Sunday 15 November 2020

What's All The Fuss About Non-Fiction - and how on earth do you choose from so many books?


One of the things I love about November is its focus on non-fiction: the Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG) uses this month to “celebrate all things factual” while the School Library Association (SLA) holds its Information Book Awards (IBA). Although I’ve always got a fiction book or two (or three or four) on the go, looking at my bookshelves you’d be forgiven for thinking I preferred non-fiction. This is partly because I pass on a lot of my fiction books or borrow them from my public library but I hoard my non-fiction and find it difficult to let go of them. I can weed any school library collection to within an inch of its life but hands-off my personal stuff!

This has resulted in a rather esoteric collection over the years. Most of the non-fiction books I buy are linked to interests or hobbies – so I’ve got knitting books alongside travel guides, books on photography and architecture sitting next to stuff on fantasy art and painting, then there’s my CPD collection about books, reading, libraries and all things connected. I have Jim Morrison’s poetry sharing space with Kaffe Fassett’s needlework and Prince Charles “A Personal View of Architecture” (I did warn you) …

As discussed in my previous blog, there are numerous advantages in reading non-fiction – improved vocabulary, exposure other cultures, increased general knowledge amongst others – and when reading non-fiction is done for pleasure it replicates the benefits of reading fiction. I also mention several ways that non-fiction can be promoted in the library and school but what about choosing it for the school library? How do you decide what to stock when you have a limited budget and shelf capacity?

The two organisations above, the FCBG and SLA, are both good starting points: each year the IBA shortlists feature books for all ages and the FCBG has a “100 brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people” list. However, these suggestions need to be considered in the light of the following:

·         Choosing non-fiction books used to be fairly easy. Many subjects used the library for research lessons so you basically bought books linked to those topics. However, today, too many teachers traipse off to an IT suite to undertake “research” which means books can lie unused on the shelves and pupils don’t get to investigate the use of both print and online resources.
So if you have research lessons in the library then prioritise those topics for any non-fiction purchases.
And teachers – please think about using your school library for research (though give the librarian plenty of notice so they can get relevant resources in stock). Contrary to popular belief, not everything is online and students will, at some point, need to access information in different formats. Now is a good time for them to start learning those skills.

·         Publishing non-fiction has also changed, probably because of the change of use in print books but particularly with regards to its use by older pupils. It’s difficult to find non-fiction that links to GCSE topics that’s not a text book. KS4 students tend not to read around the subject; they don’t have the time and are taught to the test so have no need to. This is often true for many KS5 (A level) pupils other than those who are extremely motivated or gripped by their subjects. Unless you have staff who push library use with KS4 and KS5, then it is likely books aimed at this level will get minimal use.

·         Non-fiction aimed at KS3 and KS2 is totally different and there are some fabulous books published for this age group. Again, if you have classes coming into the library to research then ensure you have up-to-date and appealing books on those topics but don’t forget interests and hobbies, especially as non-fiction can often be a way to entice the reluctant reader.
Interestingly these can vary from school to school, even within a geographically close area so what works in one school library may not even be picked up in another.
There are perennial favourites – such as football, cars, space, animals, cooking – but I’ve worked in schools where ice hockey, wrestling and fishing books were in constant demand. One good way to ascertain what pupils are involved with is via a survey about their interests. And don’t forget topical areas of concern such as Black Lives Matter and the environment.

·         Primary school libraries are slightly different. They typically supplement classroom libraries with teachers using the stock to support the topic pupils are studying, often bringing in their own personal books. This means that books linking with curriculum topics will be in demand but don’t forget that pupils will also want to explore the shelves and discover books outside of the curriculum.

·         Resources to support mental health and wellbeing are important at both primary and secondary levels. There are a number of books to support this which can be stocked in the library and used – either by individual pupils, as part of PHSE lessons or by the pastoral team. Have a look at The Reading Agency “Reading Well” programmes for some suggestions.

Can’t finish this blog without some book suggestions. These are not a “best of” list or the top 2020 publications. I always find it hard to make recommendations as I’m only too aware of the numerous amazing books that aren’t included; however, as this year’s non-fiction theme is “The Planet We Share” these are some of the non-fiction books linked to this that I’ve enjoyed reading – in no particular order:

Climate Emergency Atlas.
Published by Dorling Kindersley. 

Covers what climate change is, its impact & what we can do about it. A stunningly visual book – it’s both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. An important topic.

The Farm That Feeds Us by Nancy Castaldo & Ginnie Hsu
Published by Words & Pictures

A year in the life of an organic farm. Pages filled with gentle muted illustrations and lots of information about sustainable farming.

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Yommer
Published by Thames & Hudson

I love all of Yuval Zommer’s books (and am intrigued as to what the next one is going to be one as the subjects all begin with B) but this is my favourite. An exploration into the world of the oceans. 

Lots by Marc Martin
Published by Big Picture Press

This is a book for dipping into. It’s a journey around the world with random facts and observations, filled with pages that are bursting with illustrations and quirky details.

Our Wonderful World by Ben Handicott, Kalya Ryan & Sol Linero
Published by Wide-Eyed Editions

I confess to having a soft spot for atlases and this one is filled with 50 maps containing facts and figures, encouraging the reader to explore the world. Hours of browsing delight!

The Magic and Mystery of Trees by Jen Green and Claire McElfatrick
Published by DK

A perfect introduction to the world of trees – nature, wildlife, biomes, conservation and more – all wrapped up in a beautifully illustrated package.

The Animal Book by Ruth Martin.
Published by Lonely Planet Kids

It was hard to choose between this or one of the Lonely Planet books about countries or different cultures but this won because, even though it’s aimed at 8-12 years, my grandson (aged 4) will happily sit and read it, looking at the photos and asking questions. Books that appeal to ages outside their intended audience are definitely value-for-money!

Wild City by Ben Hoare and Lucy Rose
Published by Macmillan

Another book that takes the reader on a tour of worldwide locations, this time looking at the wildlife that can be found at each one. 


I could go on … there really is a huge choice out there and books are a wonderful way of  introducing children to the natural world. I always find I'm learning something new myself - which is one of the reasons I love non-fiction so much! Go and explore ...

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