Children's nonfiction is increasing in popularity, say authors

In a panel, writers such as 'Locomotive' author Brian Floca discussed the surge in popularity of nonfiction illustrated books for children, which could be influenced by the nonfiction emphasis in the new Common Core standards.

'Locomotive,' by Brian Floca, tells the story of the transcontinental railroad.

When readers turn to children’s picture books, they are most likely to expect fairy tales or stories of marvelous imaginary characters.

However, according to a recent picture book panel that was held at the Washington, D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose, nonfiction illustrated books for children are becoming more and more popular.

At the panel, which was held on May 4, author Leonard Marcus served as moderator and writers Jen Bryant, Brian Floca, Susan L. Roth, and Duncan Tonatiuh, illustrator R. Gregory Christie, and Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books educational director Richard Jackson participated.

Bryant wrote the book “A Splash of Red,” which was a biography of artist Horace Pippin, while Floca was behind the book “Locomotive,” which tells the story of the transcontinental railroad (and which was recommended by Monitor children's book critic Augusta Scattergood, who called it "a picture book for the ages" with "fascinating history"). Roth’s book “Parrots Over Puerto Rico” details how a program worked to save the birds from extinction, while Tonatiuh’s book “Separate Is Never Equal” tells the true story of a young girl and her family who successfully integrated California schools before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and Christie’s book “Sugar Hill” details the history of the Harlem neighborhood. 

According to industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, Marcus said he believes that the nonfiction emphasis in the new Common Core standards, which were adopted by 44 of the 50 states of the US, could explain the upsurge in popularity of nonfiction children’s books. While the Common Core doesn’t list required books, an appendix list includes example titles for each age group and the list for each grade includes categories titled “informational texts” and “read-aloud informational texts.”

Christie said that he believes categorizing books is overrated. “I don't believe you have to pigeonhole books into fiction or nonfiction, kids or adults,” he said. “I really believe you can do a book about anything.”

Meanwhile, Roth said that presenting a nonfiction story for children can have its challenges – for example, in researching Puerto Rican parrots, she found that people ate the birds at one point. She decided to include that fact but worked to make the story as a whole have an uplifting message.

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