel’s Children’s Book Insider webinars Writing Nonfiction for the School Library Market and The Children’s Nonfiction Market: How to Break In, How to Succeed.

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