It’s no secret that many adults enjoy reading nonfiction, and as a result, in the adult publishing world, fiction and nonfiction are respected equally. Major book awards routinely include separate categories for fiction and nonfiction, as have the New York Times bestsellers lists since their inception in 1931.
But as Cynthia Levinson, Jennifer Swanson, and I wrote in PW last year, nonfiction for kids has an image problem—at home, at school, and in the media. Despite a robust body of research showing that many children prefer nonfiction, and many more enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally, most adults mistakenly believe children prefer made-up stories.
As a result, well-intended parents favor fiction for bedtime reading, and most teachers automatically choose made-up stories for read alouds and book talks as well as science and social studies lessons. A 2015 study published in Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms found that only 17–22% of titles in elementary classroom libraries were nonfiction. This sends a powerful message to children—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.
“Children want their nonfiction books; adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, chief program officer for Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in education. “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”
A deeper dive into adults’ biased attitude toward nonfiction for children shows that the problem is especially egregious for books that explain STEM concepts.
A 2019 Reading Research Quarterly article analyzing 400 books selected for the National Science Teaching Association’s Outstanding Science Trade Book List between 2010 and 2017 found that books focused on elucidating science concepts and principles typically have an expository writing style. Although this style of writing, which explains, describes, or informs in a clear, accessible way, is beloved by the many children who prefer straightforward ideas and information rather than narratives, adults don’t always appreciate the power of expository writing to inspire as well as inform young readers. And in many cases, adults are also unaware of how much nonfiction for kids has changed and expanded in recent years, transforming into a new breed of books that are more vibrant and vital than ever before.
As a science writer who has published more than 200 nonfiction books for children since 1998, I’ve witnessed the exciting evolution of these books firsthand, and I’ve grappled with the bias against them—including my own.
During school visits, children frequently ask me if I’ll ever write fiction. Early in my career, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”
I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. In my professional life, I was surrounded by a community of people who prized stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.
I remember praising the innovative format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden.
Not long after that, while serving on a book award committee, a fellow judge campaigned for her favorite title by asking, “Didn’t it bring a little tear to your eye at the end?” One of the other judges, agreed that it had. But I didn’t answer. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t share their emotional connection to the book.
These comments, and others like them from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an oddball, like I was all alone in a world that valued narratives.
But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked the question, I finally decided to be honest.
I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”
And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. Because he wanted me to know what he was thinking without interrupting, he was using a nonverbal hand gesture popular in many U.S. schools.
“Me too,” he was saying. “I agree.” A moment later, a half dozen other students joined him.
I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.
I now know that those students are what educators Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari call “info-kids.” And so am I. We’re analytical thinkers who read to learn. And the more I look around, the more of us I see.
Although most people think of me as a writer, I see myself as a scientist first. And in my personal life, I’m surrounded by other analytical thinkers—family and friends who work as scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and statisticians.
In contrast, most people in the children’s literature community—editors, agents, literacy educators, school librarians, book reviewers, award committee members—seem to be “narrative thinkers” who are naturally drawn to stories and storytelling. For narrative thinkers, nonfiction, especially expository nonfiction, is like broccoli. But for info-kids, who want nothing more than to understand the world and how it works, these books are like chocolate cake.
According to a study published in Reading Psychology in 2017, 42% of elementary students preferred expository nonfiction. Another 25% preferred narratives (fiction and narrative nonfiction, which tells a true story or conveys a real experience), while the remaining 33% enjoyed both writing styles equally.
In 2018, I surveyed more than 1,000 educators who attended literacy-themed conferences or professional development workshops and the results were significantly different. Only 8% preferred expository nonfiction. Another 56% preferred narratives, while the remaining 33% enjoyed both writing styles equally.
This startling disconnect between literacy-oriented educators and the students they serve can have serious implications on the reading lives of children. If narrative thinkers aren’t aware of their implicit bias, they will continue to favor fiction and, to a lesser extent, narrative nonfiction because it feels comfortable and familiar. Their book purchases affect not only what titles end up in children’s hands but also what books will be published in the future.
When info-kids don’t have access to the kinds of books they crave, they may not develop as readers and receive the unfortunate label “reluctant reader.” For these children, expository nonfiction can be the gateway to literacy as well as a portal to knowledge that fuels their natural curiosity and sense of wonder.
If we fail to support these readers and the books they’re naturally drawn to, are we extinguishing a passion for STEM learning? Are we neglecting the scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and mathematicians of tomorrow?
These are important questions to ask because the United States consistently lags behind other countries in STEM education. In 2018, results from the Programme for International Assessment, an international test that compares students’ progress in reading, science, and math, showed that out of 79 countries and regions, U.S. students ranked 13th in reading, 18th in science, and 37th in math. Is a preponderance of educators with a bias against nonfiction one of the reasons students are doing poorly in science and math on this assessment? It seems likely.
If we want the U.S. to be a global innovation leader, we must foster all the potential STEM talent our country has to offer. We need to fuel the curiosity of young analytical thinkers, and one way to do that is by nurturing and nourishing their minds with books they love.
So the question becomes: How can we raise public awareness of all that today’s nonfiction has to offer young readers? And, even more importantly, how can we get nonfiction books into the hands of kids who love it?
Here are five simple things you can do to begin addressing the problem today:
1. Purchase a mix of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and expository nonfiction for the children in your life, and share all three kinds of books as read alouds.
2. If children you know show a preference for expository nonfiction, respect and encourage their choices. Don’t try to steer them toward fiction. Once they become confident readers, they will begin to explore a broad range of books on their own.
3. Donate a broad range of high-quality, recently-published nonfiction titles to schools and public libraries in your community. This can benefit dozens of children over many years.
4. Sign the letter that literacy professors Mary Ann Cappiello and Xenia Hadjioannou wrote to the New York Times, asking for children’s nonfiction bestseller lists that parallel the existing fiction-focused lists. Even though the paper denied their initial request, these educators are continuing to collect signatures.
5. Spread the word. If more people become aware of the importance of giving children access to a diverse assortment of expository as well as narrative nonfiction, change can happen more quickly.
Sibert Medal Honoree Melissa Stewart has written more than 200 science books for children and is the co-author of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books.