SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

June 2019

 

The Golden Age of Children’s Nonfiction

by Jennifer Swanson

 

Are you ready to mix things up in your writing? Maybe change age levels? Or genres? Why not try writing nonfiction for kids? In the past you may have heard that getting published in nonfiction is difficult, that publishers weren’t really buying nonfiction. And if they were, it was mostly just history and biographies, perhaps a little bit of science, but nothing in-depth or exciting. Finally, you may have thought it wasn’t “cool” to publish nonfiction for children. After all, most of the spotlight and fame is focused on fiction books for kids. Maybe. But all that is changing.

Right now, more than ever, is the best time to be an author of children’s nonfiction. The implementation of Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards in almost all the states across the US has produced a real need for well-written and fascinating nonfiction. According to the CCSS guidelines, by the 4th grade students should be reading an equal mix of fiction and nonfiction. And by the 12th grade it should be 30% fiction, 70% nonfiction. To meet this need, schools and libraries have been weeding out their old nonfiction titles and replacing them with new ones. Bookstores are expanding their shelves and displays to include more juvenile nonfiction titles throughout the year. Nonfiction is everywhere. 

This sounds positive, but is this change really fueling sales? It certainly is for the adult market. For the last five years, adult nonfiction book sales have surpassed adult fiction sales, and the gap is widening. It makes sense that the children’s market is seeing some of this upturn, too. An adult that reads nonfiction widely is probably more likely to choose it for their own children. And why not? Children’s nonfiction books being published today are more innovative, exciting, and unique than they have ever been.

Long gone are the boring birth-to-death stories of famous people that read like textbooks. They have been replaced by lively narratives that provide a few fun facts along the way, as in the prolific Who Is?/Who Was? series by Penguin Random House. And kids can feel they are a part of the action as history comes alive in books such as Candace Fleming’s Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) and Steve Sheinken’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (Macmillan, 2015) What makes these books so interesting? The topics? Absolutely. The narrative arc? Definitely.  The voice? Yep. You can’t beat a true middle grader’s slightly snarky voice in a book with a great topic like How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Science and STEM/STEAM titles have seen a huge expansion of ideas and unique presentation of materials. Books like Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sarah Albee (Crown BFYR, 2017) are perfect for the young STEM enthusiast. Other STEM books target children who may not be huge science fans by asking big questions shared by many kids; Lily William’s book If Sharks Disappeared (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) does this very well. 

Exciting nonfiction is not just narrative writing, however; expository books are very popular with young readers. Melissa Stewart’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (Peachtree Publishers, 2018) is a perfect example of that. For older readers, engaging information presented with highly energetic text combined with lots of fact-filled sidebars can be found in books such as my own Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact (NGKids, 2018).

Honestly, there is so much amazing nonfiction for kids out there right now, I can’t list them all in this article.

Where do publishers stand on children’s nonfiction? Do they want to buy it? The answer is a resounding YES! Many trade publishers have recently expanded their nonfiction lists. Some even have hired editors who only work in the nonfiction children’s realm. Nonfiction is hot in the publishing world right now. How do I know? Recently, I was the co-host of a nonfiction-only writers’ workshop. When we sent out requests for editors to come, we were overwhelmed with the immediate response. We wanted five editors but got seven! And a few more editors have asked to be considered for a future workshop. That is proof. The support for nonfiction children’s books is very real. 

What do you think? Are you ready to start writing nonfiction for kids? Well, if you’re interested in creativity, thinking outside the box, exploring unique topics, and doing this all to get kids excited about reading, give it a shot. Right now, you might say, is the Golden Age of Nonfiction in children’s books. Don’t miss your chance to be a part of it.

Science ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of seven. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her.