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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


The 80% Issue (Or the Million Dollar Question)

Caroline Ward tells me that 80% of the nonfiction books read by younger readers are used for assignments. Can any of you track down the study that yielded that figure? I’d love to know more — which ages, how was the study done, when, is this all books, library books, school library books — because something is really weird about that number. Betty Carter has pointed out that among adults, and, especially adult males, nonfiction is more popular than fiction. So how can we explain a switch from 4/5 of the nonfiction being read for assignments to, at a minimum, more than 1/2 of the nonfiction being read by choice — whether for pleasure or to accomplish something (fill out a tax form, build a bench, select a car, use a computer program…). Why would there be two such completely different reading universes?

There are two obvious ways to think about this — either the numbers are wrong (either set of numbers, or both, or the statistics are measuring different things), or the fact that nonfiction in K-12 is related to school assignments obscures the interest those same students would have in nonfiiction for pleasure reading — if they could choose books themselves. In other words, all of those assignments help refine a reader’s sense of what he likes, and then once he is free of the constraint of high school or college, he goes and picks what he wants. It is like studying a language — in school it is mainly the hard work of memorizing grammar and vocabulary, but then as an adult you have the pleasure of speaking with people from another land, reading their books, or sampling their TV and film. And yet kids pick up languages faster than adults — so they are out there speaking Spanish, French, Japanese much earlier on. So is it the same with nonfiction books — kids are already picking by their interests, even when we think they are just fulfilling assignments? If so, we are back to numbers and that weird 80%. 

I suspect that there is a larger issue lurking here: what exactly is pleasure reading? Some forms of nonfiction pleasure reading are easy to name: hobbies, pets, sports, and those parts of science that are used in class but also have their fans such as dinosaurs, nature, science experiments, where would math games and puzzles such as Sudoku belong, clearly that is pleasure reading. And that leads to the pivot of this whole discussion: biography. In adult, that is almost entirely pleasure reading — you pick someone you want to read about. For kids, biography tends to be seen as an assignment — go read a biography of at least 100 pages about…. So why is that?

Friends — why is biography an adult pleasure and a kids assignment?


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Marc, I wish I had an answer for this million dollar question, but your posing of it did make me think that adults often pick up biographies expecting de-bunking and scandals, while biographies for children tend to highlight people to be emulated. Of course the degree of emulation has changed over the years, as you’ve pointed out, but for readers above age twelve, say, those hungry for complicated lives may find depictions more in fiction than nonfiction (not that there aren’t many exceptions, but in a survey, those won’t be much considered.)

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine: I think you are on to something — though I think adults expect interest — could be scandals, could be debunking, could be some new detail. While there is an assumption that kids bios will have some element of the role model. Though I know Scholastic has done some bios of really bad guys — true life villains.

  3. BookMoot says:

    I wonder about the context of that number…certainly, nonfiction collections are used for research but I have been doing my own informal surveys at the school libraries where I sub for over a year now.

    As the kids line up to go back to class, I do a quick count of the kind of books the kids are holding. Most of the time it is a 50-50 split between nonficton and fiction. The fact that elementary teachers line the kids up to go back to class make this quick count possible.

    So, about half of the kids are choosing nonfiction books as their preferred reading.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Very interesting — I bet if you did an actual count over a period of time you could publish it — in SLJ for example — would be great to have that kind of data on nonfiction choices.

  5. WendieO says:

    Survey Says:… I do think that the results of this survey of student’s reading is an effort by the students to give the “right” answer — which everybody knows is fiction. Parents do not consider nonfiction as good reading. They push fiction. Teachers seem to do the same. (emphasis on seem-to, even tho they may not mean to) — wendieO, librarian and nonfiction writer

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I think some enterprising grad student could do really interesting research on kids choices by age and gender, on how they view pleasure reading (how they define that) and on adult assumptions and expectations.