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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Desolation of the Chains

I Was Given the Last-Second Assignment to Buy a Gift Book for a Ninth Grade Cousin

His dad said this boy is very hard to shop for, but the one clue he could offer was that school was about to start on Ancient Rome, so perhaps I could find him a book on that. Our local bookstore is about to change ownership and location, it has practically no stock. And I’d heard tell that a gigantic new chain bookstore had opened in a local mall. I was sure they’d have something.


Yes there was a gigantic new store filled with bookstores, but it was not a bookstore — it was a warehouse, in fact it reminded me most of going to those big box discount food places that could be airplane hangers if they were not selling oversize bottles of ketchup in crate. They did have a large kids’ section, of course, but then I saw the real horror: the nonfiction section. One shelving unit was devoted to Dinosaurs (fair enought); another to Science (good subject, though half of the unit was entirely Eyewitness books); another on biography (half of its shelves with repacked volumes of the chain’s own brand), and there was only one other shelving unit in this so-called "section" and it was labeled "history." In other words, as much space was devoted to every topic in both US and world history, K-12, as "biography." Thus books on The White House leaned against those on knights, which propped up one of the new Lincoln books. 

Somewhere, I suspect, they have an African-American "interest" section, and, for all I know, another of Women. I did catch sight of a couple of YAish looking history book in their Teens section — but that was so overwhelmingly devoted to fiction that I cannot imagine how anyone would find them — no shelving or labeling defined a "nonfiction" section within the acres of "Teen" novels.

To be fair, there is something good about this disaster: evolution. Since the niche in the chains for history is so tiny, it forces publishers to be ever more lavish. The size of the Christopher Bing Lincoln book seems like a lesson taken from the dinosaurs — once books get big, you have to get even bigger to get noticed, to survive. But aside from this evolutionary pressure, the chain’s treatment of nonfiction for kids, and, especially of US, is a disgrace.

Now I remember when I said exactly this about the chain’s treatment of YA fiction — and company executives said that they were very pragmatic — the more a genre sells, the more space it gets. And certainly the fate of YA fiction proved that. Once it began to outsell many adult books, the YA section was moved out of kids, enlarged, and broken into niches. So, readers, all we need is a few History bestsellers and we will have as much shelf space in the chains as we want. But I also think these sections echo the blindness of the librarians who will not give nonfiction to kindergarteners, or teachers whose classroom libraries do not feature challenging nonfiction. They are a portrait of ignorance, myopia, and disinterest.

I finally found a photo-filled book on Ancient Rome in the adult section that looked similar to an Eyewitness book, but had just a bit more solid information.


  1. Tanya Dean says:

    As an editor of nonfiction books for young readers, I also find the chain stores to be major disappointments when it comes to providing diverse, fascinating, substantive nonfiction books for kids. We publishers know that bookstore sales do very little to help our bottom line, but beyond the business of the business is the mission of children’s publishing: to put good books in the hands of children in any way we can so they will want to be lifelong readers. Libraries are wonderful, exciting places for youngsters, but by middle grade, many kids are bored and no longer seek the library as an environment where they want to explore. Besides, books are merely borrowed, not owned. There are some amazing nonfiction books being published, ones that would make a great addition to a home library, but parents seldom know about those books. Browsing the bookstores doesn’t help, as you’ve so clearly described. Finding a particular title is hard enough. Browsing to find the BEST title on a subject is practically impossible. Publishing houses take big financial risks in producing beautiful, eloquent, engaging nonfiction books–I only wish more people could enjoy (and find) what’s being created for these special readers, boys especially.