Let’s hear it for children’s non-fiction
If you are a writer of non-fiction for children and young people you have just a month to submit your opus magnum, or at least your most recent book, for a chance to win the £2,000 prize – the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) Award for Educational Writing.
Administered by Society of Authors, the prize is for an outstanding example of traditionally published non-fiction that stimulates and enhances learning. It alternates from year to year between the primary and secondary age range. The 2012 prize is for a book aimed at 12-16 year olds.
Five years ago I was chair of the Society of Authors’ Education Writers’ Group whose idea this was. In fact we’d been trying to get it off the ground for some time. Then the ALCS agreed to sponsor the prize and it took off.
So why were we so keen to raise the profile of non-fiction for children? Because it’s a Cinderella genre. Almost everything you read about children’s reading focuses on fiction. Even The School Librarian – the quarterly School Library Association Journal for which I’m a regular reviewer – devotes only a small section to non-fiction.
Many books for children are bought by someone the publishers call ‘Graunty’ – a composite of grandparents, aunties and other relations who give children books at Christmas and on birthdays. Books have to appeal to her or she won’t buy them. Does she buy non-fiction? No, not often. So that’s another de-motivating factor for publishers compiling lists.
Of course there are plenty of factual books in school classrooms which painstakingly spell out everything to do with science, history, geography and so on as required by the National Curriculum. But what about non-fiction books which are so exciting and interesting that the young reader grabs them and devours them for pleasure – as I, for example, remember doing aged about 10 with suitable biographies of ever-fascinating ‘heroines’ such as Marie Curie and Elizabeth Fry? I was also in love with the romance of Easter Island and would read anything about it I could lay my hands on. Boys often gravitate to books about dinosaurs or football.
Even way we designate this genre is absurd and unhelpful, When Stewart Ross took the 2011 prize for his lovely book Moon: Apollo 11 and beyond – a gloriously eclectic mix of science, history, literature, music, folklore and religion published by the Oxford University Press – he observed at the awards ceremony that it is very odd to define something by what it is not: “non” fiction. And of course he’s right. But it’s hard to come up with an acceptable alternative.
‘Educational writing’ is, arguably, even worse because it sounds off-puttingly, almost perjoratively, good for you rather than something you’re meant to enjoy. One can sympathise a bit with Terry ‘Horrible Histories’ Deary, one of the few non-fiction writers for children whose books sell by the million – with help from other media such as TV, DVDs, stage shows and merchandising. He recently told The London Evening Standard, cultivating his usual deliberate outrageousness, that he’d like to sue any school that uses his books in class.
I doubt that he’ll stop it though: I’ve reviewed all the ‘Horrible Histories’ shows in The Stage, including the current performance of The Barmy Britons, and I’ve never yet been to one of these shows without there being several school parties in the audience.
Children certainly enjoy the ‘Horrible Histories’ style. But is it the case that, as a group of academics, including Cambridge’s David Abulafia (who came up with a somewhat contentious list of must-know historical milestones for children) alleged last week that, in Deary’s books, history is trivialised to such an extent that it’s distorted?
Actually every ‘Horrible Histories’ book packs a lot of facts in its jokey and irreverent way. For instance, I came away from the Barmy Britons show disturbed to have learned that a total of 50,000 people – yes, 50,000 – were executed at Tyburn, now the site of Marble Arch.
I’m not sure, though, that we need to go entirely down the ‘Horrible Histories’ route, although there’s obviously a place for it. I’d like to see many more whimsical, imaginative and engaging books for children – like Stewart Ross’s Moon – occupying the centre stage alongside fiction books.
Not every child likes fiction. My father, an enthusiastic consumer of factual books of all sorts, swore he’d never read a fiction book since outgrowing the teachers who’d forced him to it. We should be leading children like him to books which tell real life ‘stories’ of all sorts.
The ALCS Society of Authors Award raises a bit of awareness and is a good start. But it’s time to take Cinderella to a much bigger ball. Publishers, writers and ‘graunties’ please take note.Tagged in: 12-16 year olds, ALCS, barmy britons, book, books, children, christmas gift, education, educational writing, fiction, friction, graunty, horrible histories, literature, moon, non-fiction, publishing, School Library Association Journal, scribble, Society of Authors' Education Writers’ Group, teen, terry deary, tween, writing
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