Back in December, I wrote a post in which I wondered why we don’t see more nonfiction books recognized in awards for teens, and in particular, why memoirs and biographies are so dominant among the nonfiction titles that do show up. Commenter Meghan suggested:
My own experience as a public librarian has shown it’s easier to get teens to read fiction. I’m not saying that’s true for every librarian, teacher, or parent. The non-fiction that my teens read is also generally True Crime, memoirs, or biography. Statistically, Alex has given awards to memoirs and biographies which, I think, reflects the experiences of committee members working with teens. In my opinion, Alex is a list of books teens will want to read and not books *we* want them to read. In my experience, it’s the rare teenager who is going to pick-up a book about religion or philosophy for pleasure reading
My instinct was to disagree with Meghan’s assessment–I was particularly put off by the comment about philosophy since I recall many of my high school classmates as mopey existentialists, reading Nietzsche and Camus–but since I didn’t have anything other than anecdotal data to go on, I put it off. In the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to get some hard information on how many teens actually read nonfiction, and how many prefer it to fiction, but it turns out that this is a very difficult question to research. I did find a few data points, but they are maddeningly hard to compare among each other. Nevertheless, I thought our readers might be interested in what I’ve found. This will be a post of questions and hints, rather than answers.
The most recent data I found was in a long paper by Clark and Foster called Children’s and Young People’s Reading Habits and Preferences: The Who, What, Why, Where and When (National Literacy Trust, 2005). They surveyed children and young adults on their preferred reading material outside of school. The survey offered a number of choices of types of reading material and allowed participants to select as many choices as they wished. The results, not surprisingly, showed magazines, websites, and text messages to be the most common reading material for all age levels. Fortunately for us, Clark and Foster broke down their results by age. So the most pertinent information in the survey was that 47.3% of secondary school students reported enjoying fiction and 24.2% reported enjoying “factual books”.
Another study I found was a bit older and dealt with a slightly older population. In a 1999 study (Gallik, “Do They Read for Pleasure?” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42:6, March 1999), 33% of college seniors reported reading novels “frequently” and an additional 37% reported reading novels “sometimes.” Of the same group (though the survey design resulted in fewer total answers), 23% said they read nonfiction books “frequently” and 35% “sometimes.”
The trouble with the results of these two studies is that the numbers are not mutually exclusive, so the results do not show us, for instance how many of the readers of factual books prefer them to fiction and vice versa. Nor do they distinguish among different types of nonfiction. For instance, if we look at the Clark and Foster study, depending on how much overlap there is between the populations of nonfiction and fiction readers, it is possible that half of all fiction readers also read nonfiction. But it is also possible (although unlikely) that no fiction readers read nonfiction and that a huge group of teens are exclusively reading nonfiction, which would have major implications for the way librarians and teachers approach literacy and reading programs.
Carter and Abrahamson tried to get the answer to some of these questions back in 1990, but I couldn’t find any more recent studies that had followed up on their work (Nonfiction for Young Adults: From Delight to Wisdom, Oryx, 1990). They cite a number of statistics. A 1986 Gallup survey showed that “19% of the books bought by younger teens were nonfiction. Among older adolescents, that number increased significantly: Approximately 40% of the books they paid for were nonfiction volumes” (5). This jibes with research they cite which showed that “Nonfiction becomes an increasingly important component in overall reading preferences as young adults mature” (4). This concept of nonfiction becoming a larger component of reading as teens age may explain the much higher ratio of nonfiction to fiction readers in college seniors from Gallik’s study as compared to the young adults in Clark and Foster’s study.
Carter and Abrahamson’s book also cites Carter’s dissertation, from 1981, in which she surveyed her own library and found that “34% of the leisure reading of . . . academically able teenagers came from nonfiction books” (6) and a stunning “54% of the control group’s [including both academically gifted and non-gifted students] leisure reading material was nonfiction” (8). Carter’s dissertation was designed around this distinction between academically gifted and non-gifted students because of research she had found showing that “low-ability students prefer works of nonfiction” (6), a fascinating finding that I would love to see followed up on today.
Carter and Abrahamson also looked at figures based on the International Reading Association’s (IRA) Children’s Choices and Young Adult Choices Programs. As they describe it, each year, “[p]rovided with several hundred titles published the previous year, … children select the books they want to read, or hear, and rate each book” (4). When Carter and Abrahamson wrote their book, IRA had only just begun the Young Adult Choices Program, so they did not have much data to look at, but they noted that “given the pool–heavily favoring fiction–from which the young adults made their choices, they proportionally represent as many nonfiction as fiction titles”. The Children’s Choices Program, though did allow them to try to make a distinction between “informational” and “narrative” nonfiction, by which they seem to mean memoirs and biographies. Examining the results for the Children’s Choices Program from 1975-1984, they found that 43% of titles were nonfiction and “21% of the preferred nonfiction books [were] informational works”.
This last data point tells us little about teen habits, of course, but it gave me the idea to look at more recent figures from the IRA Young Adult Choices Program. I was able to get 15 years of titles (1998-2012), with the top 30 titles listed. Looking through these choices, I found that only 7% of the Young Adult Choices were nonfiction, but given Carter and Abrahamson’s warning that the pool the IRA gives teens is weighted towards fiction, I don’t find that number significant. More interesting was that of the nonfiction titles chosen, 32.5% were memoirs, 22.5% were biographies, and the remaining 45% were informational. (For comparison’s sake, when I looked at the Alex Awards, 41.5% of the nonfiction titles were memoirs, 10% were biography, and just under 50% were informational).
So now that I’ve overwhelmed you with heaps of data, what do we do with it? Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the data comes from a wide range of sources and time periods and cannot possibly be internally compared. But I think we can make a few statements with some degree of confidence.
1) I think it is fair to say that nonfiction and informational books comprise some significant component of the leisure reading of young adults, possibly somewhere in the broad range of 25-50% of their reading, and almost certainly more than we generally give them credit for.
2) I think it is also fair to say that this percentage, and the relative percentage of informational over narrative nonfiction, increases as teens age– although strictly speaking I haven’t seen that finding replicated since the 80s, the comparison between Gallik, and Clark and Foster certainly seems to back this up, and it makes intuitive sense, to me at least, since I know many adults who do not read any fiction at all, so they must start their nonfiction reading at some point.
3) Finally, it seems likely that memoirs and biographies take up somewhere in the neighborhood of half of teens’ nonfiction reading–which is huge, but still leaves quite a bit of more purely “informational” reading that teens are doing in their leisure time.
But I think the most important piece of information that I discovered is that this is a field of study in desperate need of more research. If we are interested in getting teens to read more, and recognizing the books with the most appeal to teens, we should really have better information about what exactly does appeal to teens. I don’t want to pick on Meghan at all, because I use my own anecdotal experience of teens all the time, but I think it is particularly tricky to rely on our impressions of what teens are reading, since, as librarians and teachers, we may be having a confounding effect on the data. That is, if I, as a materials selector, am primarily purchasing the narrative nonfiction and biographies that I enjoy, that greatly limits what type of nonfiction I will perceive being read in my library.
So–are there any library grad students out there in need of a dissertation topic? I’ve got one for you.