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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

There Must Be a Way Out of Here

That’s a Bob Dylan Quotation, But Also My Sense of This Moment in Nonfiction

Here are the contrasting forces of this moment — as they effect all of us in the nonfiction books for kids world.
1) some libraries are buying databases instead of books — this is a financial decision, but also based on a concept of what non-fiction is: datapoints that are useful for assignments.
2) kids live in an intensely visual interactive digital world in which they expect to be able to learn by playing — from Wii to DS to Playstation — young people have a wonderland of experiences awaiting them (after they finish their homework).
3) All the publishing buzz is about ereaders — IPads, Kindles, Vooks, etc. The internet is ablaze with stories of how print is dead due to these new readers.
4) Yet as I have learned from several people who are actually preparing texts (existing books) to be imported into ereaders — their first assignment is to strip out any copyrighted material (thus photos, even text extracts); any design features in the type (large capital letters to begin a chapter, for example). Indeed in the current ereaders, you cannot be sure how art will flow with text, so some art is dumped just not to create propblems.
5) While the agreement that will put a great many Out of Print books online is not final, we seem to be moving in that direction. But since Out of Print status only applies to the text, any of these books that were originally designed to be a flow of text and art will be an elephant’s graveyard of mangled files — with gaps on nearly every page.

So — in one way we are moving towards a glittering world of visual complexity and interactivity (gaming) and in another a world of databases and books stripped of any art or design. We are rushing to turn non-fiction for young people (which is nearly always illustrated and in the best cases carefully designed) into dust dry work sheet helpers that no young person could ever like. Ereader fans hold out the promise that soon enough we can publish on the IPad with all kinds of game-like multimedia — but they forget that no regular author will ever be able to afford the cost of obtaining those film clips and audio tracks. If such technological wonders are created it will be by big companies with large budgets. 

It seems to be that the pundits (and library directors who turn to databases) simply do not see that a non-fiction book that is carefully illustrated and designed is the perfect companion for a kid looking forward to gaming. It belongs in his universe, it respects his sense of beauty and utility. It teaches in its own way how eye and brain can work together to learn, question, and understand.
And then there is all of our challenge: we have to figure out how to bring these thoughtful, visually rich, hardcover books into classrooms.


  1. Cheryl Bardoe says:

    It’s important for designers of digital formats to realize that images in a nf book don’t just repeat content that’s already in the text. Visuals can operate as a storyline almost within themselves. They also create opportunities to examine parts of a story that deepen the book, but don’t fit into the main text.

  2. Cheryl: yes you are so right — illustrations in NF are a storyline in themselves — the weave of text and art is like picturebooks, not magazine articles.

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if the DS and other portable gaming devices could handle downloadable books including art. Or perhaps more contracts and rights include downloadable formats more readily?

  4. or if, in a gaming environment, a book could have paths that kids could explore, tasks to do, challenges to overcome — self exploration within a larger narrative created by the author