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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

The Rise of Kids’ Non-Fiction

By Alice Harman

Were you a dinosaur kid? An ancient Egypt kid? An outer space kid?

Dinosaurs were my poison. I couldn’t get enough of them, totally obsessed. I could rattle off

dinosaur names and facts that I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of keeping in my frazzled head

today. My mum still tells the story of when a well-meaning guy interrupted my gawping at

the National History Museum’s dinosaur exhibition with a friendly, “Ooh that’s a big

monster, isn’t it?”. Tiny me shot him a withering glare and replied coldly, “It’s a diplodocus.”

Non-fiction books are fuel to the fire of kids’ various obsessions, giving them all sorts of

facts to greedily memorise and sending them further and further down rabbit holes that

they – unlike us adults – actually have time to get lost in. Give a child the right non-fiction

book and it can be just as exciting as a storybook stuffed with dragons and drama.

And yet in children’s publishing, non-fiction has traditionally been a bit of an ‘also-ran’ – the

quiet, dowdy nerd that wistfully watches their popular sibling, Fiction, head off to prom,

adored and glittering in the spotlight. But, you know what happens next in that movie,

right? Makeover!! And just like a movie makeover, it’s not that there was ever anything

wrong with kids’ non-fiction in the first place – except that maybe it didn’t have the

confidence to really let itself go or to shout “Look at me!!”

That all changed when the Big Books arrived. Outsized and outrageously gorgeous, large-

format illustrated titles like Maps (2013), Animalium (2014) and Yuval Zommer’s The Big

Book of Bugs (2016) demanded space and attention – and they got it. They were part of a

new wave of innovative, high-design titles that quietly rose through the 2010s, helped along

by stylish new children’s imprints like Flying Eye, Big Picture Press and Wren & Rook that put

non-fiction front and centre and made it look good.

But this isn’t a story of style winning out over substance – new non-fiction text is no less

creatively rich than its illustration. Stand-out bestselling successes from the last decade like

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and the Little People, Big Dreams series have shown that

narrative non-fiction, where facts are told with the warmth and pace of a story, can capture

kids’ imaginations just as well as invented stories. That isn’t only true for history, either.

Authors Nicola Davies and Jamia Wilson, for example, make science and politics feel poetic

and human through their original approaches.

As trade non-fiction books have become more ambitious, they’ve also set the bar higher for

educational books – which is important, because these are the books that kids will find in

schools and libraries, even if their parents/carers aren’t able to buy them any others.

Inspiring, beautifully designed reads include Wayland’s Other Big Questions series, where

authors explore subjects such as race, gender and migration through open questions and

personal accounts.

In 2019, following a sizeable boost to kids’ non-fiction sales in 2018, The Bookseller reported

that publishers were predicting a significant rise in the popularity of children’s non-fiction.

Despite the strangeness of corona-ridden 2020, this sense of excitement in the air has only

gotten stronger. Bookshops, bloggers and ‘best of’ lists in newspapers are featuring more

and more kids’ non-fiction, and the agency I’ve just signed with was specifically looking for

more non-fiction authors. Don’t get me wrong, non-fiction still rarely, if ever, has even one

title break into the Top 10 of the Nielsen UK Children’s Books chart – but it’s exciting feeling

like we’re not at the crest of the wave yet.

Does it seem strange that information books are becoming more popular in a time when

kids can access unlimited information online? It should do, but I think I understand why. The

best non-fiction, in my mind, should feel like you’re absorbed in a cosy chat with someone

who has all sorts of interesting things to tell you. That sense of curation, immersion and

personal connection is really hard to find searching alone on the internet – it can feel like

you’re shouting into the void, not really knowing whether to trust the disembodied answer

that echoes back.

Do you know that Neil Gaiman quote, “A book is a little empathy machine”? I think of non-

fiction books, slightly less poetically, as little curiosity accelerators. If done right, they take

the small amount of curiosity it took a child to open them and they whip and whirl it into a

ferocious little curiosity tornado that could land anywhere and might pick up all sorts of

things in its path. Kids’ obsessions can end up being their careers, their passions, their

guiding principles – or, as with me and the dinosaurs, they could fade away but leave an

obsessive love of books behind them.

Alice Harman is a children’s author and editor. Her latest book, Modern Art Explorer, is

published by Thames & Hudson and investigates the strange stories behind some of the

world’s most famous modern artworks, you can check it out here.

She lives in the countryside with a small baby and a permanently surprised-looking cat. You can visit her website here.



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