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Exploring a Quandary: Kids Love Nonfiction, But Adults Assume They Don’t

By Melissa Stewart

Take a moment to consider these dueling headlines:

“Will My Grandkids Still Love Me If I Buy Them Nonfiction?” The Washington Post, December 12, 2020.

Nonfiction Is Cool, and Our Kids Know It.” Scientific American, December 3, 2021.

In the first piece, columnist Jay Matthews claims: “the books students choose to read are almost always fiction.”

In the second, science writer Amanda Baker says Matthews’s question is “rooted in adults’ perception of what children like and . . .  belies the fact that we are in a ‘golden age’ for children’s nonfiction.”

The truth is many adults have the same misconception as Jay Matthews. They believe children prefer made-up stories, even though a robust body of research shows that as many as 75 percent of young readers enjoy nonfiction as much as or more than fiction. 

“Children want their nonfiction books, adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, Chief Program Officer for Room to Read. “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”

In the adult publishing world, nonfiction book sales are strong because when readers have the power to select their own books, they often choose nonfiction. Our love of facts is what makes the TV show Jeopardy! so popular, and it’s the reason the Guinness Book of World Records is a bestseller year after year. People of all ages enjoy learning and sharing facts, stats, ideas, and information.

“[T]here are those of us who are passionate about nonfiction, as children and as adults,” says Jayme Bosioa research librarian at the Palm Beach County Library System in Florida. “We cherish these books for the knowledge they provide.”

And yet, well-intended parents continue to favor fiction for bedtime reading. Teachers automatically opt for made-up stories for read alouds, book talks, book clubs, and even science and social studies lessons. A 2015 study found that only 17 to 22 percent of titles in classroom libraries were nonfiction. This sends a powerful negative message to children—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.

Why do so many adults have unfounded assumptions about children’s reading preferences?

Maybe it’s because they prefer fiction themselves and take for granted that children feel the same way. Or maybe they recall being required to read dry, encyclopedic texts when they were young and have no idea how much the genre has changed and expanded in recent years. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that some adults routinely buy fiction for the children in their lives, even though they prefer to read nonfiction themselves. 

So the question becomes: How can we raise public awareness of all that today’s nonfiction has to offer young readers? How can we change adult attitudes?

In January 2022, Mary Ann Cappiello, Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, hatched a clever plan to do just that and enlisted the help of her friend and colleague Xenia Hadjioannou, Associate Professor of Language and Literacy Education at Penn State University. 

Together, the literacy experts and nonfiction enthusiasts penned a letter to the nation’s most trusted source for book recommendations, The New York Times Book Review, requesting three children’s nonfiction bestseller lists—picture book, middle grade, and young adult—to parallel their existing lists, which focus on fiction. 

“[A]l too often,” they pointed out in the letter, “children, parents, and teachers do not know about recently published nonfiction books. . . If families, caregivers, and educators were aware of the high-quality nonfiction that is published for children every year, the reading lives of children and their educational experiences could be significantly enriched.” 

Bestseller lists can play a key role. The letter concludes: “by adding a set of nonfiction bestseller lists for young people, The New York Times can help ensure that more children, tweens, and teens have access to books they love.”

 On Valentine’s Day, Cappiello and Hadjioannou submitted the letter with the signatures of more than 500 educators and librarians. It was also published on twenty blogs that serve the children’s literature community and amplified on social media as part of the #KidsLoveNonfiction campaign. 

By the end of the day, the letter had more than 1,200 signatures, and after two weeks, it had nearly 2,100 individual signatures as well as organizational signatures from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Children’s Literature Assembly of NCTE, the Cybils Awards Board of Directors, and the New Jersey Association of School Librarians.

This enthusiastic response filled Cappiello and Hadjioannou with hope. But on February 28, The New York Times responded, saying they had no plan to add children’s nonfiction bestseller lists.  

Not surprisingly, many people were disappointed. 

“The omission of children’s nonfiction bestseller lists effectively silences half the readers out there,” said Kate Narita, a fourth-grade teacher and children’s book author. “This is one reason many educators don’t have a 50-50 representation of fiction and nonfiction texts in our spaces.”

 “I was upset by the response,” said aftercare teacher Debbie Elizabeth Cajas. “These lists would help me get nonfiction book donations for my class library. If parents see a book being recommended by a well-respected source, they don’t have to wonder about what they’re buying.”

“It’s so sad that this is something we even have to petition for,” added Hanh Bui, a former second grade teacher and children’s book author. “Nonfiction is important in children’s literature because knowledge is both validating and empowering.”

Finely crafted nonfiction children’s books have the power to inform, inspire, and get kids fired up about learning. They feature stunning visuals, dynamic design, and rich language that captivate curious minds and invite children to think about topics in new and exciting ways. 

Quite simply, these books are the perfect way to engage kids—of all ages. And research supports this by clearly showing that nonfiction can enhance a child’s literacy development and fuel their natural sense of wonder about the world and how it works.

So even though we won’t see nonfiction bestseller lists for children anytime soon, there’s still reason for optimism. “The idea is out there,” says retired special education teacher and children’s book author Suzanne Jacobs Lipshaw. “That’s step one.”  

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 200 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the Sibert Medal Honoree Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. She co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Booksedited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, and maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Nonfiction. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.

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