Is non-fiction dead? Insights from a Book Week Judge

Book week judge review Australian non-fiction books

Not That I’ve finished my stint as a CBCA Book Week Judge for the Eve Pownall Information Book Category, it’s finally safe to reveal a dirty secret I’ve held for too long. (I figure I can’t be kicked off the judging panel now…).

I used to think non-fiction was dead.

Google was becoming the world’s most popular source of information and students just weren’t going to need outdated non-fiction books anymore. It surely didn’t make sense to waste the school’s money on buying more…

This incredibly short sighted view fortunately only lasted until I learned that non-fiction books should make up 50% of class libraries.

50 percent!

Why?

Because they build background knowledge and a curiosity for learning, are the preferred genre of reading for many students (including many male students and students on the autism spectrum) and because MOST of the reading we do in our adult lives is actually non-fiction (so we may as well prepare our students for it now).

When the opportunity came up to join the book week judging panel I was thrilled! Besides being a life-long dream (albeit to judge the picture story book category) I wanted to update my knowledge of non-fiction writing for children in Australia.

As a part of my role, I read loads of books across a wide range of topics and with varying effectiveness as far as non- fiction writing for children goes.

Today I am going to share 3 insights I gained about non-fiction writing that have implications for how we teach this style of writing in schools.

The Goldilocks principle for pitching

Effective information writing is pitched at just the right level to make the information accessible to the reader. It’s not dumbed down so much that it’s patronizing, nor is it pitched so high that it becomes confusing. Like baby bear’s bed, it’s juuuuust right.

This is an incredibly difficult balancing act, but one I think all this year’s shortlisted books managed to do well.

Teaching implications:

Writers need to have their reader front of mind when they’re writing, revising and editing. (Which means they actually have to know who their audience is).

Pitching at the right level means considering things like choice of vocabulary, the amount, type and structure of information, assumptions about prior knowledge and even the type, amount and layout of supporting graphics.

Tip: To help make sure they’re pitching their writing at the correct level, encourage students to check in with their intended audience throughout the writing process to get feedback.

Focusing on the unGoogleable

It wasn’t an intentional decision by the Eve Pownall judges, however all (bar one) of this year’s shortlisted books are told in a non-fiction narrative formative.

With Google’s omnipresence in the world, this reflects the way readers want their information delivered nowadays; we want more than the usual facts and data that Google can already give us.

What us modern readers really want is the non-googleable stuff; we want feelings and emotions with our information. Just as Carole Wilkinson has managed to do with her book Matthew Flinders: Adventures on Leaky Ships, we want to go beyond the facts to learn about the people and the stories that underpin them.

Teaching implications:

In a world where we’re drowning with information, it’s a case of, ‘facts tell, stories sell.’

When teaching students about non-fiction writing though, I wonder how often they’re being exposed to (and encourage to replicate) the narrative format as a way of getting their information across?

The old style of non-fiction writing (think Dorling Kindersley and World Book Encyclopedia) is being left on the shelf in preference for non-fiction writing that moves or engages us in addition to informing us. The Shortlisted book, Azaria by Maree Coote, is the perfect example of this.

Is the instruction students are receiving about informative writing in schools reflecting this change in reader preferences?

Another form of non-fiction writing we need to be championing in classrooms is what I call the ‘Claire Saxby style’ of including a narrative text in addition to the nonfiction text. Since Claire received a notable and shortlisting for her books Big Red Kangaroo and Emu, this style has gained popularity, with several books this year being written in this format. These include:

Shortlisted

Notables

HOW as well as WHAT

Good non-fiction writers consider how their reader will interact with their text: will they read it from start to finish (as with books such as Azaria, Matthew Flinders: Adventures on Leaky Ships and Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish)? Or are they more likely to dip in and out of the book, reading specific pages or chapters as they see fit? (As with The Encyclopedia of Dangerous Animals by Sami Bayly).

Being clear on how a writer expects a reader to interact with their text is evidenced by the decisions they make around the use of supporting text structures such as glossaries, indexes, author’s notes and even contents pages.

Teaching implication

Students often learn about non-fiction text structures in reading, but there’s a real opportunity here to strengthen the reading-writing connection by also examining them as writers.

When might you include an index in your writing? How would you organize it? Remember: The writer always needs to consider how they can ease the reading experience for their audience.

In terms of glossaries- how might you select which words should be added to your glossary? How will you let the reader know the word is featured in the glossary? Or that there even IS a glossary? (I was surprised by how many non-fiction texts didn’t bold glossary words- despite us telling kids all the time that we know it will be in the glossary if it’s bolded).

 

I’m so grateful for the opportunity I received from the Children’s Book Council of Australia to be on the judging panel for the Eve Pownall award for 2021.

I learned that non-fiction reading and writing is so much more vibrant and dynamic than it’s known for, and my hope moving forward is that this vibrancy is reflected in the way we teach non-fiction writing in schools.

Modern non-fiction is much more than the regurgitation of voiceless facts and information- it’s a beautiful mix of writerly passion, curiosity, insight, inspiration and empowerment. For the reader, it’s a chance to learn and to think deeply. It provides topics for discussion with friends and family and vital background knowledge that will serve to support all future reading and learning. That’s a huge task!

I once completely underestimated the power, importance and value of non-fiction books for children.

I’m here to tell you now that non-fiction is not dead.

It’s actually more important than ever- so you’d better start stocking your library up quick smart!

What are your thoughts on non-fiction reading and writing in schools? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or join the conversation on the Oz Lit teacher Facebook Group.


Eve Pownall Shortlisted Books for 2021:

Eve Pownall Notables for 2021

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