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Saturday 20 May 2023

Fiction, Non Fiction or Both?

Booksellers have their finger on the pulse (or is that eye on the page) when it comes to observing trends in the industry. This week Bronwyn, from Hobart Bookshop, shares her thoughts on publishing in the field of children’s non-fiction. This post is sure to resonate when we consider the range of books appearing on recent award lists and on the shelves. 

There are many trends a bookseller gets to watch come and go. These can include particular themes - such as the time we were receiving more books about llamas than could ever be reasonably necessary - or choices in fonts and cover illustration styles.  

Tasmanian Devil, by Claire Saxby (2023)
Walker Books
Look inside

A notable trend that appears to be on the increase is the morphing of fiction and non-fiction books for children. A beautiful example of where this works is in Tasmanian Devil by Claire Saxby. The book is both a story and a non-fiction information source, with the two elements clearly differentiated: displayed separately and in different fonts. This allows for the book to be read in two ways, doubling its purpose and enjoyment. (There are other examples which are not as successful and generally where they seem to go wrong is that you can’t really tell which side of the fence the book is trying to sit on.)

Democracy, by Philip Bunting (2023)
Hardie Grant
Look inside

Another aspect of this trend is the decrease in the amount of photography that is being used in non-fiction books.  Books produced using illustrations are now more common – some in cartoon-like styles with successful examples including many of the recent books by Philip Bunting including his new release Democracy. Others use beautiful art which would be quite at home in any picture book. 

Earth, Knowledge, Genius! (2022)
Dorling Kindersley (DK)
Look inside to see a combination
of both techniques.

It’s interesting to ponder the reasons for the more common use of illustrations. Using a single illustrator can give a book a more consistent tone, which photography obtained from different sources can struggle to create. Some subject matters are easier to draw than photograph (e.g. atoms and microbes) and others are more palatable to look at in illustration form (e.g. inside the human body).  However, I think there are two main underlying reasons for the bulk shift in these types of books.  The first is the legal and accounting processes that are involved in the production of the book with increasing complexity of licensing photos - and the second is the rise of the internet as a reference source (although this second factor has more influence with older readers). Generally, it is some of the biggest children’s book publishers such as National Geographic or DK (and some others directly targeted at school markets) that are still using photography consistently.

Feedback from several librarians who have noticed this change suggests that children are less likely to believe facts they read in illustrated books rather than those with photos whose realistic nature backs up the content. This may also hark back to our own childhoods where an encyclopedia with photos included (if you were lucky) was the common source of information for researching school projects.  Potentially the use of the internet as the source of all knowledge for older students means that non-fiction books are needing to become more enjoyable to read – in other words less like an encyclopedia. 

If the trend continues (and I expect that it will), then younger children will be growing up with non-fiction books that are mostly illustrated, and the expectation that non-fiction books should have photographs will decrease, as they will simply not be as common. From my point of view as an independent bookseller, I am trying to continue to support non-fiction books that are produced using photographs so that both options are available to our readers; however to ignore all the beautifully illustrated non-fiction books would be to miss out on many wonderful resources. Being aware of these changes is likely to be the first step in ensuring that the value of non-fiction books is not diminished at a time when online information sources are so easy to access.

Bronwyn Chalke 

The Hobart Bookshop 

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  1. What an interesting article, which prompted me to think of the 5 kinds of nonfiction, devised by Melissa Stewart. Some kinds are more suited to photos; others to illustrations. All are wonderful, and accommodate the wide range of young readers wanting to know facts. https://lernerbooks.com/5knf

  2. Thanks for drawing attention to this trend. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future. Your comment about 'more books about llamas than could ever be reasonably necessary' resonated with a conversation about teen and young adult literature, had at the weekend. That certain styles tend to 'trend' (just as reality television creates a plethora of shows based around the same theme) and whether this is a fluke, or some authors a writing more to a perceived market than because they have something they need to explore.

  3. Thanks for this, its a trend I've noticed recently as well. While the illustrations today are so much better than in the past, it really frustrates me. I want to see, and I want my students to see the real thing. This is not to denigrate the outstanding illustrations that are available in books like the The Encyclopedia of Ugly Animals.