It’s getting super creative, that’s what!
Once upon a time, there were big heavy non-fiction books (probably called an encyclopaedia) that had some great facts, but these books were also used as a prop for a racetrack, a counterweight for the roof of a den, a throne for a teddy, and okay, sometimes read and used for homework. But exciting? No, not very.
Let’s zoom forward to the early noughties because something amazing was about to happen (no doubt the internet helped). Writers, illustrators and publishers were getting creative and presenting facts, formats and narratives in new and exciting ways. Hurrah! Creative NF was born.
Then by 2018-2019, when I wrote my first NF children’s book, an abundance of big ideas and scary issues converged. Climate activism and the environmental crisis, Brexit, MeToo, mental health, BlackLivesMatter, an ongoing refugee crisis, popular science and commercial space flight, and just peaking over the horizon a global pandemic and another war. The market has gone from strength to strength as parents have engaged more with home-schooling, and both parents and teachers need to help children understand what is happening in the world. Plus facts and the real world are exciting!
So what is a non-fiction book for children and how is creative thinking changing the way they are written?
Non-fiction books have traditionally been categorised in the five following ways (led by US education standards, mostly.)
Cookbooks, craft and hobby books with sequential instructions or advice.
Factoid snippets of informative text relating to the illustrations/photographs, often covering a wide theme. Not especially sequential, readers can dip in an out of the book and flick from page to page.
Explains, describes and informs on one specific theme.
A creative approach to a specific subject. The author/illustrator uses different text structures and creative devices to enthral their readers.
A biography, a day in the life of x, a special event or experience. It tells a story and is structured and written in the tone of a narrative (fiction) story.
The line between fiction and creative non-fiction is blurring.
As NF authors (many of which have been writing fiction for years) apply the creative writing toolbox to their ideas, books are launching with fun, interactive, engaging content, that informs with humour, heart and most importantly, with stealth!
Engagement is what it’s all about even if it is stretching the boundaries of non-fiction.
It’s a lot more fun to feel as if you’re are in the driving seat participating in the story than to be the bystander looking on or feel as if you are just having facts reported to you.
Books can have two or three different writing styles within their pages and even on the same page.
Use a mix of writing styles
Caring Conservationists who are changing our Planet is a series of biographies each with fact boxes and an activity.
Birds of a Feather Press out and learn about 10 beautiful birds has both facts and an activity.
Meet the Bears is an adventure narrated by the tour guide followed by guidebook-style facts to learn more about each bear.
Ice Cycle are facts in multiple poems.
Create fact/fiction hybrids
In My Animal Family, a member of each wild family explains who’s in charge, who catches dinner and who looks after the young one. Obviously, it’s not possible to be in the mind of a wolf or dolphin, but using behavioural research I can project. I also ask questions to encourage children to think about how each family or animal community is similar or different to their own.
How Does Chocolate Taste on Everest? Leisa Stewart Sharpe probably hasn’t eaten chocolate on Everest, I’m not sure writers’ research budgets ever stretch that far, but the reader is drawn in and feels as if they are part of this sensory adventure.
Spin to Survive the Frozen Mountain, is a game, story and survival fact book all in one.
So if you haven’t taken a good look at the children’s non-fiction market to either read it or write it. There’s lots of beautiful immersive books on the shelf and plenty of opportunities for authors to get creative.
Kate has ten illustrated non-fiction books in production with major publishers which will be launched between spring 2023 and 2025.