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
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.