With the evolution of non-fiction or informational books for children, selection criteria has shifted. Last week I mentioned that five points need to be considered when choosing books of information: accuracy/authenticity, content/perspective, style, organization and format.
- NON-FICTION has emerged as an exciting genre for children and it is interesting to note some awards and trends of the past few years. Twoinformational books have received the Newbery Medal in the last three years: "Joyful Noise: Poems for Voices," by Paul Fleischman (Harper and row), and Russell Freedman's "Lincoln: A Photo-Biography." Also, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has established the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Non-fiction for Children.
According to the American Library Association, non-fiction accounts for at least 70 percent of collections in the children's library sections. About one-third of the space in bookstores is utilized for new books of this genre.
There are fewer and fewer books that merely state mundane facts without consideration of the curious child-mind and the importance this has on the "information boom" while recognizing the high illiteracy rate in this country.
Some trends in the non-fiction/informational books of the past few years and exemplary titles follow:
- INFORMATIONAL BOOKS that are accurate in research are probably the most noteworthy advancement in such books. It is not uncommon for authors to do extraordinary work prior to publishing, but careful authors also credit the careful research in bibliographies, footnotes, citations, acknowledgments and appendices. Reviewers of informational books are often chosen because of their interest and expertise of a subject and these critiques reflect the evidence of fact-finding and its accuracy, or lack of it.
Two events in recent years which show this trend in publishing are the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty and the celebrations surrounding the U.S. Constitution. Both commemorations have provided research bases for collections of informational books for children. Examples of books with accurate research are ones by Betsy and Giulio Meastro, who have provided important picture books in both categories: "A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution" and "The Story of the Statue of Liberty" (Lothrop). Each book has "additional notes," summaries and simple illustrations to extend the text.
The Sierra Club's publishing program covers a wide range of subjects, which is "intended to bring to young people books about the earth, its creatures and humankind's role among them." The attention to detail and fact is paramount.
"Wolves," one of the Sierra Club Wildlife Library selections, by R.D. Lawrence (Little, Brown Publishers) is a fascinating book which follows the life cycle of wolves from birth to adulthood. The more than 30 full-color photographs add to the many drawings and maps that enrich the text.
There are no illustrations in "Growing Older: What Young People Should Know About Aging" (Little, Brown) by medical science writer and senior editor of Time Inc.'s science magazine, John Lagone. This book covers the questions that young readers often ask, but also poses the options that they may face in another century as they are considered "aged." The chapter notes are from period-icals, medical journals and books reflecting intercultural and social issues.
Related to the next century is "Robots," by Gloria Skurzynski (Bradbury) and the implications of young people for the year 2006. This is one of the publisher's series titled Your High-tech World. Fifty-six full-color photographs show robots in factories, exploring outer space and inside the human body. A timetable of the history of robots and a page of acknowledgments frame the accuracy of this spellbinding book.
- ANOTHER TREND IN publishing is that informational books reflect social issues in very humane ways. Two books that explain about children around the world are "Hector Lives in the United States Now: The Story of a Mexican-American Child" (Joan and Richard Hewett. Published by Lippincott) and "When Africa Was Home" (Karen Lynn Williams. Orchard Books). The Hewetts have a list of photographic essays which represent the changing social issues in the United States. Of special interest is Hector's classroom in Los Angeles in which the students trace their ancestors and write a brief history. This is certainly a book about the "melting pot" of the United States.
The Williams book tells of Peter, born in Africa, who moves to America but longs for "home." Floyd Cooper's soft pictures give strong feelings to a book that provides a setting outside of the United States.
- INFORMATIONAL BOOKS with emphasis on graphics and illustrations is another trend in publishing today. The variety of visual mediums provides young readers with what they have learned to do - depend on picture books to tell some of the facts. This is not a new trend since picture books and illustrated texts have always been important, but the extent and sophistication of the art is certainly amazing. "The Ways Things Work" by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin) has been on the best-seller list for both adults and children since its publication more than three years ago. The details and simple sketches of machines that are in our everyday life makes this a winner which many other artists have tried to emulate.
Patricia Lauber's "Seeing Earth From Space" (Orchard Books) is exemplary of the high technology seen in books for young readers. It is a collection of more than 50 photographs of scenes recorded from outer space by astronauts or satellites. The breathtaking images of rain forests, the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer makes this a book for all ages. An extensive glossary and a bibliography for further reading makes this an important book on space travel.
- INFORMATIONAL BOOKS THAT RECORD time and place have advanced to make them mandatory for studying the current human condition. An in-depth look at many foreign countries is provided in the Lippincott "Land and People" series. Each is authored by an authority of that culture and included are references, acknowledgments and assistance with language and history. Among the countries covered are Afghanistan, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and Bolivia.
"The Oregon Trail" by Leonard Everett Fisher (Holiday House) is one of my favorite informational books that is a chapter of Western history during the 19th century. Fisher has selected historical photos, engravings, maps and supplemented them with a pleasing running narrative.
The series, "Imagine Living Here," which is credible and appropriate for young children, is by Vicki Cobb and Barbara Lavallee (Walker) written as the authors traveled to the sites of their investigation. The latest "This Place Is Lonely" looks at Australia and its myths and realities. The credibility of this book rests with the people that Cobb and Lavellee met and gives a rich background for an imaginary trip.
- ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING trends in publishing is that nonfiction and informational books can be interspersed with humor. This reflects the recent research based on the notion that children learn with both hemispheres of the "left and right brain" and that critical thinking is perpetuated in experiential practices. "Making Cents: Every Kids' Guide to Money" by Elizabeth Wilkinson (Little Brown) is exemplary of good advice in a clever and pleasing format telling children how they can make money in their spare time and have fun doing it. This book is one of the 17 titles in the Brown Paper School Series based on the premise that "learning only happens when it is wanted; that it can happen anywhere and doesn't require fancy tools."
"Dinosaurs Travel: A Guide for Families on the Go," by Laurene and Marc Brown (Little Brown) suggests ways that families can pack, eat out and have a vacation that is unforgettable.
Other trends in nonfiction and informational books are unusual formats such as bug jars, "glow-in-the-dark" schemes, braille books and the in-depth look at specialized subject such as how crayons are made, or printing a newspaper.
The writing and publishing of this genre in recent years endorses the learning theory that children learn best when they can relate what they already know to new information which broadens their horizons.