A recently circulated petition asking the New York Times to introduce three children’s nonfiction lists (paralleling the children’s fiction bestseller lists) has been declined. “We are aware there is an online campaign advocating for this,” Times spokesperson Annie Tressler said. “But there are no current plans to add this list.” In their response to the organizers, a Times spokesperson cited lack of staff resources to create such lists as the mary reason they could not pursue the proposal.
Initiated by Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello of Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education and Dr. Xenia Hadjioannou of Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, the petition requested nonfiction bestsellers lists for picture books, and middle grade and YA literature. Among the arguments in favor of adding such lists, it cited the need to help families, caregivers, and educators identify top-quality nonfiction books. The organizers challenged the perception that children don’t like nonfiction, pointing to research that indicated that many children prefer nonfiction for their independent reading, and many more are enthusiastic about nonfiction that aligns with their personal interests and curiosity. In addition to Cappiello and Hadjioannou, 250 educators and librarians signed the letter that accompanied the petition, which was sent to the Times on February 14. Cappiello and Hadjioannou said they are determined to press on to find other avenues to raise the profile of children’s nonfiction.
The two met through mutual professional interests and their shared passion for children’s nonfiction. “We live and breathe it,” Capiello said. They’ve collaborated on the Biography Clearinghouse, a collection of resources to help teachers use biography across the curriculum for a range of age levels. To help publicize the petition and promote awareness of the genre, they developed the #KidsLoveNonfiction hashtag.
“Children’s nonfiction is experiencing a renaissance of sorts,” Hadjioannou said. “There are so many well researched, creative and innovative works out there right now.” When the subject is interesting and the book is well written, she said, children will reach for nonfiction just the way adults do. Still, she continued, “Kids’ nonfiction has an image problem,” and naming it, she said, is one of the first steps to “rehabilitating” it.
Nonfiction coming out today is more narrative, emotionally engaging, and beautifully illustrated than ever, Cappiello said, adding that despite this, its long-held association with textbooks has been hard to shake. The range of nonfiction is wider than ever, too, addressing subjects that kids care about, from social justice and mental health issues to memoirs from previously unheard voices. With the urgent need for information literacy, nonfiction can provide facts in an engaging and often entertaining way. “Kids need these books right now,” Cappiello continued. But for a host of reasons, those who are in charge of book purchases are less likely to know about these books than they are about popular fiction series. In her education courses, Cappiello works with student teachers to use nonfiction effectively in the classroom, but noted that many teachers haven’t received this kind of training.
Bookstore positioning—or lack thereof—also contributes to the discoverability problem for nonfiction books. Often, there’s a single small section for all nonfiction, with different categories shelved together and no books facing out, despite what Hadjioannou called the increasingly high quality of illustrations in nonfiction.
As part of the effort to make children’s nonfiction more visible, Hadjioannou said, the idea of dedicated New York Times nonfiction bestsellers lists popped up. “The addition of the lists “would be such a validation,” she said. “It would hasten the vision we’ve been working toward.” The organizers decided to “just ask the question. We were hopeful, but we knew it wasn’t likely.” Hadjioannou noted that the petition is just one of the efforts that she and other nonfiction advocates will continue to pursue to raise the profile of children’s nonfiction.
The organizers cite the increase in children’s nonfiction sales as another reason that additional lists are needed. In 2020, there was a 23.1% rise in kids’ nonfiction sales, more than twice the increase in children’s fiction. (A large portion of that increase is attributed to parents’ purchases of educational material for at-home learning during pandemic lockdowns; see our story). According to reporting in PW, sales in children’s nonfiction remained strong in 2021, especially in autobiography/biography, science/nature books, religion, health, and social topics.
While the New York Times briefly published a children’s bestsellers list long ago (it came and went in 1935), the current list was introduced in July 2000. The timing is attributed to what some have called “the Harry Potter effect,” Rebekah Fitzsimmons wrote in the journal Children’s Literature. The first three books in the series began occupying the top three spots of the bestsellers list in September 1999. The publishers and authors of popular adult titles weren’t happy about this dominance, since it was preventing adult titles from achieving bestseller status. As the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire neared, a dedicated children’s bestsellers list was introduced. In 2004, the list was expanded to a set of lists with further defined categories, which now includes four categories: Middle Grade Hardcover, Young Adult Hardcover, Picture Books and Series.
While the Times has declined to add the children’s lists at this time, Capiello said that the response she and Hadjioannou received from the newspaper was nonetheless encouraging. The staff reassured the advocates of their “admiration and respect for contemporary nonfiction literature for young people,” and promised rigorous coverage of nonfiction in the pages of the New York Times Book Review going forward.
The petition may not have achieved its primary goal, but it served to broaden the circle of advocates for promoting children’s nonfiction. In addition to the influential educators and librarians who signed the letter, support came from popular blogs such as the Classroom Bookshelf and Cynsations, and many authors and booksellers who signed the petition. “So many people got behind it,” Hadjioannou said. “This is just the beginning of the conversation.”