Let’s celebrate non-fiction!
Here’s a date for your diaries: Thursday 4th November 2010. That is to be the first-ever National Non-Fiction Day, set up by the Federation of Children’s Books Groups in conjunction with Scholastic. Let’s hope it turns out to be more than a promotional event for a single publisher, and that it evolves into an annual fixture with wide support from all publishers, bookshops, schools and libraries. This certainly seems like a good idea, and is long overdue.
It has always seemed strange to identify a genre of writing by what it is not. When promoting children’s non-fiction, that negative poses a bit of problem. The Welsh term, llyfrau ffeithiol (‘factual books’) is hardly more inspiring. During the cultural revolution that swept through children’s non-fiction from the late 1960s through to the 1980s and 90s, we all tried to think of more positive ways of describing ‘topic books ‘ or ‘information books’. Every series title tried to emphasise child-based activity: discovering, finding out, looking up, stepping into. We’ve rather run out of the clichés by now. In fact many fellow writers feel that the steam is running out of ‘CN-F’ (ych a fi, the acronym is even worse) altogether. Amongst the 90 or so correspondents of the Nibweb e-mail forum (Network for Information Book Writers and Editors in Britain http://www.nibweb.co.uk/ ) there is considerable anxiety.
The malaise is due to a wide range of factors. Obviously the recent crises of capitalism have taken their toll. Booksellers are vanishing from the high streets. Profits are poor for publishers in this field. For many packagers (the small independent producers who sell on to publishers), margins and cash-flow are looking critical. For writers this means fewer jobs. Our pay has always been poor, generally in the form of flat fees and enforced signing away of copyright. Our traditional solution was to write more and work longer hours. The word ‘prolific’, applied rather sniffily by many reviewers, simply refers to a writer who can sometimes pay the electricity bill. However for many of us the option of writing more is vanishing, and the impending cuts in libraries and schools bode ill.
Another problem might be the publishers themselves. Large international corporations have replaced smaller, more energetic companies. Accountants and risk-averse sales departments now have precedence over the breed of editorially minded visionaries and entrepreneurs who created that revolution of 40 years ago. Publishers’ lists imitate each other and are straitjacketed by the lowest common denominators of international educational curricula.
Of course it is a new revolution, the electronic one, which really haunts our dreams and fears. Will paper non-fiction go the way of typewriter manufacture and film processing as jobs of yesteryear? The internet is a truly wonderful beast, we all know that in our heart of hearts. However book publishers still have to find a way of coming to terms with it, either as competitors or by entering cyberspace themselves and making money. I think cyberspace needs them, as much as they need it. The potential of the web as a learning tool has yet to be fulfilled. Some children’s information websites are excellent, and their technology can be exciting, but the majority are badly written, poorly researched, appallingly designed and illustrated. Amateur stuff.
So, for now let’s sing the praises of children’s non-fiction of the paper variety. It is a joy to plan, visualise and write these books, whether they are destined to be international coeditions, general trade books or topic books for schools and libraries. This writing is creative: it has its own stories to tell. It is also apparently the preferred reading matter of boys, as opposed to girls. Why? Well there’s another blog to be had there, to be sure.
Support NNF Day – http://nnfd.org/ – in whatever ways you can. Ask in your local store why there are so few shelves devoted to ‘children’s reference.’ Campaign against library cuts. When primary classes are taught how to find the right websites, demand that they are also told how to find the right books. And if you can think of a better term for children’s non-fiction, do let us know.